This review contains spoilers.
When Fleabag series two was announced, creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge was the first to suggest it could be a dangerous move. Expanding the lightning-in-a-bottle first series, adapted from her acclaimed 2013 Edinburgh stage show could well be folly, she admitted, but she’d had an idea good enough to risk it.
This episode shows it was a risk well worth taking. Waller-Bridge not only had a good idea for the new run (Fleabag vs God: a love story) but has turned it into exquisite TV. Exquisitely painful TV, but the real deal.
Series one’s denouement, in which Waller-Bridge’s damaged, sex-obsessed character, stopped distracting the audience with lewd asides and came clean about her loneliness, grief and guilt (she’d slept with her best friend’s Boo’s man, inadvertently leading to Boo’s suicide) was an irreversible moment – a Rubicon crossed. The character’s relationship with the viewer shifted from one of naughty complicity to painful truth. There was no going back to hiding behind saucily raised eyebrows and splutteringly frank sexual confessions.
Series two doesn’t go back; it strides forward. 371 days, 19 hours and 26 minutes have passed since the finale, and in that time Fleabag has been making an effort. Exercise. Avocado. Socialising… everything lifestyle glossies would list under ‘healthy behaviour’. She’s no longer using sex as a compulsive distraction, and she’s attempting to hold her tongue when it comes to her family – no mean feat when her father and Godmother’s engagement dinner forces them all around the same table for the first time in a year.
The dysfunctional family occasion—birthdays, christenings, anniversaries peopled by relatives vibrating with unexpressed resentment—is an established comedy strand, and rarely better presented than it is here. The engagement meal is an agonisingly well-observed picture of British repression, that oozes, like a rare steak, with blood.
The dinner having followed the usual trajectory of these things by starting badly and ending in disarray, blood, being wiped from Fleabag’s face, is the first thing we see – her bloody nose just one of many. Also injured is her odious brother-in-law Martin (Brett Gelman), an over-attentive waitress and a priest – every good joke needs one.
This priest is played by Andrew Scott and therefore has scorching chemistry with Fleabag. (Having scorching chemistry with co-stars is Andrew Scott’s thing. At least, it’s one of them.) He’s immediately fascinating, more so than any of her series one paramours. Not that, as a man of the cloth, the Priest can be a paramour, making him the perfect foil for a woman with a history of building her interactions with men around sex. Boxing clever.
The Priest’s candour (we’ve known him for ten minutes and learn that his parents are alcoholics, his brother’s a paedophile, and he’s “fucking lonely”. It took Fleabag six episodes to make that last admission) among a group of people either so pathetically repressed or selfishly conniving that they rarely mean a word they say also makes him a solid dramatic prospect. His frankness versus Dad’s inarticulacy, and his instinctive empathy versus Martin and Godmother’s cruelty, make him a blaze like a beacon around a dinner table that also seats (the glorious and Oscar-winning) Olivia Colman.
Truly blazing in this episode though, is Sian Clifford. Her brittle, tense Claire was a highlight of series one, and here she’s given scenes that let her exercise her considerable talent. She’s sad-funny about her new ‘positive’ mental attitude at the table, but about the miscarriage she starts in the restaurant toilet cubicle, she’s sad-stunning. I’ve seen her deliver the line “It’s mine. It’s mine” three times now and each one has moved me to tears. Clifford’s a marvel, and Waller-Bridge, being a clever sort, clearly knows that.
Blood, God and pain. They’re not the ordinary ingredients of comedy, but Fleabag isn’t ordinary, and this series two opener is anything but. From its bold operatic score to its thrilling promise of what’s to come (portrait sittings with Godmother! Can you imagine?), it’s the sort of TV episode that leaves you feeling as though a stranger has just pressed something very precious and very secret into the palm of your hand.
Fleabag series two continues next Monday at 10.35pm on BBC One.