The Agony and the Ecstasy of Fleabag

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s magisterial Amazon series about a conflicted café owner returns for a striking final season.


In the opening scene of Fleabag’s second season, the protagonist (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), elegant in a backless black jumpsuit, is washing her hands with delicate care in a chic, Art Deco restaurant bathroom. Jazzy Muzak plays. So far, so seemly. But then the camera cuts to Fleabag’s face in the mirror, which is covered in blood, the shot a Kubrick-esque contrast of gore and geometric wallpaper. Unperturbed, she blots her nose with a napkin and hands another to a grateful woman who’s sprawled on the floor next to her.

“This,” Fleabag tells the camera, “is a love story.”

And there, in a single scene, is the essence of Fleabag, an almost annoyingly perfect show about the inseparable agony and ecstasy of being alive. Love, in Waller-Bridge’s world, comes hand in hand with carnage. Grief and humor boomerang endlessly off each other. Loneliness is intertwined with self-preservation. All these emotions and states pinball their way out of this Pandora’s box of a series, leaving behind a feeling that, in the end, seems a lot like hope.

Hope, plus admiration for how Waller-Bridge, at 33, is able to tell stories that are tightly contained in structure and yet sprawling in their conception of the human experience. The first six-episode season of the BBC and Amazon co-production—based on Waller-Bridge’s hit stage show of the same name—introduced the central character, a café owner in London grieving the recent loss of both her mother and her best friend. Fleabag, who continually breaks the fourth wall to share her thoughts with the audience on feminism, familial tension, sodomy, is, in her own words, “a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman.” She’s also totally enchanting. Waller-Bridge’s cherubic, maniacal presence and her inexorable side-eye made Fleabag one of the most distinctive productions of Peak TV.

The first season was always meant to stand alone. That the second, which debuts Friday on Amazon, is so successfully additive and so satisfyingly final in its conclusion, feels like a minor miracle. Without spoiling too much, the crux of the last six episodes involves Fleabag finally meeting her match—someone who, like her, has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but whose response has totally diverged from Fleabag’s self-constructed armor of casual sex and deflectional humor. Fleabag, in other words, finds religion.

In the first episode, which essentially functions as a one-act play complete with introduction, complication, and catharsis, Fleabag joins her family for dinner to celebrate her father’s (Bill Paterson) engagement to her godmother (Olivia Colman). There, she meets a Catholic priest (Andrew Scott), who slowly draws her into his life, and vice versa. It’s a striking twist—Fleabag, the most sexually rapacious and cheekily nihilistic heroine in modern memory, forming a friendship with a man who’s willfully celibate and resolute in his belief that God has a plan for everyone. It’s also an ingenious disruption that forces her out of her comfort zone and into the proximity of a man whose habits and desires and coping methods are completely opposed to her own.

At a panel for Fleabag earlier this year, Waller-Bridge said that the motto in the show’s writing room is “Go Greek or go home.” The conclusion of Season 1, in which a tumultuous confrontation with her family forced Fleabag into a bruising moment of self-reckoning, edged the series closer to tragedy than comedy, tempered only by an act of kindness from a previous antagonist (Hugh Dennis). Season 2, in considering the fraught relationship between humans and gods, feels closer to Greek drama than ever, even if the show’s characteristic elements—morbid punch lines, toilet humor, Fleabag’s constantly tangoing eyebrows—keep it grounded among the mortals.

Everything wonderful about the show remains. There’s Claire (Sian Clifford), Fleabag’s sister, a high-flying, emotionally repressed, acerbic businesswoman who’s so uptight, she seems permanently on the verge of splintering like peanut brittle. There’s the noise Fleabag makes every time she encounters Claire’s husband, Martin (Brett Gelman)—a cross between a nasal ughgggh and a guttural erghchch. Colman, who claimed the Best Actress Academy Award earlier this year for playing Queen Anne in The Favourite, inhabits a very different kind of authoritarian in the role of Fleabag’s soon-to-be stepmother, a gorgon exuding clouds of backhanded compliments and passive aggression. (“Gosh, haven’t you got a lovely thick neck.”) In addition to Scott, who pitches his character aptly between savior and lost soul, there are guest spots from Kristin Scott Thomas and Fiona Shaw, the latter of whom ducks in from Waller-Bridge’s other show, Killing Eve, to play a therapist with dry forearms.

Still, the core of the series will always be Fleabag, whose asides to us, the audience, become more and more complicated as she reckons with the conundrum of how to keep yourself open to loving other people when the cost can be so damaging. Guinea pigs, she tells the priest at one point, “are born, they shit themselves with fear, and then they die,” a summation that seems broadly applicable to humans, too. In another moment, a character named Belinda (Scott Thomas) tells Fleabag about a revelation she’s recently had: Women are born with pain built into their biology, a kind of ache that they carry within themselves for most of their life. Its recurrence is inevitable; its tenderness brings its own strength. To try to avoid pain is to exclude everything that comes with it: kindness, consolation, love. Few creators but Waller-Bridge can make sorrow seem so serendipitous. Few shows but Fleabag can so gorgeously transform tragedy into hope, or something a lot like it.