On Honesty, Guilt and Sisterhood: Fleabag
“Oh fuck it, I have a horrible feeling that I’m a greedy perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”-Fleabag in conversation with her Dad. (Series One, Episode One)
There’s a fine, thin line between honesty and oversharing. Nowadays, it’s not unusual to say that someone is “brutally honest” when they just say whatever crosses their mind, or that they are “oversharing” when they are honest in a way that’s sometimes very painful and exhausting to listen to, or maybe even surprising, when it’s about their romantic or sexual life. However, recently I came across the theory (posted by a random person on twitter, so it’s not that deep, lol) that oversharing is just another way to avoid honesty and vulnerability, because when you are super honest about something, it may distract from bigger issues going on in your life, or problems you’re trying to avoid to address. A prime example for this certainly is Fleabag, the heroine of the BBC 3 show of the same name, based on a play, both written (and performed) by Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
Fleabag is about “a woman who navigates her life in London”, as Waller-Bridge herself describes the show/play in interviews. This description may be quite simple, but it’s very accurate. If you strip the show down to its core issue, it is about a moment in the life of a woman living in London. And that’s one of the many things that makes Fleabag so interesting. It doesn’t follow a five-act-structure, there’s no real, closed ending, we don’t follow Fleabag (the character isn’t ever referred to by name, however, this is, to some extent, the placeholder we use instead) for a long time. It’s super specific, but also universal and relatable. The viewer can barely ever predict what is going to happen next (except if you’ve binge watched season 2 multiple times, like I do). But let’s start at the beginning.
“Truly, I just want to cry. All the time.”–Fleabag talking to the banker. (Series One, Episode Four)
When we meet Fleabag, she is not only grieving her mother, who passed away two years before, she is also grieving the loss of her best friend Boo, who died very recently. The (guinea pig themed) café they used to run together is now on its way to bankruptcy, the relationship Fleabag has with her family is all kinds of dysfunctional and damaged, her relationship with her boyfriend Harry is barely more than entertainment for her, considering the on-and-off nature their love has. So yeah, overall, her life isn’t really going great. Considering the communication with those in her life is very impaired, Fleabag breaks the fourth wall and turns to the viewer in order to communicate. This is based on the idea of the play, where Fleabag finds herself in an embarrassing moment at a job interview, and then, on the chair she was sitting on, has a monologue directed at the audience. In the show, this was included through these asides, while things are happening, instead of having a big monologue in a certain situation. Through this, we become Fleabag’s closest confidant and friend, with whom she shares a lot more insight on the current situation. We get cheeky asides about the people she’s engaging with, or longer monologues about her current situation, and sometimes even just basic information we need to understand dynamics in her life.
“He’s one of those men who is explosively sexually inappropriate with everyone, but makes you feel bad if you take offence.” Fleabag introducing us to Martin, her brother-in-law. (Series One, Episode Three)
Nevertheless, as the series progresses, and we get to see more and more of her life, we’re still left with questions, incomplete narratives and things that don’t fully make sense to us. What exactly happened to Boo? Why does Fleabag feel guilty, ashamed, and lost after the death of her best friend? While there’s some insight on that, there are moments when Fleabag starts to remember something, only to block that information from us, to avoid either the memory or letting us in that closely, and simply jumps to oversharing about her life. At one point during the play, there’s a long sequence where Fleabag mimics the act of taking “dirty” pictures of herself, or close-up photos of her vagina. While this may seem as very honest, almost an act of oversharing, it seems as if these humorous, funny scenes are meant to cover up her insecurities, her guilt, her trauma and instead shift the focus to something that may be seen as taboo-breaking or outrageous to society. She’s hiding the truth, rather than being honest or vulnerable. We only really figure out the truth about the situation with Boo in the final episode, when Fleabag’s life seems to crumble right in front of her. In those final moments, Fleabag, who is more isolated now than ever before, recoils from the audience, especially after the harsh truth about Boo is revealed, and she finally appears vulnerable to the audience’s perception of her. Instead, she breaks down, and opens up to the clerk interviewing her at the bank, about her life and the way she’s been navigating it.
“And I know that my body, as it is now, really is the only thing I have left, and when that gets old and unfuckable I may as well just kill it. And somehow there isn’t anything worse than someone who doesn’t want to fuck me. I fuck everything. […] You know, either everyone feels like this a little bit, and they’re just not talking about it, or I’m completely fucking alone. Which isn’t fucking funny.”-Fleabag breaking down/opening up. (Series One, Episode Six)
The conversation concludes with them talking about people making mistakes. And that that’s why they put rubbers at the end of pencils. This theme of mistakes and forgiveness is such a crucial theme in this show. Fleabag, who has been guilt-ridden and scared of being a bad person because of the big mistakes (“Huge!”, as Julia Roberts would say) she’s made, scared to the point that distracting people with her vulgar, horny, cynical side, seems like the better alternative, than being vulnerable and owning up to those mistakes, learns that people are forgiving, and that making mistakes doesn’t make you a terrible person. The banker decides to re-do their interview for a loan meant to save the café, the only thing left of Boo, alongside the guinea pig Hillary (who gets brutally murdered in the play). This concludes series one of fleabag that was based on the 2013 play of the same name. And for a long time, it meant the end. However, in 2019, three years after the release of the first series, BBC 3 released a follow up series.
“This is a love story.”-Fleabag, introducing us to the second series of the show (or me, whenever I see a handsome stranger on the U3) (Series Two, Episode One)
Despite Series One being released in 2016, and Series Two in 2019, the timespan that passed in the story is merely one year. We join our old friend (I miss her, come back to me, Fleabag!) at an awkward family dinner with her Dad, her godmother and soon-to-be stepmother, her sister Claire, her brother-in-law Martin, and a guy whom she doesn’t know yet. A year has passed since she’s last talked to her sister at her godmother’s awful “sexhibition” (don’t ask, please), so there is a lot of tension there. Been there, done that. (The awkward family dinner part, I mean. I do talk to my sister.) The occasion for the dinner is the upcoming wedding of Fleabag’s Father and the Godmother. Of course, tensions remain, and once in a while Fleabag has to catch a breath and go out for a smoke, where she interacts with the mysterious guy, who turns out to be the (Irish-Catholic) priest for the wedding. More awkwardness ensues as the tensions between Fleabag and Claire begin to rise. Fleabag receives a voucher for a counselling session from her father (who missed her birthday. Dads, am I right? Lol), her “sober” brother-in-law has been drinking all night, and her Godmother is just very embarrassing. The only person to really break through to her is the priest (portrayed by Andrew Scott, who’s kind of hot, in a way, but also just okay looking). Claire, who not only suffers from a stressful commute between London and Finland (more on that later) for work, but also her shitty husband, has a miscarriage. In the context of the family dinner, some central conflicts between the characters are (re-)introduced. After Claire excuses herself to go to the bathroom, Fleabag follows her, asking whether she’s mad or just “doing a poo”. This is a moment of comic relief, followed up by the revelation that Claire has had a miscarriage, leading to quite the emotional scene. This is what Fleabag employs a lot, especially in the second season. There’s a moment that makes us laugh, and then we get punched in the gut by something unexpected (and it’s always perfectly executed). Not to be fake deep here, but that’s just kind of what life is. Funny, weird and unexpected.
Claire refusing to go to the hospital, Fleabag claiming to be the one who had the miscarriage to get her to go, and some insensitive remarks made by Martin, lead to a physical fight between Fleabag and Martin, that “ruins” the night. However, in the end, Fleabag takes Claire to the hospital. In the cab, both of them talk about how hot the priest is. Which I kind of agree with, but at the same time not. It’s weird.
In general, I have to say that I like the clear focus of this series and the cohesive execution of it. While series 1 was very good, it felt a bit “all-over-the-place” at times, especially compared to series 2. The love story seems to be well thought out, the way Fleabag has matured since the last season isn’t unrealistic, and still leaves her room to grow. She still struggles with honesty, with vulnerability, she still believes herself to not be a romantic, she still suffers with the bad things she has done and the mistakes she’s made. But we see a bit of development. Underneath the surface of the woman, who curses out her brother-in-law (or breaks his nose), who struggles with intimacy and her relationship with using sex to deflect from her problems, we begin to see a more openly vulnerable side of her that isn’t as influenced by guilt and fear anymore.
“I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, and who to love, and how to tell them. 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. […] I know that scientifically nothing I do makes any difference in the end anyway, I’m still scared! Why am I still scared?!”-Fleabag in the confession booth (Series 2, Episode 2)
Fleabag still very much aches for comfort and guidance; something, or someone, to hold on to in life. When she’s at counselling we see her recoiling whenever the therapist is approaching a sensitive issue, or she keeps making jokes to the audience that the counsellor of course can’t hear. But the core issue is that she wants to be told what to do in a particular situation that has to do with the love story going on between Fleabag and the Priest. When the counsellor refuses to tell her what to do and instead states that she already has decided what she’s going to do, the conversation comes to an abrupt end. We, as Fleabag’s companion and confidant, are witness to all of this.
Only during few moments in the show, this close relationship shifts to a mere character-audience dynamic, like the time she breaks down in front of the banker.
In series two, there’s two very crucial scenes like that with a close link to the issue of finding something that leads you through life. There is a scene with Fleabag and the Priest (who sort of sees through the whole “breaking the fourth wall” thing), and one with Fleabag and Belinda (one of her sister’s colleagues, and winner of a “Woman of the Year”-esque award). In the latter, we see Fleabag clicking and connecting with a person who isn’t us. What starts as a casual “getting a drink” thing, leads to Belinda sharing her thoughts on womanhood and pain (which is a great scene, btw) with Fleabag, and telling her about how things get better with age and after the menopause, which is a narrative and perspective on menopause and aging as a woman rarely heard before. There’s the almost heart-breaking moment of Fleabag just being so vulnerable by posing the simple question of “Do you promise?” in response to that. This tiny, little question just expresses so much of the pain and longing Fleabag holds inside her. Longing for something to hold on to, which is something I can relate to very well.
Another scene would be the infamous “Kneel!” scene, involving Fleabag and the (hot) Priest in the confession booth, where Fleabag starts out jokingly confessing to those typical sins like having “sex outside of marriage” or “sex inside someone else’s marriage”, which then turns to her confessing to the general fear she feels in relation to live. Again, she doesn’t turn to the viewer during this scene and instead opens up to someone else, even if it’s with the protection of the confession booth. Instead, we see a heart-breaking scene, triggered by a memory of Boo, where the character finally allows herself to express and feel her pain openly. Like the scene before, this is guided by a longing for something to hold on to, or an “ideal” to live by. Fleabag confesses to wanting someone “to tell her what to wear every morning”, and even more (as you can read in the quote above this paragraph) of those things, because she feels like she’s not capable of navigating her life. Despite her growth since Series One, she still feels lost, and it’s rare to get this diverse picture of a person growing but still feeling lost. Normally in movies, growing and changing happens in a “snap”, and then it’s just a permanent state, but in reality, it’s not. The portrayal of that in Fleabag is clever, heart-breaking, and so, so real.
“The only person I’d run through an airport for is you.”-Claire, in a conversation with Fleabag (or me @ my bff Lena) (Series Two, Episode Six)
At the core of the entire series, we find family relationships, but most importantly the relationship Fleabag has with her sister, Claire. There are two archetypes of portrayal of sisters in the media. On the one hand we have them being best friends and each other’s closest confidants (probably written by an only child), on the other hand sisters who have fallen out a long time ago, and rarely talk anymore. In Fleabag we have a more multifaceted display. Fleabag and her sister fight and disagree on a lot of things, sometimes it seems like their communication is entirely broken, or like they have a hard time connecting with each other. But deep down beneath it all, there is a love that is strong, they’re still close allies. There’s ups and downs, in fact at the end of Series One there’s a falling out, and they don’t talk until the first episode of Series Two. This behaviour might be explained by the differences between the two of them.
Claire is unhappily married to Martin, has a stepson, tries to have a child, works as a lawyer/a solicitor at a big firm in finance (she has a huge office and lots of responsibilities), commutes from London to Finland and is a very serious person. Fleabag, on the other hand, almost lost the café she and her best friends used to run, has lots of sex with lots of people (which is fair enough lol), a failed on-and-off relationship, a small, probably rented apartment, and luckily no creepy stepson. However, despite Claire’s general success in life, and Fleabag’s lack thereof, Claire seems to envy her sister and her less structured life, exclaiming that Fleabag always going to be fine and have her “quirky little café and [her] dead best friend”.
Despite all this, in crucial moments, they rely on each other without question. Sometimes they don’t have a choice, most importantly because of their grief after their mum’s death and their “abandonment” by their father when he starts seeing their godmother. In this situation they have to come together, since probably no one else understands how they’re feeling and what they’re going through. Their family relations are strong enough to make up for their differences, their arguments, and all that stuff. (Side Note: This doesn’t mean that you have to look past every argument you have with your family, if your sibling is a huge homophobe you don’t have to let them in your life ever).
Even after a year of them not talking, they immediately forget all that when life forces them back together, and instead try and support each other despite their quarrels. When Claire gets a horrendous/French haircut that makes her “look like a pencil”, Fleabag is right there to not only be supportive for her sister during a mental breakdown (been there, done that) but she also confronts the hairdresser for Claire, which is really brave. We all know that when they ask: “Is this alright?” after showing us the haircut, we say “Yeah, thank you!” no matter what. Would anyone stand up for someone else’s shitty haircut, if we can’t even stand up for ourselves? Fleabag is a real modern-day heroine. To be quite honest, that haircut is iconic now. I don’t know about you, but I want to look like a pencil. Then when it comes to Claire’s failing marriage, Fleabag is there for her, and Claire is there for Fleabag when it comes to the priest. It’s very real, watching the two sisters interact, and, as usual when it comes to this show, the tiniest line of dialogue combined with the facial expressions manages to convey so much, as it does with the love between them. In the end, both of them share so much, especially since we learn that both are romantics who believe in love. However, I don’t want to give away too much here.
I don’t know if this comparison may be very far-fetched, but at moments I saw myself in Fleabag in general, but I also saw my sister and myself reflected in Claire and Fleabag. I’m more of the very chaotic, cynical, unorganised person, with no clear perspective when it comes to the future, whereas my sister has a very structured, organised, very successful, and almost “typical” life. For the longest time I felt like I couldn’t quite connect with her as much as I used to while growing up. It felt like our differences now are setting us too far apart to have a meaningful relationship. However, watching Fleabag and Claire shows us that you may drift apart in adulthood (or even earlier), but that there still is a lot of love. Now, I probably wouldn’t run through an airport for my sister, but I would fight a hairdresser for her, and I think that’s beautiful. All this gives Fleabag a Lady Bird quality. It’s just not necessarily about the mother-daughter relationship. And in the way I made my mum watch Lady Bird, hoping that she’d get why, I would love to watch Fleabag with my sister (If you ever read this, love you lots).
“Let’s just leave that out there, just for a second on its own: I love you.”- Fleabag, talking to the (hot) Priest. (Series Two, Episode Six)
Though the show ends on a bittersweet note, and we know that there won’t ever be a third season, I’m kind of happy with the ending. While Fleabag suffers from heartbreak, and her sister runs off to Finland, her father is now married to her godmother, she finally is ready to let go of us, the audience, and the almost performative nature of the shared relationship. She’s ready to face her life and all its good things and bad things on her own. And while I dearly miss her, I think that’s a very sweet ending to her story. The way Fleabag combines serious themes like grief, honesty and life’s challenges with humour and a female point-of-view makes this show a great experience. It’s what makes it so “bingeable”, as a young person might say. Plus, the music used in Fleabag is fantastic! I’d also want a choir and an orchestra to go off whenever something dramatic happens in my life. Or when I get a bad haircut!
You can watch Fleabag on Amazon Prime or be as irresponsible with money as I am and import a DVD from the UK. Or, if you’re cute and ask nicely, you may borrow my DVD.
Waller-Bridge, Phoebe, creator. Fleabag: Series One. Two Brothers Pictures Limited, 2016.
Waller-Bridge, Phoebe, creator. Fleabag: Series Two. Two Brothers Pictures Limited, 2019.
-Robin was listening to Sing to Me Instead by Ben Platt and Pang by Caroline Polachek while writing this article.