Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s series makes brave choices not to simply please its audience, whereas other shows have made the mistake of trying to produce too happy an ending.
I watched the (rightfully) critically acclaimed British comedy Fleabag and have been unable to leave the incredible world woven into the series since. Fleabag is a British dramedy written and created by its principal star Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The show ran for two seasons (2016 and 2019) and has received unparalleled applause from critics and audiences alike, winning 56 awards out of 62 nominations. The series follows the day-to-day life of the eponymous protagonist as she tries to come to terms with the semi-accidental death of her best friend. Along the way Fleabag finds herself wrestling with a failing relationship, a deteriorating business, and a completely dysfunctional family. With its mix of excruciating awkwardness and honesty, Fleabag is a masterful examination of female vulnerability and loneliness in modern-day society.
The main character, played by Waller-Bridge, is a Londoner in her early thirties who struggles to give her life meaning. Fleabag’s most discussed feature is its innovative use of audience address or breaking the fourth wall. Part of the show’s uniqueness is its use of direct address as Fleabag frequently shares comedic and confessional asides with the viewer. Whether it is a sneaky glance in our direction or a sarcastic interjection, these fourth-wall breaks provide Fleabag with a sense of control where she otherwise has none, and they allow her a fleeting escape from the situations at hand. Fleabag’s asides continue even during her multitude of social encounters, sometimes forcing the viewer to share an uncomfortable closeness to Fleabag. Below the humorous façade however, Fleabag is plagued by self-loathing and she tries to fill the emptiness in her life with a string of destructive relationships.
The fact that Fleabag is nameless, along with many of the other characters, means that we can project ourselves onto her and those around her. This is a common transference we make whenever we watch TV/read books, but it’s unusual to be so included in the process, invited into a character’s life in such a blatant way.
It’s been two years since the astonishing finale of Fleabag (2016-2019), in which Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s succinct twelve-part series ended in spectacular, hilarious and heartbreaking fashion.
Collective hearts broke when Sian Clifford (who plays Fleabag’s hysterically highly-strung sister Claire) announced just before the finale that this series of Fleabag would be the show’s last. As the final episode aired, Twitter transformed into an assortment of sorrowful lamentations and passionate questions: What will Fleabag do next? How can we live without her? Did Claire and Klare (Christian Hillborg) reunite in the Boots of Terminal 5 over a pair of tweezers?!
Whilst the romantics among us may have felt initially deflated by the ending, when Fleabag’s love is ultimately rejected by the Priest in favour of God, it can’t be denied that the conclusion given to us is the most fitting for Fleabag. As Andrew Scott’s Priest asserts in his heart-rending speech about love: ‘It takes strength to know what’s right.’ By withholding the traditional romantic ending from the audience, Waller-Bridge courageously opts for the poetic rather than anticipated finale, not giving us what we wanted, but what her troubled protagonist needed.
With Fleabag, we are not given the desired ‘happy ending’ of a romantic comedy. The Priest does not give up his vocational calling to the Church for love. Nor, as the episode enters its dying seconds, do we see the Priest chase aer Fleabag, having realised his mistake. Yet we also don’t see Fleabag walking dead-eyed and broken-hearted towards more acts of self-destruction, as we have previously seen in the first series’ finale.
Through her relationship with the Priest, Fleabag finally meets her equal, in wit and messiness, who can see through her humorous attempts to distract from the ‘screaming void inside her empty heart’, as she herself put it. The Priest’s recognition of her deflection provides Fleabag with the necessary conflict to confront this damaging internal quality and enable her personal growth. With Fleabag’s final wave to the camera, the audience, who have been privy to her witty observations, self-deprecation and ultimately displaced grief, are le behind, signalling a consolidation of her mourning and an overcoming of her devastating guilt. I read somewhere on Twitter ‘A real happy ending is knowing the characters are going to be okay. That they’ve finally found a little bit of balance and ended up better than they started. That who they are is good enough and always has been. And that they can handle whatever comes next’. Whilst we may not have been ready to say goodbye to her, we can be comforted in the fact that aer all her hard times, Fleabag is finally going to be alright.
Fleabag has at least one quality in place- she is self-aware, self-aware enough to call herself “Fleabag”; well, because she is one. She is also utterly broken and is a pro at making all the wrong decisions. Her life seems to be spiralling out of control, she lives with pain and guilt. She is a little mean and pretty self-centred. Yet, I would be lying if I said that I don’t love her. Her dysfunctionality and the desire to finally right the wrong and failing at it appeals to me and many others like me. She is there to assure us that in this perplexity called life, we are not alone. Fleabag: The Perfectly Dysfunctional Protagonist Fleabag: The Perfectly Dysfunctional Protagonist