Television

Fleabag’s Second Season Is a Profane, Profound Romantic Comedy With Jumpsuits

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s second season is thrillingly deep, funny, and buoyant.

In this still from Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge breaks the fourth wall by staring directly into the camera while sitting in a church pew.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag.
Steve Schofield

The first season of Fleabag was so perfectly precise, acerbically funny, emotionally deep, and genuinely cool that I wished I loved it more. The show stars Phoebe Waller-Bridge—also its creator, writer, director, and the world’s best wearer of a wide variety of black jumpsuits—as Fleabag, an imp who cracks jokes while drowning in grief and loneliness, sporting the perfect shade of lipstick as she torpedoes her life with sex. Barely keeping it together, she mugs and flirts and toys with the audience, breaking the fourth wall in a continuous demonstration of her character’s pathological inability to not be fun. She’s the life of the party even though her life is a wreck, and I watched her quip and weep and self-sabotage with unwelcome detachment. This should be my kind of show! Why didn’t I like it more?

In art, as in life, sometimes you just have to meet again. Fleabag Season 2, which I cannot recommend highly enough, is thrillingly deep, funny, and buoyant. (All six episodes arrive on Amazon Prime this Friday.) In it, Waller-Bridge ransacks every trick in artistry’s store, availing herself of violence, pratfalls, fart jokes, flashbacks, witty repartee, sex scenes, tears, trauma, cute animals (depending on how you feel about guinea pigs and hamsters), and a total mastery of her characters to build a bang-up romantic comedy, not just in the narrow genre sense (though it is great example of the genre) but a larger one too, examining a number of very specific, ineluctably loving relationships in all their funny, sad, twisted forms. In the opening scene of the new season, as she’s wiping up her bloody nose and wearing—of course—a smashing jumpsuit, Fleabag cuts her eyes at the camera and explains, “This is a love story.”

The new season picks up a little over a year after the events of the last, with Fleabag in a marginally better place. Her little café, through a series of extraordinarily twee interventions, has become a success, and she has forsworn the wanton sleeping around that filled the empty hole in her soul while tanking her life. She has not spoken to her icily uptight sister Claire (Sian Clifford) since the messy events of the season before, but the two meet again at a family dinner, celebrating the engagement of their spacey father (Bill Paterson) and their deliciously despicable godmother, played with glorious unctuousness by the incomparable Olivia Colman. Joining them for dinner is Claire’s sleazy husband Martin (a scenery-chewing Brett Gelman, who much later on, has maybe my favorite line of the season: “I’m not a bad person, I just have a bad personality!”) and a stranger—a funny, dashing, cursing, high-energy Catholic priest (Andrew Scott).*

With extreme economy, Waller-Bridge re-establishes the relevant characters and relationships at this one farcical dinner, and sets them rolling on their way, in particular the season’s two main relationships: the one between Fleabag and her sister, which starts with a characteristically deranged rapprochement that plays on Claire’s wildly overdetermined sense of boundaries and Fleabag’s nonexistent sense of the same; and of course, the one between Fleabag and the priest (identified in the credits only as The Priest).

If Fleabag has cut down on total self-sabotage, she has not entirely given up on mischief. After the priest says just the right thing to her—cheekily telling her to fuck off—she seeks him out, thrilling a bit to the idea that she might, if she gets it just right, find herself entangled in a love triangle with God. But the priest is more than she bargained for. He, to use a description Fleabag’s own father uses to describe her, also has “the fun gene.” Their double helixes recognize one another.

There’s a scene in The Notebook in which young lovers Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams are on a beach, and she commands him, “Say I’m a bird.” The line seems to demand a cheesy, groan-worthy reading, but McAdams finds the truth in it, the way to deliver it so it’s sincere but silly—she’s playing a kid, allowing herself to be her goofiest self with this person, whom she trusts completely. I think about this scene a lot when I think about good acting, and I thought about it when Scott has to deliver a whole monologue about his dread of foxes, who are freakily obsessed with him. Fleabag has dropped by his house, unannounced, a little too late, and they’re drinking in the yard. They have arrived at the subject of celibacy—Fleabag, like a high-schooler, is constantly trying to push her crush into a conversational terrain where he will confess his feelings for her, or even better, wound her by failing to do so—when he thinks he sees a fox and is completely overcome by the need to explain his strange history with them. Scott puts so much spinning, spazzy, neurotic energy into it that he makes this story, this antic stalling, into something wonderfully real, not just an outlet for all the flirtatious energy between them but a kind of helplessness not to tell this oft-repeated story, and tell it so well.

As the two sip G&Ts in the rectory way too early in the morning and go shopping for vestments, as she reads the Bible in the bathtub (he’s given it to her, like some dudes might suggest Infinite Jest), and says inappropriate things at Quaker meetings—“I worry that I wouldn’t be such a feminist if I had larger tits”—it becomes clear he’s perfect for her, except for the whole devotion-to-God and life-of-celibacy thing. For the priest, these things are not a joke, though Fleabag doesn’t quite believe it. She describes him as being in a bad relationship, “the kind where one partner tells the other how to dress.” But his faith is real. When Fleabag tells him she’s an atheist and a picture suddenly falls off the wall, he grins and shakes his head: “I love it when He does that.” It’s intimated that his past has also involved sex that came to no good end, and that God, and a different kind of love for people, has been his solution to a problem—of how to live—that Fleabag is still making her way through.

As Fleabag and the priest’s roller coaster rolls on, it’s twinned with a different kind of love story: the one between Fleabag and Claire. Fleabag and Claire’s relationship is even more of a whiplash thing, so intimate except when it’s completely estranged. As sisters, instead of friends, they are stuck together, and this mandatory connection makes their relationship oddly capacious, containing so many divergent ways of relating to each another. Standing in her hilariously vast office, the professionally successful Claire yells that Fleabag, a struggling café owner with no friends, always makes her feel like she’s less-than (you know exactly what she means), and then, without ever apologizing or making amends, phones Fleabag for support after the worst has happened (a bad haircut). Fleabag is the oxygen-hogging little sister Claire resents but also adores, while Fleabag, who thinks she knows Claire extraordinarily well—she’s constantly mugging to the camera about Claire’s true feelings—can’t quite clock her. Late in the show, as the two discuss the romantic-comedy possibility of Claire running after a man in an airport, Claire tells Fleabag, sincerely, “The only person I would run through an airport for is you,” the kind of mash note that will keep them going through decades more disagreements.

One thing Claire doesn’t do is push; she and Fleabag have accepted each other’s limitations. But there are other people in Fleabag’s life who are not so accepting of her boundaries. “I just want to know you,” the priest tells Fleabag, after asking her a series of questions she has deflected like a backstop. She snaps back, “I don’t want that.” In another scene with a therapist, played by Fiona Shaw—the episode also features a fantastic cameo from Kristen Scott Thomas—the therapist drills down to Fleabag’s loneliness. She’s not close with her family. She has no friends. Fleabag is uncomfortable hearing what she has said repeated back to her, only without the jokes. She’s so uncomfortable that she defensively claims that she does have a friend, one who is always there, one who, her eye contact with the camera makes clear, is … us?

Fleabag has always been a consummate fourth wall breaker, but in the second season of the show it becomes clear that’s not exactly what she’s doing. Yes, she is looking at the camera and pulling faces and narrating and making asides, but this is not happening outside of the reality of the show. Rather, when Fleabag is talking to the audience, she is noticeably absenting herself from her real life. “Where do you go?” the priest asks her when she has just glanced at the camera. At one point, he follows her eyes, until he too is thrillingly looking straight into the lens, somehow catching both Fleabag and the audience out in a conversation we shouldn’t have been having. Who exactly is Fleabag speaking to? Her best friend, her mother, her grief, some kind of imagined audience, some kind of real audience? (Fleabag did begin as a stage show, performed in front of real people, after all.) Whoever it is, it’s a way for her to escape, to keep everything at a distance, to crack jokes with some unseen party, instead of inhabiting her actual life.

As the season comes racing to a close, Fleabag’s relationships with other people start to become secondary to the question of whether she can sort out her relationship with herself, so as to fully inhabit the world. The ending is hopeful, but, to my mind, a little rushed. What a joy, for my major complaint about a TV show to be that there is not enough of it—the opposite problem of basically every other show on television—but I hope Waller-Bridge one day reconsiders making this Fleabag’s last season. There’s more to know about Fleabag, both her past—how exactly did she and her sister turn out this way?—and also her future: What on earth is Fleabag like in an actual relationship? Romantic comedies may stop after the happy ending, but Fleabag could go on and on.

Correction, May 16, 2019: An earlier version of this article misstated Andrew Scott’s last name.