Fleabag Season 2 review: Phoebe Waller-Bridge embraces imperfections as she achieves comedy perfection
Fleabag offers the perfect vehicle to ride the unpredictable waves of our current cultural zeitgeist.
Sample some of these unapologetically transgressive gems from the long-overdue follow-up to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s 2016 breakout comedy series, Fleabag.
"Just get your hands off my miscarriage!"
"Do you really want to f*ck the priest, or do you want to f*ck God?"
"I sometimes worry that I wouldn’t be such a feminist if I had bigger t*ts."
Fleabag is the perfect antidote to the prudish, sanctimonious and excessively politically correct times we live in. Waller-Bridge’s atypical brand of comedy — with her caustic observations, fourth-wall-breaking deadpanisms and cheerful nihilism — offers the perfect vehicle to ride the unpredictable waves of our current cultural zeitgeist.
After a near three-year wait, the second season kicks off Russian Doll-style — with the lead star gazing at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. Only the copper-red haired Natasha Lyonne is replaced by the crimson-red lipsticked Waller-Bridge, who fortunately is not re-living the same night over and over. But it is still a shitty one nonetheless. As Frank Sinatra’s ‘Strangers in the Night’ plays us in, we see our eponymous heroine wiping her bloody nose. There's another woman crouching nearby on the floor, wiping a similarly bloodied nose. We're all obviously wondering what happened and how did we get here.
Fleabag ends the suspense, summarising the season's story with a trademark fourth-wall breaking statement: "This is a love story."
The scene quickly turns back in time to a dinner setup at a lavish restaurant. Fleabag and all the familiar faces from her dysfunctional family — her uptight sister Claire (Sian Clifford), her lecherous alcoholic brother-in-law Martin (Brett Gelman), her manipulative Godmother (Olivia Colman) and her manipulated father (Bill Paterson) — have gathered to celebrate her father and Godmother’s engagement. There is one unfamiliar face — a sweet, swearing, smoking Catholic priest (Andrew Scott) tasked with officiating their marriage.
The uncomfortable dinner slowly turns into an unpredictable one as old conflicts — driven by disagreements, personal grievances, and misunderstandings — bubble and flare up. Waller-Bridge’s razor-sharp writing comes to the fore here as the old "dinner-from-hell" trope is turned into an exceptional set piece as the episode careens between slapstick comedy and pathos. She not only resolves how we got to the opening scene but also hints at the "love story" that forms the core of the season's plot.
The first season of the BBC-Amazon co-production was a riveting study of grief and remorse as Fleabag wrestled with life in the aftermath of her best friend Boo’s suicide. It ended with her understanding and accepting how her self-destructive impulses can spill out into — and affect — the lives of those around her.
The second season sees her finally moving on: her café business is thriving; she has stopped indulging in casual sex to fill "the screaming void" inside her; she is putting pine nuts in her salad and leading a far healthier lifestyle. Even if she isn't the same exaggerated train-wreck from Season 1, she's still a 30-something singleton using humour to mask the relentless pain of loneliness and despair. In fact, Waller-Bridge writes an excellent monologue about how "women are born with pain built in" — which Kristen Scott-Thomas delivers in pitch-perfect fashion in a show-stealing cameo appearance.
"Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny — period pains, sore boobs, childbirth. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives. Men don’t. They have to seek it out. They invent all these gods and demons and things just so they can feel guilty about things, which is something we do very well on our own. And then they create wars, so they can feel things and touch each other, and when there aren't any wars, they can play rugby. And we have it all going on in here, inside. We have pain on a cycle for years and years and years and then, just when you feel you are making peace with it all, what happens? The menopause comes. The fucking menopause comes and it is the most wonderful fucking thing in the world! And, yes, your entire pelvic floor crumbles and you get fucking hot and no-one cares, but then...you're free. No longer a slave, no longer a machine, with parts."
Fleabag might seem like an unlikely feminist icon but she's the champion the movement desperately needs. She deems the eternal debate about "good feminism" vs "bad feminism" as just another self-defeating litmus test against which women gauge their imperfections — which inevitably instils fears of falling short of the "ideal feminist's" expectations. Her bold, Bechdel-smashing series, Fleabag and Killing Eve, are two of the most satisfying series, perfectly balancing comedy and cynicism. She has mastered the art of writing characters with questionable morals but who still strive to be better.
This is what makes Phoebe Waller-Bridge the hottest multi-hyphenate currently working in the UK and an international treasure.
With her teasing side-glances in the camera’s direction, Fleabag had turned her audience into her confidante. We have been privy to her story, her naked vulnerabilities and her witty observations. But, in Season 2, Waller-Bridge does something unique — she breaks the very act of breaking the fourth wall. As Fleabag's friendship with the priest blossoms, he begins to notice her deliberate asides as she looks at us directly down the camera. “Where did you just go?” he asks her. He is the only one who has ever noticed this coping mechanism of hers. So, she slightly freaks out before realising she has finally found her match in her own world — someone who understands her in a way that nobody else has before, signifying the importance of this new relationship.
Then, there is also the transgressive allure of the forbidden and breaking taboos. The will-they-or-won't-they sexual tension eventually comes to a climax with sacrilegious sex. Here, Fleabag pushes the camera away revoking our access to her private life for the first time.
In the closing moments of the series, she admits she loves him. But she also knows his relationship with God comes before all else. Yet, falling in love has given her a newfound sense of hope that she can do it again. So, she picks herself up and walks away. As the camera follows her, she pauses for a brief moment, looks back and nods her head, as if to bid us goodbye. She doesn't need us anymore because she's no more "a girl with no friends and an empty heart."
Finding happiness is a lot more hard work for some and there is solace in representation, in watching people like yourself on screen and knowing you're not suffering alone. Thus, Waller-Bridge avoids reductive happy endings, pseudo-epiphanies and refuses to give us false hope that things will get better. She merely believes even the worst moments in your life "will pass." Because she doesn't want to "turn us into optimists and ruin our lives."
Creator: Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Cast: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Sian Clifford, Olivia Colman, Bill Paterson, Andrew Scott, Brett Gelman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Hugh Dennis
Fleabag Season 2 premieres on 17 May on Amazon Prime.
Tenet will hit Amazon Prime Video in English as well as Hindi, Tamil and Telugu on 31 March.
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