This essay contains spoilers from the first, excellent season of Fleabag.
There’s something about the excruciating awkwardness and alienation of family life, that it often makes for some of the best scenes on TV. This is especially true if said scenes are played out by a familiar breed of repressed British families whose emotional malarkey is graciously and happily swept under the thick rugs of their cold, Victorian London townhouses. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag has brought the comic tragedy of said TV families to new heights with this shamelessly masochistic and silently maddening approach to grief and systematic self-destruction. Fleabag (Waller-Bridge), the series’ protagonist, is a lonely young woman in serious financial trouble over her guinea-pig themed café. She has no control over her life or her current situation, but finds the power she’s lacking in her day to day (personal) business in meaningless sex with strangers. The loss of her mother to breast cancer further distanced what appears to have always been a complex family unit, and with Fleabag’s dad (Bill Patterson) and her sister Claire (Sian Clifford) consumed with their respective forms of feigned recovery, she finds herself suffocating beneath unspoken words and unresolved tensions. But she refuses to give in to those tears which seem constantly caught in the back of her throat, choosing instead to have them pounded back down into her subconscious by narcissistic Arsehole Guy (Ben Aldrige) or Bus Rodent (Jamie Demtriou).
It is not uncommon for people to distance themselves from those closest to them following a tragic event or a particularly rough patch. It’s a lonely existence and it can be tremendously frightening once you’ve lost any semblance of a sane lifestyle and solid relationships. Fleabag has reached this stage in her life, but she’s not ready to admit it to herself just yet. Though she still makes half-hearted attempts at getting her life back in order, her overall stance in life right now is of a don’t-give-a-fuck nature sparked by a strong feeling of complete and utter detachment. She knows better than to try and bond with her sister over their mutual pain, but occasionally tries to anyway, and always ends up rubbing her up the wrong way. Claire insists on keeping up the charade of a happy marriage, and goes as far as to turn down her dream job for fear of confronting her own sorrow, and also being responsible for no one other than herself. Dad, on the other hand, hides behind their Godmother (Olivia Colman) turned stepmom, and seems to enjoy crumbling under her control more than he does disappearing into a void he might never find the strength to climb out of—even if it means losing his already estranged daughters. Fleabag can feel all this angst and suffering around her, but all she can see is forged smiles in a world of method actors. Unless she’s getting her period, of course; that’s when she can see the stiff masks of the world around her contorting into pained grimaces, and finds solace in their collective misery.
You might expect a woman like Fleabag to find the connection she’s so clearly missing from her family in her personal relationships, but since losing her best friend Boo (Jenny Rainsford), the thought of letting anyone in terrifies her. Men who show interest in anything more than her body and want to pleasure her (when she so desperately wants to be punished) are revolting to her. In picking up random men and letting them have their wicked, arse-fondling ways with her, she feels like she holds a certain power over her own life and sexuality when, in actual fact, it’s much more complicated than that. She’s constantly chasing the high and has a hard time resisting flirtatious efforts from the men—and dogs!—around her. But as long as she’s still smiling when all she feels like doing is crying, she’s happy enough to continue on in this manner. Fleabag thrives on the awkwardness, perversion and drama that is sex; it’s the only thing that stops her from thinking about all the things she’s so desperate to erase from her memory. And, as we reach the final episode, we come to learn that it’s not just the trauma of losing the two most important people in her life that she’s trying to let go of, but the guilt of being partially responsible for Boo’s “accidental suicide.”
Boo and Fleabag’s friendship was the kind we all long for in our lives—and, if we don’t have it, we can’t help but envy it. They celebrate the good, the bad and the ugly in one another, with no judgement. They understand each other in ways no one else can and create their own little world in their shrine-to-the-guinea-pig-café. But as we come to learn through a series of abrupt flashbacks, Fleabag’s inability to ignore her sexual appetite—even when it means hurting the person she loves most—causes her to lose Boo forever. She is fully aware of her “moral bankruptcy,” but cannot seem to operate from a place of consideration and self-respect. She’s constantly out to find physical validation from strange pickings of men when, in reality, the only validation she really seeks are from the female figures in her life, namely Claire and the Godmother. She knows she may never share the type of sisterly relationship with Claire that includes hugs and pajama parties but, at the very least, she yearns for understanding and a supporting shoulder to lean on. As for her Godmother, well, it would be nice to get a little more of Cinderella’s bibbidi-bobbidi-boo moments, and less evil Stepmonster shenanigans, but she too has become a key player in her quest for power, which was brilliantly conveyed in the final episode of the show.
The Godmother is bitterly fighting for first rank in a relationship where she feels the need to compete with a dead woman and her two daughters. Her infuriatingly passive aggressive dabs at Fleabag are precisely calculated and almost inconspicuous. She hides her manipulative evil behind a sweet smile and a pseudo-artistic philosophy celebrating no one other than herself, and thinks she can hide her evident horniness behind her supposed creative vision.
This is the second time this year Olivia Colman has slipped into the role of a woman whose prevalent smile acts like a ticking time-bomb, ready to explode in a rainbow of true colors. Her role as Deborah in Will Sharpe’s Flowers may have been more of a pathetic rather than a manipulative nature, but the under-lying psychology is the same: Deborah and the Godmother are both women who are unable to directly address their needs and insecurities, and resort to maladroit attempts of communication or indirect, sneaky punches from their pedestal instead. And this is exactly where Colman’s character has the upper-hand over her character on Flowers, and then again over her spiraling stepdaughter on Fleabag: she holds the power over the family unit. She knows how to get to her step-daughter and, as much as Fleabag tries to fight back, the Godmother knows how to hide her jealousy and annoyance better, causing all Fleabag’s attempts at revenge to bounce right back and smack her in the face. In the show’s final episode, things come to a head during the Godmother’s “sexhibition,” when she practically addresses Fleabag, saying:
“I don’t believe people always think about sex when they see a naked body. I believe they think about their own minds, their own bodies and their own power. And that’s what this show is really about; it’s about power.”
The Godmother hit the nail on the head with this one, because ultimately the same is true for Fleabag: this show is about power. It’s about the power of positive and negative female relationships, the power of female sexuality and, above all, the incredible power of comedy in otherwise tragic situations.
Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist for Paste and The New Heroes & Pioneers. She’s the author of The Tuesday Series & co-author of The Pink Boots. She can usually be found covered in paint stains.