Farewell, Fleabag: The show's 'greedy, perverted, selfish' protagonist let go of her guilt – now we have to let her go

As the show comes to an end after just two series, Alexandra Pollard celebrates the legacy of its flawed, complicated anti-heroine

Tuesday 09 April 2019 07:27
‘Equal parts kind and cruel, self-hating and conceited, Fleabag was often blamed for the misadventures of those around her’
‘Equal parts kind and cruel, self-hating and conceited, Fleabag was often blamed for the misadventures of those around her’

I am the girl that Things Happen To,” Sylvia Plath once wrote, lamenting her chaotic love life in a letter to her mother. The same could be said of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s eponymous Fleabag. The troubled anti-heroine of BBC3’s hit dark comedy was the author (and narrator) of her own pain, but she was also a muse for other people’s self-destruction – the flame to which fellow f**k-ups were inexplicably drawn. Bank managers. Misogynistic lawyers. Even priests.

And oh, the priest. The man (played by Andrew Scott) who launched a thousand lustful tweets, and even more conflicted think-pieces; whose relationship with Fleabag in series two might have had a troubling power dynamic, but may too – judging by the brutally beautiful final episode – have put an end to her cycle of toxic relationships.

It put an end, too, to the entire show. Though it wasn’t officially announced until Sian Clifford – who played Fleabag’s neurotic sister Claire – broke the news in a BBC interview, the second series was Fleabag’s last. “There will not be a third series,” said Clifford. “This is it.” But what a way to go. Many brilliant shows have started strong and then outstayed their welcome. Only a handful have the guts to end after just a couple of series, despite critical acclaim – Fawlty Towers, The Office, and now Fleabag.

When the show arrived in 2016 (all six episodes of the first series landed on iPlayer before they made it on to actual televisions), it spearheaded a seismic shift in the way women could be depicted on TV – flawed, relatable, contradictory. Not always particularly likeable. And it made a star of its creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Waller-Bridge first dreamt up Fleabag as a 10-minute sketch, before evolving it into a one-woman play at Edinburgh Fringe in 2013. Elements of that setup remained when she made it into a TV series three years later – the tragic backstory, the sex obsession, the acerbic fourth wall-breaking – though for some reason, the BBC drew the line at one particular storyline involving the “murder” of her pet guinea pig. Still, it was shocking enough without it – not least because of its crude, complicated protagonist.

Anti-heroine: Fleabag allows women on TV to be flawed, relatable, contradictory 

Equal parts kind and cruel, self-hating and conceited, Fleabag often found herself blamed for the misadventures of those around her. And because she was haunted by guilt – at the end of series one, we discovered that she slept with her best friend Boo’s boyfriend, the catalyst for Boo’s semi-deliberate suicide – she took it all on the chin. Sure, she was called a slut by Hugh Dennis’s bank manager for momentarily removing her jumper, was constantly belittled by her stepmother, and was ostracised by her family when her sister’s slimy, alcoholic husband made a move on her. But in her eyes, she was unworthy of anything better – “a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist”.

Unleashed on herself while she was breaking down on her father’s doorstep, those insults were, to an extent, pretty accurate. But they were only half the story. In the final episode – which took place during Fleabag’s father’s wedding (to her nightmarish godmother, played by Olivia Colman) – her stuttering, emotionally stilted dad finally managed to get a full sentence out. Two, in fact. “I think you know how to love better than any of us,” he told his daughter. “That’s why you find it all so painful.”

He was probably right – though only once in the show’s 12 episodes did Fleabag actually utter the words “I love you” – right at the end, to the man who had just chosen God over her.

“I think the love is set out right from the beginning,” said Andrew Scott when I spoke to him before the second series premiered. “I think they have a connection with each other, as we do in life, as soon as they see each other. Whatever type of love that turns out to be. There’s just some weird thing, when you meet someone and you just feel connected to them. I find that really exciting. People talk about Fleabag being angry – that there’s a sort of rage in it. I suppose to a certain extent that’s true, but for me, its great power is the delicacy of it.”

Andrew Scott and Waller-Bridge filming scenes for the show

Viewers loved Fleabag’s frequent asides to camera. They were catty and conspiratorial. But the way Waller-Bridge sees it, they were also another symptom of Fleabag’s innate guilt. “The rule I had was that she only needed the camera there because she was constantly on the verge of needing to confess,” she told Indiewire in 2017. So it makes sense that in the second series, the character found herself drawn to a Catholic priest.

That the pair finally acted on their attraction in a confession booth, after Fleabag had poured out her soul in episode four – “I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong” – was classic Waller-Bridge. There was much debate over whether this moment was a romantic climax or a troubling misuse of power. Waller-Bridge’s genius lies in the fact that it was both. The priest, just like everyone else in Fleabag’s life, was drawn to her when she was at her most troubled. But their fleeting relationship changed her for the better.

 Waller-Bridge’s eponymous Fleabag bids the cameras goodbye

There was no easy ribbon, of course, with which the story could have been tied up. Fleabag ended up crying at a bus stop, with only a ropily rendered CGI fox for company. But she was triumphant, too. In allowing herself to not only experience, but actually express, love, she had finally relinquished herself from her own sense of worthlessness.

In the show’s final moments, as Fleabag picked herself up and walked away, the camera moved to follow her. She shook her head. She didn’t need to confess any more. Greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, and depraved though she may have been, it was time for her to leave the guilt – and us – behind.

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