Bleak but brilliant, Fleabag is finally a rom-com for our time, writes Amanda Cassidy
"Love is awful. It’s awful. It’s painful. It’s frightening. It makes you doubt yourself, judge yourself, distance yourself from the other people in your life. It makes you selfish. It makes you creepy, makes you obsessed with your hair, makes you cruel, makes you say and do things you never thought you would do. It’s all any of us want, and it’s hell when we get there. So no wonder it’s something we don’t want to do on our own. I was taught if we’re born with love then life is about choosing the right place to put it. People talk about that a lot, feeling right, when it feels right it’s easy. But I’m not sure that’s true. It takes strength to know what’s right. And love isn’t something that weak people do. Being a romantic takes a hell of a lot of hope. I think what they mean is.. when you find somebody that you love, it feels like hope."
The finale of the BBC1 show, Fleabag saw Andrew Scott (who played the role of the hot priest beautifully) speak these lines with turmoil and heartbreaking honesty at the wedding of Fleabag's father. Its searing emotional clarity was striking against all the other episodes which seem stuck in permanent emotional oppression. And the viewers loved it.
"I feel like the final episode of Fleabag happened to me personally. None of us spoke for minutes after it ended. The most perfect six episodes of television that's ever punched me in the stomach and taken me home to bed, wrote one Twitter user. "Sometimes a TV show has a single line that just absolutely cuts into your core. For Fleabag, that's basically the entire script," agreed another.
The show was written by and stars Pheobe Waller-Bridge. It is about a single woman grieving the loss of her mother and her best friend and how she navigates the change in her life and that of her family. She runs a guinea-pig themed cafe and charts her casual approach to sex (and repressive exchanges with her equally repressed family) with humorous monologues straight to camera. It is clear that she is struggling. But breaking the fourth wall allows us an insight into Fleabag's life that only the viewer gets. When she meets Sexy Priest (Andrew Scott), he immediately notices she 'disappears' every time she talks to the camera. He 'sees her'. There is an instant connection between them (neither who have first names). Speaking to Zoe Ball about that relationship, Scott explains. "He totally got her. We were looking for a match for Fleabag, someone who was a little messed up - they just love each other right from the get-go.
A love story
It is a new type of rom-com - one perfect for the 21st century. One which doesn't have a traditional happy ending. And yet, it does. The sisterly bond between Claire and Fleabag is the actual love story. Who didn't have an ache in their heart when the usually prickly sister admits to her sister that "the only person I'd run through an airport for is you"? And although Fleabag's father struggles to understand his youngest daughter, Dad (played by Bill Paterson) shares a moment with his daughter which captures in a simple sentence the essence of Fleabag. "I think you know how to love better than any of us, that's why you find it all so painful."
The inclusion of religion in the show was also a departure and one that divided many. Waller Bridge said she wanted to forge a connection in Fleabag's very unconnected world. "He's central new character and the central relationship of the new [season]… and a match for her. They challenge each other and change each other in different ways. This is about the power that humans can have on each other.”
But some found it hard to reconcile the episode in the confessional box. Fleabag opens up to the priest about her fears - the first time she is truly honest with herself. "I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life because, so far, I think I’ve been getting it wrong. I’m still scared. Why am I still scared?” Fighting tears, she asks him: what should she do? He orders her to kneel down and then kisses her. Does this fledging relationship mark a harmless sexual fantasy made real or a concerning overstepping of boundaries? Did he take advantage of her vulnerabilities or did she seduce him away from his religious vows? The nature of faith and all that is holy is neatly contracted against Fleabag's lack of belief in herself. Like Scott's character, she is looking for something but maybe what they found in each other helped them both to move on. Perhaps more a metaphor than a man.
A new kind of rom-com
And then there is the heart-breaking final scene, after most other loose ends have been tied up nicely (she got her mother back in the form of the statue, her sister finally admitted she knew that her husband had tried it on, and she made peace with her father's decision to let love back into his life). Sitting at the bus stop, Fleabag tells Sexy Priest that she loves him. He tells her that he has chosen God and walks away with a sad smile, admitting that he loves her too. We all know that you can love someone who isn't right for you. We also understand that ultimately it might teach us something along the way. But it is a bittersweet ending that also sees her leaving the camera behind. Fleabag, the character, doesn't need us any more. We are sad for her, but we know she is going to finally be ok. Her journey is complete.
Fleabag deals with big topics; loss, love, religion, infidelity, miscarriage and grief in a way that many of us have never seen before and never through sit-com format. It is not a conventional love story, but then again, it is the perfect love story for 2019. It is a homage to the mundane, the forbidden love, the words left unsaid, the words we regret, the thoughts we don't want to have, the silly fall-outs, the grand gestures and all the messy, hodge-podge complexities of love and life. It is exactly how love is, bleak but brilliant, devastatingly perfect - and it is hard to think of anything so profound being so lightly and accurately told.