The best stories fill you up and give you the strength to move forward. They leave you with questions that make you feel connected rather than isolated, whole rather than lacking. Fleabag, which returns to Amazon Prime with its second and final six-episode season later this month, is a story like this.
Written by and starring the exceptionally-talented Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the show intimately follows the London-based, adventures of a woman we know only as Fleabag, as she continues to work through the grief following the deaths of both her mother and her best friend that occurred prior to the start of the series.
Fleabag Season 1 was as close to a perfect modern storytelling experience as is possible (because let’s destroy the myth of perfection), and Season 2 is just as perfect-like in its honest depiction of loss, healing, and the work of self-compassion, and how these livelong journeys affect all of the relationships—from family to best friends to sexual partners to the man at the bank—in our lives.
“This is a love story,” Fleabag tells us, her most trusted confidantes, in the season’s first masterpiece of an episode, but it’s not the love story you have been conditioned to expect from mainstream, female-centric storytelling. From the beginning, this series has been about Fleabag learning to love herself again, learning to forgive herself for the pain she caused her best friend prior to her death. Of course, as we already learned in Season 1 (and perhaps in our own lives), this process is inextricably related to nurturing healthy, loving relationships with others.
Fleabag‘s comedy is less cutting in the second season, not because it is any less inappropriate or the sharp edges have been filed off in favor of something less true and more palatable, but because they are delivered with a lesser degree of raw, unaddressed and unexpressed pain. Fleabag is further along in her current healing cycle, and has learned to be much kinder to herself and, as a result, to others.
Fleabag is billed as a dark comedy and, while both of those descriptors definitely qualify, they also fall short of encompassing the many tones this story comfortably inhabits and moves between—often in a single scene, sometimes in a single line of dialogue.
“Was that a joke?” the Bank Manager asks Fleabag in the final scene of Season 1. “I don’t know,” Fleabag tells him, an encapsulation of the tonal complexity of this show. When is something a joke? When is something serious? What are the potential differences between the two? Fleabagis a master at exploring the ways life can be a joke and so very serious at the same time.
Fleabag Season 1 ended on a down note, with our protagonist successfully having pushed all of her loved ones away. She ends the season in her broke, coffee-and-tea-less cafe, though with a shred of hope in the form of her interactions with the Bank Manager (Hugh Dennis), who shows up at the cafe for a conversation when Fleabag is seemingly contemplating walking into bike traffic like her friend Boo.
When we last saw her, Fleabag couldn’t think of “anything worse than someone who doesn’t want to fuck [her]” because she thought that her body as a sexual object was the only worth she had, so low was her feeling of self-worth following the death of Boo. She confides in the Bank Manager in the same way he confided in her earlier in the season, and he gives her the offering of absolution that she can’t yet give herself… and a bank loan.
When we pick back up in Season 2, Fleabag (and her cafe) are doing much better, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more healing to be done. While Fleabag may have done a lot of emotional work during the hiatus (a la Avengers: Endgame, she wrote, surprising herself with the comparison), swearing off sex completely in an attempt to repair her relationship with herself, she has yet to repair the fractured bonds with her family members. Like us viewers, Fleabag hasn’t seen them in a long time when they all come together for her Father and Godmother’s engagement dinner in the Season 2 premiere.
While Fleabag has changed a lot during the hiatus, in particular when it comes to her relationship with herself, her Father (Bill Paterson), Godmother (Olivia Colman), sister Claire (Sian Clifford), and brother-in-law Martin (Brett Gelman) have been stuck in their own emotional holding patterns. While Claire loves working in Finland, her relationship with alcoholic Martin is worse than ever. Fleabag’s Father and Godmother are now engaged, with her Godmother still holding most of the power in their relationship.
The dinner scene proves that the family dynamic is as emotionally-repressed and non-communicative as ever, with the group unwilling to talk about anything that matters, so afraid of the explicit expression of negative emotion they all are. Fleabag’s Godmother, the Queen of Passive Aggression, holds court over it all, obviously pleased that she will soon be securing a legitimate claim on the family in the eyes of both the Catholic church and English law.
Uncharacteristically from what we have seen from her before, Fleabag stays politely quiet during dinner conversation, unwilling to play the role that has been cast for her as the family “screw-up” who brings up the subjects everyone else is avoiding. This throws her family for a loop. How will they address anything without Fleabag’s open provocation? (Don’t worry—Fleabag doesn’t stay silent forever, highlighting that Fleabag’s willingness to address underlying, uncomfortable emotional issues was never a problem in and of itself.)
Fleabag finds a kindred spirit at the dinner table in the form of Hot Priest (Andrew Scott), the man who will be marrying Father and Godmother at their wedding. Like Fleabag, his pain and healing comes out in the form of socially-inappropriate honesty, often with a comedic and/or self-deprecating twist. When Fleabag blows Hot Priest off during a cigarette break, he responds with a flirty “fuck you” rather than letting it slide in the passive agressive fashion Fleabag has come to expect from her family. She is immediately intrigued, as are we.
An interest in organized religion is one of the biggest thematic differences between Seasons 1 and 2, which play as two acts of a larger story, despite being set roughly a year apart. Religion, here, is partially, gently defined as a structure that tells you what to do, which Fleabag the character unsurprisingly chafes against. As Hot Priest tells her, she doesn’t actually want someone to tell her what to do—unlike many people, Fleabag knows exactly what she wants, a character depiction that is one of this show’s many organic refusals to fall into the traditional feminine character “ideal,” often depicted as passive, accommodating, small, and simplistic.
A more explicit demonstration of this show’s baked-into-its-bones feminism comes in a monologue from a businesswoman, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, Fleabag meets and shared an intimate conversation with. One of a few older female characters who appears over the course of the season, Thomas’ character delivers a speech about the agony and ecstasy of aging as a woman, as well as the differences between men and women’s respective relationships to pain.
Fleabag Season 2, even moreso than Season 1 before it, has a number of scenes like this one: broad-stroke yet deeply profound perspectives, often delivered as monologue, on life and living that give both Fleabag and the viewer much to think about in a way that is not dissimilar to the Catholic homily we see depicted throughout the season.
Much like the Bank Manager’s speech about what he truly wants from life in Season 1, these moments stop us short, startling us with their seemingly simple vulnerability. They are displays of emotional intimacy that Fleabag understands and depicts as the ultimate acts of bravery, so frightening and counter-cultural they are. By the end of the season, Fleabag will have given most of its main characters the opportunity to demonstrate their emotional bravery. This includes Martin, a moment which perhaps best demonstrates this show’s deep capacity for empathy.
Will Fleabag get a chance to be vulnerable with someone other than the viewer? In Season 1, though Fleabag shared brief moments of emotional intimacy with others, we were her only consistently emotionally-intimate relationship. We were the only place she felt safe sharing herself—her pain, her joy, her humor, her ugliest and most beautiful thoughts—and that was incredibly sad. I won’t spoil the complexity of the development of Fleabag’s emotional intimacies in Season 2, but they do exist.
In the end, Fleabag Season 2 affirms what we have always known: This was never a story about hopelessness and isolation—quite the opposite, actually. Too many modern TV shows are obsessed with depicting how we can fall apart, as if there is any special skill involved. Give me a hundred TV shows like Fleabag: deeply fascinated with how we put ourselves back together, a much more impressive feat.
Too many stories go on long past their prime. Storytellers tell stories for the sake of it rather than because they have something to say or because the story they started demands it. Not so with Fleabag. This story goes on for as long as it needs to—or, perhaps inextricably, for as long as Fleabag needs us.
I am sorry we won’t be getting more Fleabag, but it is a hopeful kind of loss rather than the other kind. It is the kind of loss that knows that, out of this ending, will grow so many more beginnings. Waller-Bridge is one of the most exciting young storytellers of our time, a human who is telling deeply empathetic stories that are filled with truth and hope and healing. We may have to say goodbye to Fleabag, in some sense (it will always be there for a rewatch), but Waller-Bridge is, thankfully, here to stay.