Something about a character who continually messes things up, feels terribly alone, worries her insecurities about beauty make her “a terrible feminist” and struggles to conform to the pressures of her family has hit home. Sales of jumpsuits and red dresses have reportedly risen, in what The Guardian have called “the Fleabag effect”, and earlier in the series Marks and Spencer had a rise in their gin and tonic can sales, due to the show’s influence. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag has whipped up a sensational storm and salvaged the BBC’s reputation for a little while longer. Fleabag as a character is incredibly relatable for a wide spectrum of Britain, no matter how seemingly ridiculous her problems may be. In a society where we constantly compare ourselves and feel inadequate, Fleabag is welcome.
Intertwined in the hype is the role of the Priest, played by Andrew Scott. Waller-Bridge has known Scott for a decade, and their chemistry in this show has turned Scott into the unlikely “Sexy Priest” icon. After the smouldering scene in the Priest’s confession box, we all felt a little bit woozy. But series two was a journey of self-control and repression: Fleabag’s abstinence gave her much deeper emotional connections and raised questions of spirituality. We craved for Fleabag and the Priest to be together, yet when they did, it came as a betrayal. “We’re not going to have sex” promised Scott, “but I’d like us to be friends”. In the Priest, she found someone to confide in, and admit her loneliness to. Fleabag delivered a staggering confession, and truly connected with herself – the Priest’s response, although hot, was a dick move, especially as he flipped the blame immediately onto her once he felt guilty.
Fleabag is made into the archetypal ‘femme fatale’. Waller-Bridge has been clear she doesn’t want this to be labelled as simply feminist writing. Hugh Dennis’ character, as the Bank Manager with hinted allegations of sexism, eventually shows greater kindness to Fleabag than the Priest does. Dennis plays an awkward character that is weary of women and isn’t quite sure how to behave appropriately anymore – he seems to flounder to be good in a world where the acceptable behaviour seems to be changing too fast for him. He’s so scared of “bad behaviour” that when Fleabag accidentally flashes him, he immediately rejects her loan request – a stunning example of how overly PC culture is destroying our confidence to just try and be logically nice. It’s unconventional, but his random management of Fleabag’s guineapig café one chatty Wednesday is a moment of pure brilliance, demonstrating how human kindness and mutual support has become so overly complicated when really it can be simple.
But even aside from the great feminist/mental wellbeing debates, Fleabag would be a success due to Waller-Bridge’s writing. The critically acclaimed Killing Eve for BBC America, and Channel 4’s Crashing, are both examples of Waller-Bridge’s boundless talent, which is even rumoured to be influencing the next James Bond. Our final episode saw some stellar jokes and quips. Nobody else achieves sensitive humour in a miscarriage like Waller-Bridge. She probes the tired tropes of romantic comedies, with Clare (played by Sian Clifford) delivering a tirade against the ridiculous notion of chasing someone to the airport (“How creepy would that be?”). Waller-Bridges avoids anything we might predict or find tiresome – any actual drama at the wedding was neatly skipped over before it could become cliched – or even more frustratingly, she’ll double back on herself, for example by sending Clare to chase her lover to the airport anyway. She’s only got half an hour for each episode, so every moment has to be worth it. The exception to this is the fox animation, which is shocking because of its poor quality. The sheer cost of CGI is obviously a barrier, but live foxes can be rented for advertising, and we sort of expect that if she wanted to, Waller-Bridge could have come up with something more realistic. Instead, the fox gains an ethereal dimension. Why does the fox appear to haunt the Priest in moments of guilt? It’s humour, but in Fleabag, everything means more.
Some have criticised the middle class, London-centric nature of the show. Realistically, the vast majority of people can’t afford a private therapist, and most people don’t use them as a method for exploring emotions as readily as TV would suggest. We’ll excuse this for now, if only for the irony with which Bridges employs the device, in the form of a gift voucher from her father. “I love you but I’m not sure that I like you” her father later says with a smile, turning this pinch into a punch with the later line “I like your sister”. You don’t get to choose your family, and by the end of this series, it seems to have become more a love story between sisters than a romantic one. After suffering through a whole eleven episodes unable to clearly articulate a kind word, in this final episode Fleabag’s father almost redeems himself. “I think you know how to love better than any of us. That’s why you find it all so painful”.