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This article contains light spoilers for “Fleabag” Season 1 and 2. Photos courtesy of Amazon Studios.
The secret they don’t tell you when you’re young — or maybe they do, but you’re too green to hear it — is that the messy bit isn’t what’s standing between you and your real life; the messy bit is life itself.
That message shines through in “Fleabag,” the British series that dropped its second season on Amazon Prime earlier this month. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Season 1 was marked by crisis, with dashes of growth. Season 2 is about growth, with dashes of crisis. In art as in life, there are transcendent moments, and “Fleabag” treats them like we might: as an absolute treat, all the more precious for their transient nature.
I was at a burial a few weeks ago where mourners were supposed to perform a ritual with a shovel, but most people didn’t know how to do it, and some of the attempts didn’t transfer the dirt to the grave. A few of the mourners got tired partway through the process and had to switch out — there was a lot of dirt. The situation was as funny as it was painful. We laughed, and then chided ourselves for laughing. The departed would have liked that, I think.
The series, which has been hailed for its depiction of grief, sisterhood and the inner workings of women’s bodies, from miscarriage to menopause, is a representation of a full life — a young woman’s efforts, sexual experiences, memories and regrets. In her story, you may see glimmers of your own. While the specifics will differ, the obstacles Fleabag encounters as she seeks to manage or improve her life are likely to connect.
Quickly, some plot points from the first season. Fleabag, the main character whose real name we never learn, is in her early 30s. She opened a guinea-pig-themed cafe with her best friend, Boo, who later died in a complex accident, for which Fleabag feels some responsibility.
Fleabag — played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who created, wrote and stars in the series — still owns that cafe. Her mother died several years ago, and her father is now dating her godmother, a self-absorbed artist. Fleabag is close with her sister, Claire (Sian Clifford), though they have little in common, and their relationship becomes strained when Claire’s awful husband, Martin (Brett Gelman), tells a damaging lie. Throughout, Fleabag is quick-witted, playful and in real pain. In life, these realities are frequently interwoven. In television, they’re more often depicted as disparate states of being — chaos to triumph, triumph to chaos, each development in service to the story arc.
In the second season, Fleabag works to get her life together and, in the process, falls in love with a priest (Andrew Scott). Attractive as he is, Season 2 is not about the fetching clergyman. It’s also not about Fleabag’s father, her obsequious ex-boyfriend or the men she took up with to distract her after Boo’s death. That’s not to say the men of “Fleabag” are caricatures. They’re thoughtfully drawn, with even Claire’s awful husband getting a piece of our understanding, if not our absolution, toward the end. It’s only to say that it was never about them. It’s about Fleabag and, to a lesser extent, her sister, Claire, and her best friend, Boo, whom we meet in flashbacks.
If that’s a bit of projection — to see ourselves in “Fleabag” — then it’s not uninvited. The series routinely breaks the fourth wall, which is a formal way of saying that Fleabag speaks to the camera, and thereby the viewer, quite a bit.
Between the first and second season, about a year has elapsed in Fleabag’s world, and it’s apparent that the top notes have changed. Fleabag’s godmother and father are engaged. She has stopped sleeping with people she doesn’t like. Her cafe is making a comeback. She and Claire are finding their way back to each other after a long estrangement. Claire took a promotion and she’s developed a crush on a kind co-worker. The second season’s first episode involves a tragedy and a bloody, public family brawl, but still — change is afoot, some of it positive, even promising.
Fleabag’s father gives her the sort of gift in Season 2 that seems like a message, veiled quite thinly: a voucher for one counseling session. She tries to foist the gift on Claire, who firmly rejects it, though she makes clear that Fleabag could cash in the voucher for the cost of the session. That’s precisely the move we’d expect her to make, but midway through Episode 2, we find her in a therapist’s office. When asked why her father suggested she come in for counseling, Fleabag says, “I think because my mother died and he can’t talk about it, and my sister and I didn’t speak for a year because … ” — we’ll skip that part to protect you from spoilers. She goes on, “And because I spent most of my adult life using sex to deflect from the screaming void inside my empty heart. Although I don’t really do that anymore.”
When the therapist asks if Fleabag is close with her family, or if she has any friends, we — and, poignantly, she — realize how alone she’s been since Boo’s death. That point is driven home in a later episode, when, after a heated exchange, Fleabag says to Claire, “I just thought we were hanging out. Just as friends.” Claire replies, “We’re not friends. We are sisters. Get your own friends.”
In the first season, Fleabag’s life is a metaphorical stretch of broken concrete. It sucks, and she’s been looking at it a long while. In the second, she has ripped out the concrete and planted seeds. She thinks they might sprout; there’s hope in “might.” But she hasn’t seen yet the efforts of her labor realized. What profound risk there is in throwing away what you know for something better you can’t be sure will arrive. In addiction recovery circles, people say, “Don’t leave before the miracle happens.” It’s a useful piece of encouragement. Viewers hope Fleabag won’t, and that in our own journeys, we won’t either.
“Fleabag” can only feel universal because it’s so specific, so richly detailed. My mentor, a historian, often said history is the story of people doing particular things at particular times. Human history sounds small, almost approachable, when you say it that way. “Fleabag” is a television show, sure, but it’s also a record and a testament. It doesn’t cover everything. Fleabag is not a figure the world would deem historic. She’s a 30-something who runs a cafe in London in the present day. It sounds small: a particular experience, a particular time. But what she does ripples inward and outward, affecting the other characters — affecting us, too.
By the close of Season 2, partly at her sister’s urging, Claire makes a thrilling and terrifying leap into the unknown. Fleabag does, too. She tells the priest how she feels about him. As he begins to respond, she cuts in. “No,” she says, “let’s just leave that out there just for a second on its own.” It’s an excruciatingly vulnerable moment, one a younger Fleabag couldn’t have endured. She’s a complicated woman on the precipice of change, working to rewrite her story, inviting us to be brave enough to do the same.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated that it was unclear how much time passed between the first and second season, from the characters’ perspective. In fact, about a year has elapsed in the world of the show.