During Krusty the Klown’s very brief time as a more hard-hitting, George Carlin-style comedian, he lambasted the tendencies of wimmin comics to focus on “stuff that would embarrass Redd Foxx – God rest his smutty soul – who they slept with, what time they sit on the can. This is supposed to get you a husband?” Sexist as the old harlequin may be, he wasn’t exactly wrong – but the thing is, the idea isn’t to land the comicstress a husband, it’s to make the audience laugh. Fleabag is a prime example of just this sort of comedy, and makes up for its shameful lack of toilet scenes with even more sex.
It’s a shame to pigeonhole it as a woman thing – but really, what else can one call a series with a woman as the main character, played by creator-writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose most significant emotional bond (no matter how many men she sleeps with) is with her sister, both of whom are still feeling the sting of their mother’s death, which is painfully exacerbated by the presence of their home-wrecking godmother? If we’re being fair, the only people Fleabag pigeonholes are the men – most of whom are reduced to being pretty love interests, or are just awful. Christ, this is what it’s usually like the other way round, isn’t it?
There is always a tendency, in television and film, for the game of romance to be reduced to two conventionally attractive people exchanging a couple of lines of tepid dialogue before leaping into bed together and half-seriously considering marriage. Fleabag is self-absorbed enough that this would actually make sense, so it says something that the show doesn’t fall into this trap nearly as much as your average HBO production. It definitely doesn’t in this season, where Fleabag is presented with a mere two major love interests – and one only appears about twice. Perhaps this is inevitable with unfolding stories, but this season has a far more distinct narrative arc where the first was, at times, more like a series of roughly connected sketches. A structure which, if I’m honest, played more to its strengths, but more on that later.
Fleabag’s practically Freudian approach to life is one of two Marmite issues you’re likely to find with the show – the other is the glances to camera. This tool, so beloved of the now-disgraced Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, is incredibly easy to overuse, and season one rode that edge for all three hours of its runtime. Season two plays a more dangerous game still, by having other characters somehow become aware of her regular fourth-wall breaking – trying to look down the camera as well, wondering ‘what is that?’ – which would be fine if it came to anything.
Most damningly, this awareness first comes from a psychiatrist who never appears again, swiftly bumped out of this very small club in favour of the priest, who probably thinks it’s God or something. This, I’ll say now, is my major disappointment with the season. If they’d found a way to properly play around with this meta-device, it would have been fresh, it would have been interesting, it would have inescapably elevated the show. Instead it’s just remarked upon, then dropped, in a way that smacks of cheap observational comedy – what Doug Stanhope described as the tendency to “notice, and move on“.
The priest is the major new addition to this series – played by Andrew Scott, not perhaps your traditional sex symbol but warmly remembered by the sorts of damaged people who got a bit too into Sherlock (ooh, sexy sexy Moriarty). If anything, he’s a bit too major, with the only other promising new plotlines, the aforementioned psychiatrist and a sexy sexy lawyer, abruptly knocked on the head to let him take the focus. I’m not necessarily going to ding the show too harshly for this decision, since the other plots couldn’t compare to the perverse depths of Fleabag chasing a man who’s sworn to celibacy, but it must be said season one managed to balance a few more spinning plates than this.
This plotline never gets better the scene where Fleabag gives confession – she finds herself pleading to a man representing organised religion to tell her what to do, and how better to define patriarchy? – and it is then that the priest makes a move. I’ve always thought the confessional had the potential to be erotically charged, between the power dynamics at play and the vaguely glory hole-ish setup of the thing, and yes, as the fanbase have noted enthusiastically, this is probably about the steamiest scene of the whole thing. The thing is, if Fleabag’s confession is revelatory of her character, then the priest’s reaction, at best an abuse of power, is equally revelatory of his – finally puncturing his facade and dragging him down into the gutter with the rest of us. In this world, even sexy sexy Moriarty is dangerously flawed.
The other main pillar of this season is the upcoming nuptials of Fleabag’s father and her awful godmother. In more than a few ways this is simply a device to throw the priest into the mix – but it starts the season off on very strong ground indeed, that is, with the whole family plus a priest sat around a table, being profoundly awkward and dysfunctional. A lot has been made of the show being yet another adventure of upper-middle-class people, but as someone who’s been there, that’s the kind of environment where they’re at their absolute pointiest and funniest.
Sad to say, this season never quite recaptures that kind of energy – and again, I have to point to promising plot threads being dropped left and right in favour of the priest. (The “priest” they called him…) Even the other shoe finally dropping between Fleabag’s sister and her terrible husband isn’t really given due attention. Hugh Dennis, whose unreconstructed sad panda was one of the strongest parts – and dare I say, most perversely sympathetic characters – of the first season, returns for a shamefully brief cameo before vanishing again.
The issue here is not simply that the plotlines get dropped, but that the show doesn’t mine them adequately for comedy before they are. It’s possibly a simple case of biting off more than can be chewed in the given time – and, with this being the last season, it’s not as if they’ll be resolved in future.
Waller-Bridge’s decision to end it here is understandable, as between the much-vaunted success of both this and Killing Eve, she’s likely now able to pick and choose any project she wants. One can’t begrudge her that, but it’s all left off on a distinctly wrong note – it’s bittersweet, it’s climactic, I grant it all of that, but it’s also distressingly conventional. Cosy, even. And even this might be forgivable – albeit not particularly funny – if they were anywhere near coming to terms with their obvious issues, but they very clearly haven’t.
There was an excellent article written when Peep Show wrapped up that suggested that “an objective of narrative art is to draw the viewer into conspiracy with the desires of its characters”. Peep Show’s point-of-view construction was an ideal tool for this, and Fleabag’s glances to camera have been successfully striking at a similar note ever since the start, so it is perhaps appropriate that we end on Fleabag abandoning the camera – gesturing for ‘us’ not to follow and waving goodbye – and probably best it ended here. With the fairly rote ending of her will-they-won’t-they relationship with the priest, we are no longer drawn into conspiracy with her forbidden-fruit desires – merely watching, and thinking “what is this, Emmerdale Farm?”
All the show’s vulgar charm - and there is plenty of that, and at its best you're fully conspiracising with it - somehow runs down before its time.