Hello, my name is Adrian Manuel and I am addicted to Fleabag.
After weeks of seeing Phoebe Waller-Bridge pop up in a rolling stream of gifs, hearing endlessly about “that menopause scene,” and reading thirsty reactions concerning a “Hot Priest,” all with zero context whatsoever, I finally decided to see what the fuss was about— if only for context.
I was sold by the first cold open. (And, as of writing this, I have ordered a copy of Fleabag: The Play and am looking up various ways I can get “Phoebe Waller-Bridge” tattooed on my person. HELP)
Fleabag is a comedy mini-series following the car crash that is Fleabag’s life. She works at a café, has a sister and father who tip-toe around her like a landmine, occasionally spars with a passive-aggressive stepmother played by Olivia Colman, and flounders in hookups of varying hilarity that nudge her towards self-destruction.
Early on we discover she’s grieving the loss of a friend, but we see that she’s clearly not dealing with it—which is to say she’s moving forward but definitely not moving on. Fleabag wears the sleek trenchcoat of a dark comedy then reveals itself as a searing tragi-play (with a stark millennial-tinge) told in 6 brisk installments.
Why the name “Fleabag” is never addressed. We assume it’s her name, though no one ever calls her by that or any name, really. “Fleabag” as a title is a quirky one—repulsive, yet concise. In other words, mission accomplished.
What makes Fleabag so inexplicably unique (other than that it’s written and stars Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is that the title character breaks the fourth wall. Yes, it’s a gimmick made mainstream by Ferris Bueller and is key to Ryan Reynolds’ second-coming as a superhero. But what makes the device feel so original in Waller-Bridge’s hands is how it literally lends perspective to the way Fleabag interprets the world. It’s not a crass attempt to poke fun at the genre, at other shows, or point out any budget constraints; it allows us to get swept up in Fleabag’s hyperverbal voice, and how that voice processes her flaws, hopes, failures. Thus, her point of view IS the story.
We meet her moments before a one-night stand. “You know that feeling when…” she rambles to us first thing in an asides-conversation. It’s immediately personable, like a sidebar you have with a roommate or an under-the-table discussion with a friend. It doesn’t matter if you can relate to Fleabag’s situations or not; what matters is you’re in the uncomfortable room with her.
Waller-Bridge tells us a great deal, but she’s showing Fleabag’s character through and through because she simultaneously embodies everything the character tells us. She’s a walking Twitter-thread posting a mile a minute. The things she’s candid enough to say – in the middle of an interaction or intercourse – is super-charged with her manic charm and wit. But what she withholds from us is equally revealing.
We’re her audience and she intends to keep us as her audience by denying details that we might judge her for. Perhaps that’s why Fleabag feels like such a lively creation. She’s constantly seeking our attention, our approval. In flashback, we see that her deceased friend was her audience prior, the one person in her life she spoke to without filter. We’re her crutch, basically.
Thinking out loud, narrating the scene, bringing us up to speed, or flashbacking to a key moment in time; the show’s Fleabagisms are so concisely packaged that we only know the essentials toward the joke or emotion in play. This in no way makes her omniscient; she can only predict what her bandwidth and confidence (and bias) allow her to see – exactly how we on the other side of the screen try to anticipate any situation.
When she sees a man heading toward her, she assumes he’s shamelessly checking her out. But as they pass by, the man instead coughs, “Walk of shame.” Fleabag is always setting up expectations, clamoring for the satisfaction of the last laugh. Other times she’s blindsided by them and we’re right there with her.
She shoots a knowing smile at the camera when she’s proven right, or throws a killer side-eye when the situation turns awry à la Jim from The Office or Ben Wyatt of Parks and Rec. Waller-Bridge does more acting with her eyes that it’s no wonder this started as a literal one-woman show. Her eyebrows alone, frankly, are bewitching.
I must say I appreciate Fleabag’s inherent horniness. She bites her lip at someone she’d like to ride (her words), or gets visibly flustered at an arm touch. She’s forthcoming about masturbating, sleeping with people, and especially what it is about sex she’d love to put a finger in. The only show that comes to mind where characters are just as forthcoming (that doesn’t involve Seth Rogen or Seth MacFarlane) is HBO’s Girls, or Comedy Central’s Broad City.
The show indulges but never judges Fleabag’s sexual appetite, nor fetishizes or slut-shames her. Other characters do, and they often bear their own judge-the-hell-out-of-them quirks. Fleabag’s horniness is hardly the weirdest thing in the show. There’s a character who’s credited as “Asshole Guy” and I won’t say more; and her aforementioned stepmother, who’s also an artist, hosts a Sex Exhibition—and I won’t say more.
Often, Fleabag is her own antagonist. She knows an on-again/off-again relationship isn’t ideal for either party but always ropes him back in when she’s desperate. She also has a habit of prodding her uptight older sister Claire— blurting out a secret Claire would rather stay hidden and stirring a lunchtime conflagration.
Mind you, these scenes and the punchlines are killer, but there’s a sad undercurrent flowing through. Fleabag has more than enough people in her life who support her and want her to do well, but she disappoints them and ends up lonelier and more heartbroken than before. Season 1 ends with a devastating emotional unraveling that alienates her from everybody in her circle.
Fleabag never mentions “millennial” yet proves poetic at capturing millennial heartache. Her baby-boomer father and stepmother are free to be themselves and pursue their passions. Claire and Fleabag, on the other hand, have to deal with the economy’s ebbs and flows, society’s impossible expectations and near-constant critique. Claire has obviously thrived in her work in finance and did so at the right time. Fleabag, like the rest of us, didn’t make the cut and struggles to keep her and her best friend’s café afloat.
Fleabag is swimming in this generational disparity. She constantly reckons with where she ought to be but isn’t. This grief further compounds her crisis knowing her older sister has the kind of envious dinner-table discussions of salary and promotion, while the topic of Fleabag is whether she’s “alright.” Walking home from a family function is a different kind of walk of shame.
Fleabag Season 2 opens with an awkward family dinner that so vividly captures these feelings of inadequacy that I thought I was having an out-of-body experience observing an actual awkward dinner with my family. The passive verbal sparring, talking over people, grabbing ahold of the conversational spotlight (or deflecting it), the overriding politeness to smile even when you’ve been insulted; Waller-Bridge pulls no punches. Family takes a shitload of work, and a shitload of coping.
“This is a love story,” Fleabag reintroduces in Season 2. A year later she’s reinvented herself in all the right ways save for the crucial ones. She might have cut down on her tendencies to self-sabotage – her self-loathing this time around turned inward, but she’s walled herself from feeling. Fortunately for us she is forever up to no good. There are but a few obstacles in the way of her ascension, and it’ll take a lawyer, a therapist, and yes, a priest (none of them in the ways you’d expect) to guide Fleabag toward enlightenment.
By now you’ve heard of the phenomenon of the Hot Priest and it’s clear what will happen, if not where they’re headed. (OF COURSE Fleabag crushes on the least available man in the world like some kind of blasphemy— or the holiest of divine interventions.) But Season 2 is a poignant love story concerning this very family who has no business being in a restaurant together, yet are destined to do this ‘til the end of time.
We dig deeper into Fleabag’s past and the event that splintered her family emotionally. They were there for each other then, and it gives us an idea of how they’ll continue to push and pull one another going forward. Family, like people, just plain suck. But as one character says to Fleabag, “People are all we’ve got.”
Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the one pushing and pulling us through, and what I love most about her writing is that Fleabag gets to be tragic and complicated, even irredeemable at times. Often this is exclusive to male dramas like Breaking Bad—which is why it’s so refreshing to see it rendered in a comedy.
Comedies, especially sitcoms, have a tendency to make their protagonists stock characters, swapping anything even resembling a red flag to appeal to the common denominator. What Waller-Bridge does is a wonder to behold and merits studying, not aping. Fleabag gets to break bad without resorting to a criminal extreme, and without sacrificing any sense of “fun.” She’s gleefully the life of the party and the party just so happens to be on the edge of an abyss.
I can’t get over how self-contained Fleabag’s odyssey is either. You can practically hold it in your hand. The show is intimate in scale, yet sprawling in its storytelling. We meet quite a bit of people in Fleabag’s journey and everyone is economically drawn. Some get an episode or two, others get a single scene. We see what we ought to see of them and nothing more. Waller-Bridge’s script is so precise and clever in its execution (and the way it avoids redundancies) that to demand more feels like gluttony.
Waller-Bridge charts more narrative ground in 12 episodes than most shows do in 100, and mines such a magnificent gallery of laughs that I smile just thinking about the setup. (The show, too, masters the use of the smash cut.) Fleabag flips the bird and proves what’s possible, perhaps even preferable in a crisp 25-minute episode. As for the fourth wall, Season 2 pushes the device further than I’ve ever seen it done and I refuse to spoil how, just that it needs to be seen to be believed.
I flocked to Fleabag because I was desperate for an obsession post-Game of Thrones. Chernobyl filled that void for a time. (Which is to say Chernobyl bummed me out even more.) Fleabag is a welcome tonic that livens the cultural mood. Now that Fleabag is said and done, I find myself once again at a loss. It’s hard to see where other shows could innovate when a series like Fleabag has waltzed in in its iconic jumpsuit and makes the case for shorter television; to challenge the audience and push narrative boundaries, and – for the love of God – tell a great joke once in a while.
Fleabag’s got my attention and that’s all I care about at the moment. “Maybe happiness isn’t what you believe but who you believe,” Fleabag says.
This goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway: I believe in Phoebe Waller-Bridge.