Note: There are absolutely spoilers in here so proceed with caution!
In the first aside to camera of Fleabag’s second series, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the show’s creator, wipes her bloody nose before a mirror in a restaurant bathroom. Lowering the towel, she turns away from her reflection and says to the camera, “This is a love story.”
It’s a sensational opening to a season that has gone on to win near-universal acclaim. The show first premiered in 2016 and its last episode (ever, according to its creator) aired this past Monday, lauded by audiences and critics alike as an exemplary piece of television, a pioneer in what has been dubbed by some as a new genre of “comic noir”.
As anyone familiar with my Twitter will know, I am obsessed with Fleabag. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s writing is a rare gift: tightly-controlled and yet exhilarating to witness, that makes you laugh in the same moment as it punches you in the gut, and I’ve spent a lot of time considering what makes it stand out so vividly from other programmes of its type.
As you might have guessed from the title of this post, and not to be too millennial about it, I strongly suspect it’s the show’s contemplation of the void.
Fleabag is an essentially isolated character, and here’s the thing: we’ve seen a lot of them. In movies, music, books, tv, we are surrounded by lonesome women.
You know what I’m going to say next. Often, this lonesomeness is a marker for the absence of a romantic partner. Relationships equal fulfilment, and aloneness is a problem to be fixed with romantic love. If it cannot be fixed this way, this is surely a tragedy. Existential crisis, doubt, or emptiness, away from the trials of romantic relationships, are the provinces of men, who are free to contemplate the universe from a stance of purity and neutrality, driving to the heart of what it “really” means to be human.
This is bollocks, obviously. The canon of “men contemplating their isolation” is as gendered as any other. Which is why it makes a difference to see women take on the subject, to make it their own and turn on its head the notion that the love that will “complete” them will ultimately come from a man—or, in fact, ever come at all.
Fleabag refutes the notion of absolution through romantic love even as it promises us a love story, and that’s what makes it so brilliant.
The show follows a desperately lonely character who we never see alone. Whenever we encounter her, we, the audience, are her silent companions—to a greater degree than in most television series, given the show’s signature breaking of the fourth wall.
“The idea that she’s honest to you—that’s what felt so dangerous,” said Waller-Bridge on Variety’s “Stagecraft” podcast, speaking about the decision to have Fleabag speak directly to the camera.
The intimacy that Fleabag creates in her asides to the audience throughout the series is double-edged: we have a privileged view of the action of Fleabag’s life, and yet are also suspended from that action. There are things Fleabag tells us that she tells no one else; there are ways in which she keeps herself deliberately unknowable.
We come into Fleabag’s life at her own invitation, three years after the death of her mum and when she is grieving the recent death of her best friend Boo. We are banished again when she no longer wants us there; when we find out about the betrayal that indirectly led to Boo’s death, and we are only welcomed back a full year later.
In the intervening months, Fleabag seems to have worked on herself: her café is a success, she is less impulsive with her family (though she still does punch her brother-in-law in the face, and justifiably so). In a therapy session, Fleabag (half) jokes that “for most of my adult life I’ve used sex to deflect from the screaming void inside my empty heart,” turning to the camera and saying smugly, “I’m good at this!”
We, the audience, exist in this void, or are perhaps a proxy for it: the missing link between intimacy and fulfilment, between sex and love, between vulnerability and safety.
We see its beginnings in the flashback to Fleabag’s mother’s funeral, when Fleabag asks Boo what she should do with all the love that she still has for her mother, with the lifetime of feeling that now has no place to go.
“I’ll take it,” says Boo, and so that love finds its second home, or at least seems to. Fleabag loves Boo, but the void is still there, and when she uses sex to deflect from it this time, Boo disappears too, and the crack in Fleabag’s life widens into a crevasse.
This is when we meet her in season one. At arm’s length, across a divide. We witness the cracks in her relationships as she reveals them to us one by one, and all the time we ourselves are invisible (for the most part), a void into which she speaks her thoughts, unseen by anyone until the Hot Priest, played by Andrew Scott, comes on the scene in season two.
Aside from being, as his makeshift moniker suggests, an absolute 10, the Hot Priest relates to Fleabag in a way that nobody else in her life does. In a hair-raising scene akin to a face appearing at your window just as you are stripping off, he breaks the fourth wall—the only other character aside from Fleabag to do so—glimpsing the audience without quite knowing who or what we are.
And what are we? There’s no certain answer, obviously. And I’m not even saying for sure that I think that we “are” Boo, or Fleabag’s mother, or Fleabag herself, or even the screaming void inside her empty heart.
But I do like to think that the audience’s role in Fleabag is to stand in for some of these things. To be both a void and a representative for the love that has been left behind by Boo and by Fleabag’s mother: an intimate witness that cannot speak or offer comfort, for whom she feels a need, but whom she must also leave behind.
The Hot Priest sees us, but we know the deal from the beginning. He’s a priest, for God’s sake. He cannot be the new home for her lost love; he is a source of new love and new pain, albeit one whose acceptance grows her, and through which she proves to herself her commitment to healing.
There are minimal asides in the final episode, but there are numerous moments of intimacy between Fleabag and the other loves of her life, both hilarious and heartbreaking. A brilliantly funny speech about rom-com airport scenes by Claire is capped with the revelation that the only person she would run through an airport for is her sister. In a moment that brought me to my knees, after insisting that he was in the attic to save a mouse from suffocating, her father tells her that “I think you know how to love better than any of us, that’s why you find it all so painful.”
And crucially, when Fleabag finally tells the Priest she loves him, she does not ask him to say it back. She asks for him to leave it “out there on its own” for a while, in the empty space that there must exist between them.
In the end, as this season shows us, there’s no rehoming the love we lose. But it’s not quite a tragedy, and it doesn’t quite rule out our absolution, either. When Fleabag stands up from her perch at the bus stop in the show’s closing moments, she is alone again, and this time she asks us not to follow her. She is shouldering her heartbreak and moving on, a different person to the one we left at the end of season one—though still carrying the same stolen statue.
This was not a story about how romantic love can save you from yourself. It was a story about loving in the wake of loss, about the many loves it takes to build a life, about how love is like hope, how loss is inevitable, and how the best that we can do sometimes is to speak into the void.
This was great tv. And above all, it was a love story.
More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbour’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-coloured blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.
— Ada Limón, “Instructions On Not Giving Up”