There’s a moment from Fleabag I can’t forget, and I’ll try to explain why.
In the fourth episode of the second season, the otherwise nameless title character and her nameless father (note to the show’s writers: if you’re looking for feedback, this “nameless” business leads to some awkward clauses for poor writers like me) sit in a dimly lit bedroom, speaking about the recent death of her mother, his wife. It’s a lovely scene, full of rare human insight, in which he confesses in his halting manner that he was jealous of his wife, right up to the funeral, because “she just knew how to be fun…how to be kind…I’m just guessing.”
“That is a lovely thing to say, really,” his daughter responds.
That’s a big moment—as time goes on, her father will lose the ability to have even a compromised heart-to-heart with his daughters, and this scene, which comes so late in the game, shows us that the wall between them had not always been there…had been built, in fact, in the months and years after the death of the woman that acted as their bond.
But it’s not the moment I can’t forget. That moment comes seconds later, and is so insignificant, seemingly, that I can barely justify the description: Fleabag’s irksome, pretentious godmother, played by the always superlative Olivia Colman (I would call Colman an inspired casting choice, but since she has been in roughly 100% of the good or great British television shows I’ve ever seen, I suspect her inclusion might have been mandatory), pokes her head into the room.
“Oh sorry,” she says, a wide smile plastered on her face. She’s threatened by their closeness, for reasons we understand because this is a flashback and we know the future, but even after acknowledging that she’s intruding on a private moment, she lurks for an extra beat, grin unwavering, before she finally leaves. And then comes the line I love, the one I can’t forget, from the father:
“She’s a bit annoying, isn’t she?”
It would be a throwaway, except for what we know: The annoying godmother has already begun a campaign to land the father, and what that campaign lacks in tact, it will make up for in persistence. It’s a campaign that will ultimately succeed—when we first meet her, in the pilot episode, she has already sunk her claws into the target, and the second and final season ends with their marriage. In the interval, she has succeeded in driving a wedge between father and daughter(s), and has made her soon-to-be-husband dependent on her. The most Fleabag can do for revenge is (hilariously) steal a valuable statue from her, over and over. But make no mistake: It’s the lesser theft.
So back to the line: “She’s a bit annoying, isn’t she?”
Why does it resonate with me? Is it because I had my own unfortunate stepmother? Maybe, but it also goes a bit deeper: With a single line, it tells a sweeping story of how things change, how life transforms itself around us, particularly after tragedy. In that original scene, the godmother is nothing but a mild pest to the widowed man, and a vague, uncomfortable shadow for his daughter. But in a few years’ time, he will drop a platter of canapes in his kitchen and crouch in panic, terrified that this “annoying” woman, who now controls him, will discover his faux pas. Later, he’ll yell at his daughter that he deserves happiness, and he will believe that this idea, this happiness, is tied up entirely with the woman he once so lightly dismissed.
What changes in that time? Well, everything, but we don’t have to see it—we know the world that comes after, and we see in flashback what came before, but that line, small as it may be, expresses everything that comes between. It illustrates, in six words, how she insinuates herself into his life, how he slowly comes to accept it, how perhaps, in his loneliness and his grief, he might even need it in some way. It’s about how she exploits this need, but how that manipulation may be forgivable because, beneath the unappealing exterior, she is insecure and needs it too.
It says so much about human experience and human nature, and it says it with such perfect, casual profundity.
Fleabag is a brilliant work of art for a lot of big reasons—the ridiculous talent of its creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge foremost among them—but it’s the show’s facility with the deceptively small moments, and the sheer improbable volume those moments manage to contain, that makes this one of the best television shows we have.
Then there’s Fleabag falling in love with a priest. It’s another big idea, but one which is driven, like the confusion of real, analogue love, by an inexplicable moment of small yet potent intoxication. He writes restaurant reviews for his church newsletter, you see, and when she forces him to come out with the title of his latest review—”I’d spend 40 days 40 nights in that dessert,” a line delivered bravely, but with the raw emotional precarity of any artist baring his soul—she just stares at him for a long while. It felt, to me, like a rejection. Then she turns to us, the secret audience, and lets us in on the truth: “Oh God, I fancy a priest.” It’s a funny line, and it’s a cute line, but more than that it’s a surprisingly painful reminder about the mechanism of falling in love: We describe our seductions in broad terms, and it’s never exactly a lie, but what hooks us is the offbeat, the unpredictable, the word or gesture caught in the periphery, perhaps even the unintentional show of weakness. She smiles, she plays it for laughs, but we recognize too clearly that she’s been devastated by a pun.
Speaking of the audience asides, the priest is the first character on the show who seems to actually recognize when Fleabag breaks the fourth wall. It freaks him out, and it freaks her out, but thankfully we never get an explanation either for his recognition or why she narrates her life to an invisible audience in the first place. That would be hacky, but just putting that moment out there—him watching her so closely, understanding her so completely that he can tell when she leaves—is the most elegant way I can imagine of merely suggesting that theirs is very possibly a soul mate situation.
But there’s also a physicality to their interactions which can’t be ignored. Fleabag first begins with one of the most overt sex scenes you’ll see on TV, but in general, the show handles eroticism with the same type of illuminating flashes that you’d miss if you blinked. I’m thinking of the fourth episode again, when Fleabag visits the priest at night, and innocently asks “are you okay, Father?” His response, at first, makes you cringe: “Oh, fuck you calling me Father, like it doesn’t turn you on just to say it.” But we see by her reaction that he has her pegged, and just like love, this show understand that the things that turn us on are complicated. Thematically, it’s a callback to similar moments in the first season, when Fleabag admits in tears that nothing is worse than someone who doesn’t find her attractive, or that the concept of sex, the anticipation of it, does more for her than the act itself. This is more than just the intrusion of the superego on a physical act—it’s reconciliation predicated on the knowledge that sexuality is inextricably linked to, and hidden within, the brain.
And then there is the fox. Oh, the fox, which is a cute little moment of characterization, and perhaps a metaphor, but which transforms into one of the great finale payoffs I’ve seen.
It would spoil things to go on too much, and I don’t mean to suggest that these little revelations are all the show has to offer. Fleabag doesn’t shy from cliche when it’s warranted—we don’t see it, but there’s an implication of someone running to declare her love at an airport, of all things—and there are little bits of homespun wisdom that would look sappy on a different show, as in the first season when Fleabag’s dead friend delivers her one-liner about the purpose of pencil erasers (they erase mistakes). Many of the characters are “unrealistic” in the sense that they’re asked to play exaggerated emotions and deliver big comedic payoffs. And those payoffs can be enormous (the recurring statue bit kills me, and Brett Gelman’s desperate “I’m a douche, but it’s not my fault” monologue gives you the equally legitimate options of laughter and tears) or subtle (we only see the product of Olivia Colman’s portrait of the two women at a distance, which is the best possible choice). But it all coheres, I’d argue, on the strength of the small moments that turn out not to be very small at all—that prove, in a time of increasingly broad gestures that separate us from the intimate mystery of human experience, that there are artists out there who know the the pure staggering power of the subtle touch.
Fleabag is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime.
Shane Ryan is the Politics Editor at Paste. Follow him on Twitter here.