Truth HurtsSeason 2 of “Fleabag” Is All about Fessing Up

Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Fleabag in Fleabag (Steve Schofield)

In a touching scene from the final episode of Fleabag’s second season (apparently the last we’ll ever get), the British dramedy’s eponymous anti-heroine (played by the show’s writer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge) makes what seems like a simple request of her father (Bill Paterson): “Just [give me] one honest answer…One full sentence.” Fleabag’s plea perfectly summarizes Season 2’s themes of honesty, self-expression, and the challenges of being a woman who speaks her mind.

Full sentences and honest answers are hard for the people in Fleabag’s world. In the season’s opening set piece, an awkward family celebration of Dad’s engagement to Fleabag’s godmother (brilliantly played with barbed sweetness by Olivia Coleman), Dad’s attempted heart-to-heart with his daughters comes out in a string of garbled fragments: “Girls, I have the feeling, in… here… [gestures to chest]…. So I just want to… say… [nods]… very much. And that’s it.” The dinner gets cut short when Fleabag’s sister, Claire (Sian Clifford), has a miscarriage in the restaurant bathroom and refuses to inform anyone. Fleabag ends up covering for Claire, telling the family that she herself just lost a baby. When she attempts to confront Claire the next day, her sister snaps, “I don’t want to talk about it, okay? And I never want anyone to know about it. You have it.”

Even Godmother, seemingly more frank and unreserved, mostly deals in passive-aggressive two-facedness, as when she sweetly reassures someone who’s canceling on her that, “Of course you must go. Family comes first,” only to scream, “What a cunt!” as soon as he’s left the room. In stark contrast stands Fleabag: She may have her problems, but speaking her mind has never been one of them. Over the show’s two seasons, her lack of filter is played for laughs—as when, attending a Quaker meeting (where,  she’s told, you’re only allowed to speak if the spirit moves you to share with everyone), she feels compelled to announce, “I sometimes worry that I wouldn’t be such a feminist if I had bigger tits.” 

In other moments, her frankness is wryly moving, as when she blurts out two seconds into a therapy session that, “My mother died and [Dad] can’t talk about it and my sister and I didn’t speak for a year because she thinks I tried to sleep with her husband and…. I spent most of my adult life using sex to deflect from the screaming void inside my empty heart.”

Throughout, the audience acts as a sort of confessional for Fleabag, and she frequently uses the show’s signature fourth-wall breaks to emphasize just how real she’s being (“I’m good at this,” she smirks into the camera after unloading her family troubles onto Fiona Shaw’s deadpan therapist). This honesty is both refreshing and earned, considering that the entire structure of the show’s first season hinged on Fleabag withholding crucial information from the viewer.

Perhaps the masterstroke of Season 2, then, is in making Fleabag’s love interest (Andrew Scott) a priest—someone literally in the business of confession. On the surface, the Priest appears to be her perfect match: Sexy, sweary, and prone to speaking his mind, he seems determined to use his frankness to shatter preconceptions about pious holy men. Like Fleabag, his honesty is a form of resistance: Asked by Dad if he’d always wanted to join the priesthood, he replies, “Oh, fuck no.” And when Claire’s odious husband, Martin (Brett Gelman), sneers that celibacy “must be hard on the balls,” the Priest replies, “Not as hard as trying to make a baby for five months, I imagine,” a jab at Claire and Martin’s fertility woes.

Fleabag and the Priest are an easy ship, thanks in part to Waller-Bridge’s and Scott’s natural chemistry. But the show’s subtle, clever writing hints at crucial differences in the way the two characters approach honesty. In an early scene, the Godmother, worrying about her fur handbag, asks the Priest, “I can’t go to hell for that, can I, Father?,” and the Priest replies, “Not as long as you confess.” We’re never allowed to forget that confession, in the Catholic sense, is not just about telling the truth, but also about asking forgiveness and trying to change.

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At one point, the Priest persuades Fleabag to step into his confessional, where she tries to bare her soul as expected:

I know what I want. I know exactly what I want right now…. It’s bad…. I want someone to tell me what to wear in the morning… I want someone to tell me what to eat, what to like, what to hate, what to rage about… I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong. And I know that’s why people want people like you in their lives. Because you just tell them how to do it. You just tell them what to do, and what they’ll get out of the end of it. Even though I don’t believe your bullshit… just tell me what to do. Just fucking tell me what to do.

But something about the confession doesn’t land: Fleabag sounds troubled, to be sure, but she never really sounds contrite. This is plainly a source of frustration for the Priest, who later throws Fleabag’s words back at her, ranting “I don’t think you want to be told what to do at all. I think you know exactly what you want to do.” The Priest may love Fleabag, but he still believes she should want to change. (In an interesting parallel, Fleabag also asks her therapist “Can you just tell me what to do?” only to get roughly the same answer: “You already know what you’re going to do.”)

The season’s third episode presents a much more worthy (though mostly platonic) soulmate for Fleabag in Belinda Frears (Kristin Scott Thomas), a successful CEO Fleabag meets at an award ceremony for “Women in Business” that Belinda calls “infantilizing bollocks,” “ghettoizing,” and “a subsection of success.” The pair end up ditching the ceremony and going to a bar, where Belinda unleashes a remarkable monologue full of the rage and frustration we’ve felt in Fleabag all along:

Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny. Period pains, sore boobs, childbirth, you know. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives. Men don’t. They have to seek it out…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.

Belinda’s perfect sympathy with Fleabag in this moment highlights all the ways in which the Priest falls short. When Belinda gives Fleabag her card, it’s clear Belinda, too, wants to help Fleabag—not to help her become someone else, but to help her be herself.

It’s hard not to wonder whether everyone gleefully bingeing the show would find Fleabag’s verbal diarrhea so charming if she weren’t so conventionally palatable in every other sense.

It’s important to note that this moment, though one of the season’s most affecting of the season, is also the one that most underscores Fleabag’s shortcomings. Fleabag’s pain is palpable, as is Belinda’s—but their pain is still less than it would be if they weren’t white, posh, or cisgender. And while their open expressions of anger still feel radical, their circumstances nevertheless protect them from the harsher consequences of speaking out. It’s hard not to wonder whether everyone who has gleefully binged the show would find Fleabag’s verbal diarrhea so charming if she weren’t so conventionally palatable in every other sense. Still, it’s refreshing to see two women rant onscreen in a way that isn’t played for laughs, for shock value, or to garner sympathy for the poor long-suffering men who tolerate them.

After all, is being likeable something Fleabag should care about or aspire to? There’s a fine line between trying not to be hurtful or an asshole, and trying to be amiable and agreeable to please others; walking it is Fleabag’s struggle. Ultimately, help and absolution come not from the Priest and his conflation of flaw with sin, but from Dad. His response to Fleabag’s request for “one honest answer” is startling and perfect: He calls her “not everyone’s cup of tea” and tells her “I love you, but I’m not sure that I like you all the time…And it’s those [unlikable] bits that you need to cling to.”

This message is cemented in the show’s final moments, when Fleabag looks straight into the camera and shakes her head, indicating that she no longer wants us, the audience, to follow her. She walks away, the camera holding steady rather than tracking behind her. She turns back once to wave goodbye, and then she’s gone. She no longer needs us, her audience of confessors, because she’s no longer apologizing for who she is. She’s not asking us to like her, but instead, owning her unlikability. It’s a perfect culmination to the character’s journey, and a powerful comment on the way likability is currently framed as both the most essential and the least attainable trait a woman can have.

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by Alexandra Aceves
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Alexandra Aceves (she/her) is a Latinx writer and editor originally from Mexico City and currently based in Brooklyn. She was the 2015 Honor winner of Lee & Low's New Visions Award; her debut novel is forthcoming from Lee & Low's Tu Books imprint.