Contributed by Andrea Ortiz.
Many movie people believe and preach that cinema is only a visual artform, a visual mode of storytelling. What’s in the frame matters. The kinds of shots used matter. That move with the dolly? Groundbreaking. All the little tells within a film that indicate the auteur responsible? The Roger Eberts of the industry, all the straight-laced conventional experts on film criticism squirm gleefully in their armchairs at this, eager to tell you why these technical 10s are good.
Never mind what a film makes you feel. Never mind the reason people make films to begin with—or watch them, for that matter. And lots of films lack emotional depth because it’s weaker than objectivity. Then there’s the annual wave of indie films. These are the ones that don’t care about impressive camera angles or bombastic action sequences. These are the ones that care about personal stories. They’re few and far between, which is why they’re so valuable. This sort of story is even rarer in television series since there are just so many. It seems like every conversation I have with someone about series involves about ten I’ve never even heard of. But every now and then, we’re granted a gift. And Fleabag is a gift that hurts.
More than a mere observational character comedy, Fleabag is a small story that feels extraordinary because it’s immediate. Simply put, it follows a young woman struggling with self-destructive behaviors, familial strife, and a failing business. Both seasons fluctuate between crushing bleakness and elation, though it’s somewhat heightened in this second season, epitomized in its first and final episode.
The opening scene of season 2 is, as Fleabag puts it, a passive-aggressive dinner party. Fleabag’s scumbag brother-in-law remarks that marriage is the best decision a man can make, to which she responds with one of her signature asides, this time a grimace of disgust reinforced by an audible ugh. This is one of my favorite things about the show. It’s full of these rare moments of triumph for viewers who are, at best, on-the-fence about many things that are status quo (in this instance, the institution of marriage). Call it skeptic representation. Of course, this constant clashing of ideals within her family creates a wonderfully uncomfortable atmosphere, not unlike our own Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.
At this dinner, Fleabag’s father and stepmother talk over each other, interrupting each other, and the tension is palpable, which speaks to their incompatibility, further evidence of truth in Fleabag’s ugh, which is also our own. Then this is juxtaposed with a moment in a later episode that sees the priest noticing Fleabag’s breaking of the 4th wall (eventually breaking it himself), revealing their closeness, their inexplicable kindred nature, which is so damn satisfying to watch because it’s just never happened for Fleabag despite many attempts. And maybe it’s never happened for us despite as many attempts.
She scoffs at the idea that she could be in love, and then, unsuspectingly, it happens, and we are HERE for it. But then, of course, the agonizing final episode reminds us, relentlessly, that a relationship is a two-way street. The season built up Fleabag and the priest: countless small charming moments of bonding, the inarguable chemistry, that one scene in the confessional that made our jaws drop, all the maybe-yes-maybe-no stuff. Fleabag’s success lies in these small, honest moments, as much in the bad as in the good. I hate to use the word relatable, but dammit, it feels great to see yourself in such a superb character, whose traits and demons are way too similar to our own, as if our struggle to connect with anyone—and our brief success when it does happen—is mirrored and okay’d by Fleabag.
Finally, the surge of ultimate dread, of heartache that’s all too familiar, comes in the final scene. Fleabag confesses her love to her priest who can’t reciprocate, and I felt my heart in my throat with his simple response: “It’ll pass.”
How dare they show us this incomparable connection, reduce it to a forbidden fruit, and then snatch it away. But then something strange happens. Fleabag is visibly destroyed by this rejection (like those of us sobbing into our blankets and over our laptops). But she seems to instantly come to terms with it because it was the only way the thing between her and the priest could end. It was right. And suddenly, we’re all, like Fleabag, weirdly fine. A wave of relief washes over the dread. She is alone in the end, though not lonely. And that’s weirdly fine. It pained us, too, but that’s weirdly fine. It should be difficult getting through an emotional powerhouse of a story, uncomfortable, even. If art isn’t done because the artist feels and wants others to feel, is it really art? So to experience someone else’s story for a few hours should be more than an escape and done with more than an attempt to impress with flashy cinematography: it should be cathartic. Self-reflection is what, I think, the goal should be when telling a story. And that’s not anything an innovative camera shot achieved; Fleabag took heart and the willingness to break it.