Saying Goodbye to 'Fleabag,' One of the TV Greats

After two seasons, the landmark British show ends tonight. Here, VICE writers reflect on its values and legacy.

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08 April 2019, 11:53am

(Illustration by Kim Cowie)

Tonight, the end of an era. At 10.35PM, the final ever episode of Fleabag will air on BBC One, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge will tell the last chapter of her innovative narrative. Fleabag, the eponymous character at the centre of the tale, has come a long way from her origins as the protagonist of a small one-woman show at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe. She trends on Twitter every week, and the show itself explores both contemporary life and enduring aspects of the human condition. We'll miss that deftness and rare originality when it leaves our screens.

Fleabag is special and interesting and worthy of attention because of its idiosyncrasies – its fourth-wall breaks, say, or its particular family dynamics. Early on, many critics and writers heaped praise to the tune of calling Waller-Bridge the “voice of her generation,” because her show seemed to speak from a place of real truth about flawed women and modern British ennui. This, in response, caused others to rightly point out that Fleabag actually doesn’t represent everyone, and that its whiteness and social privilege are part of the cultural hegemony in the UK.

But the fact is that this TV show simple explores one woman’s world, and the many ways she navigates it (and in fairness, Waller-Bridge has never claimed that it's anything else). While its reception and very existence have brought up important and overdue discussions about who gets to speak on television, in and of itself, Fleabag is really 12 episodes of great storytelling. It has, in its undeniable way, richly expanded our expectations of the half-hour comedy, and leaves British TV a more nuanced, funny, and emotionally intelligent place than it was when it arrived.

To celebrate and commemorate the end of this landmark series, VICE writers consider its themes, best moments, and unquestionably lasting impression on culture.

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Annie Lord on Fleabag's brand of comedy

“We’re going to die here. We’re going to be raped and die,” Fleabag’s sister says as the two women wait outside a wellness retreat where they will practice silent meditation. “Every cloud—” Fleabag replies.

That punchline is so nasty it almost rots in your ears. It’s difficult to work out what makes it funny rather than wholly unacceptable. But then, women are always using humour to deal with things that actually hurt them. Fleabag's observations are so accurate that watching her fuck up feels like watching yourself fuck up. I watched through my hands when she stood up at a Quaker meeting and declared: “Sometimes I wonder if I’d still be a feminist if I had bigger tits.” We have all wondered this.

Initially I winced at the idea of a comedy which centred around women’s relationship to sex in a confessional, sceptical, tell-all manner, especially when critics kept using the trite description of Fleabag as an ‘anti-hero’ (ew). But Fleabag’s humour made me feel less ashamed of all the gross thoughts polluting my brain. Watching it is like waking up after a night out and getting tagged in a club photo where a bit of your areola is hanging out, but then suddenly finding yourself able to laugh about it rather than cry.

@annielord8

Anna Leszkiewicz on Fleabag’s origins as a play

Waller-Bridge always planned to kill the guinea pig. In the stage play, Hilary the guinea pig is a horrible reminder of Boo, and of the unending pain and misery we all feel. “Hilary’s teeth are going again,” Waller-Bridge tells us, “crashing against each other. The noise is unbearable. Relentless chattering. They do that when they’re distressed or angry or– I can’t listen to it.” So she takes it out of its cage. She holds it tight. She imagines sticking her finger up its arsehole, its eyes popping out. Then she kills it. “I hold her to me tighter, until I feel her bones crack against me and her chattering stop.”

It’s an incredibly bleak moment in the stage play, a moment that was considered too dark for TV ­– the BBC made her promise not to kill Hilary in the adaptation. It’s one of several snippets that gesture towards the real trauma and fear at the heart of Fleabag’s psyche, like when she wonders aloud about whether her sister’s husband is a domestic abuser: “Hope he hasn’t beaten the shit out of her or anything. No, he’d never do something as sexy as that.”

Like the TV show, the play started off as a show about sex, but ended up being a show about suffering. It opened with the disastrous, loveable Fleabag effortlessly delivering brilliantly naughty jokes about Zac Efron, Barack Obama, “slutty pizza”, “just the right sort of gangbang” and “a handprint on my wall from when I had a threesome on my period”. But holes quickly appeared in this smooth performance, as Waller-Bridge pulled back the layers of Fleabag’s bravado to reveal a very unhappy person. She didn’t hold back. On a tiny stage in London’s Soho Theatre, every crack in her voice, every uncomfortable long pause, and every unconvincing return to relentless, chattering anecdotes was excruciating. It began to feel unbearable. But it was too good to want it to end.

@annaleszkie

Hannah Ewens on how family and class intertwine in Fleabag

When Fleabag rushes into a lecture hall to meet her sister, late (by said sister’s standards), she isn’t acknowledged with eye contact. This interaction in the first ever episode is a witheringly accurate portrait of sisterhood, one that extends throughout the show. In abrupt one-liners they discuss everything from personal hygiene (Fleabag says she hasn’t washed her hands after taking a shit, much to Claire’s disgust) to whether anyone's had contact with their dad and Claire’s secret most excruciating moment (again, involving shit). In an aside to camera after Claire has, in a barely-noticeable glance, clocked her top, Fleabag tells us: "Shit, I’m wearing the top she lost years ago, so this is going to be tense."

Sister-sister relationships play on the fraught pleasure found between connection and cruelty. You rarely both want closeness at the same time, and attempts to bridge the distance can often end as that first episode does, with one trying to hug the other and ending up punching her in the face.

Astutely the dialogue captures the fact we never want our sister to advance or change: when Claire tells Fleabag scathingly "You don’t read the news," she’s really saying "I’ve known the real you since day one, and you can’t trick me, idiot." Without her best friend, Boo, Claire is all Fleabag has (bar sex). Likewise Claire only has Fleabag (bar her career) – to who else can you imagine her saying, "I haven’t farted in about three years." But as Claire says in season two, "We’re not friends, we are sisters."

Class as seen through their dysfunctional relationship will be unfamiliar to most. Of course white upper-middle class sisters would do their (non-)bonding at a feminist talk and later a silent retreat as paid for by dad. Yet even here there is something recognisable: sisters are so often held back by their fraught communication. Sisters are at best one woman who knows her hair looks like a pencil, and another knowing her well enough to placate the anxiety with the right skewed observation (Fleabag: “Claire, it’s French”).

@hannahrosewens

Lauren O'Neill on Fleabag's formal innovation

TV characters speaking to the camera is nothing new. From the BBC’s 1990s version of House of Cards to Malcolm in the Middle, it’s been used as a genre-spanning storytelling device for decades. Inner monologues – abject, grimly relatable, and crucially audible – have been done before too, as Peep Show routinely revealed all of the worst things Mark and Jeremy thought privately to themselves.

If you combine the two, you get Fleabag, which offers something a bit different. She’s part compulsive confessor, part stand-up comic, always on, always winking at her audience, in the way that correlates with how many of us – in particular women, and especially those who have experienced trauma – can feel a little like we’re playing the role of ourselves in our own lives. Fleabag’s formal recognition of that is genuinely innovative.

The show’s use of its form as a mirror for the psyché is underscored by the dramatic climax of the first season, as the secret that Fleabag has been trying to repress (that she slept with her best friend’s boyfriend, indirectly leading to the death of that best friend) finally spills out for us to see. And in the second season, Fleabag’s connection with The Hot Priest™ is highlighted by the fact that he’s the only character who notices that she goes “elsewhere” when she addresses us, illustrated in a number of great scenes where actor Andrew Scott looks into the camera too.

Fleabag positions its audience as active – perhaps even as a silent character – and as the series has gone on, Fleabag has begun to need us less, as she settles into herself. This is demonstrated by the great moment at the end of the second season’s fifth episode, when she bats the camera away as she and the priest finally, mercifully fuck.

The show, therefore, is a beautiful reminder of the way that the form and content of a TV programme can inform each other to create a viewing experience which immerses and affects. Our intimacy with the protagonist is Fleabag’s very raison d’être – therefore the only end I can see for it is one which closes the book on Fleabag’s relationship with us. That's the only way she can take her final bow, finish the performance, and move on with her real life. But we should count ourselves lucky to have been privy to it: what a performance it was.

@hiyalauren

Emma Garland on the role of sex in Fleabag

Sex in Fleabag is positioned as a crutch. As far as our protagonist is concerned, it’s neither a positive or negative experience – it’s pure escapism; something the protagonist turns to instead of facing her problems. Casual sex is hardly fresh ground for comedy, but it’s rare to see it pathologised in women. TV has an endless stream of ‘damaged’ men whose allure comes from the tension between their capacity to be ‘good’ people and their choice to fuck the pain away, often creating more in the process (see: Californication’s Hank Moody, Mad Men’s Don Draper, BoJack Horseman, the entire cast of Entourage etc). But, as far as women protagonists go, Fleabag is among the first. Sex and the City’s Samatha weaponises sex with an endless string of Carry On punchlines, Seinfeld’s Elaine is ambivalent at best, but Fleabag... Fleabag is a mess.

The way the show is filmed is a total subversion of the male gaze. While women on screen either appear physically done-up or intentionally undone, Fleabag goes a step beyond appearance and opens up a direct channel to the female psyche that obliterates the concept of ‘feminine mystique’ by holding nothing back (“Fucked me up the arse”). However, as far as tropes are concerned Fleabag is basically a problematic man.

It makes total sense that she would develop an attraction to a priest: someone whose station introduces a power dynamic that isn’t inherently in her favour. While the ethics around Fleabag’s sexual exploits until now has been questionable, here she is potentially “falling for” someone who’s supposed to be a bastion of morality. Much has been said on the subject of whether the priest – who, like our protagonist, remains nameless – is sexy, manipulative or both, but ultimately the constant equivalences between the pair of them throughout the series encourage us to ask these questions about Fleabag as well. Through the cliché-to-the-point-of-being-a-porn-plot relationship between the priest and the woman wearing nothing but underwear and a trench coat, the scales are finally balanced.

When sex is used as escapism, the people you’re having it with become irrelevant. The act itself is an extension or expression of your own problems, which is why the body count for ‘damaged’ protagonists is so high. But regardless of what happens with her and the priest, the role of sex in Fleabag – and the dynamic of the show as a whole – has been disrupted by the recognition of someone else in the room.

@emmaggarland

Tshepo Mokoena on Fleabag's battle with grief and trauma

If you’ve never felt compelled to hit self-destruct while swerving unresolved negative feelings, then congrats, I guess. For the rest of us, Waller-Bridge patched together Fleabag – particularly wounded, devastated season one Fleabag – as a version of ourselves we’d recognise. It’s obviously not a perfect show. But when it comes to the death of Fleabag’s best friend Boo (played by Jenny Rainsford), and the guilt tangled up in what led Boo to inadvertently kill herself, Fleabag really does earn the endless scroll of think-pieces, tweets and essays that have rallied around its broadcast.

Grief rattles through Fleabag’s mind, and bolts across your screen, in flashbacks. As other writers in this piece will no doubt mention, that stylistic choice is by no means unique. But Waller-Bridge times the season one flashbacks with such precision because you understand their context in reverse. In episode two, for example, you learn that Boo died by suicide. The image of Rainsford standing at the edge of the pavement, blonde hair flickering lightly over her face in the wind as she propels herself towards the bike lane becomes a motif throughout the show – and often a catalyst to send Fleabag spiralling into another wank or shag. Only by the end of the season do you see that Fleabag considers herself the reason Boo is dead.

So much has already been written about this, especially since by season two Fleabag’s grief had mutated somewhat, its sharp edges lightly sanded down by time. But I will add: when a friend of yours dies, horrifyingly young, nothing adds up. For a time, you may be struck down without notice. Walking to the shop in the afternoon: the stab of a memory. In bed with your partner, reading: the gush of tears. During dinner: excusing yourself to scream into a fistful of your jumper in a loo cubicle. It is horror. Sometimes it can seem as though hurting ourselves is the only valid response. And in Waller-Bridge’s exploration of this pain, she tells a relatable story.

@tnm___