A celebration of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s creative genius and a look into what makes her series ‘Fleabag’ stand in a league of its own
*Spoilers ahead, proceed with caution*
With winter just around the corner, it might be time to settle into a new series, or in many of our cases, crawl back to our old friend Fleabag. For those who have been living under a rock, the show documents the adventures of our protagonist Fleabag, as she muddles her way through life as a single woman in London, whilst trying to cope with the recent death of her best friend, Boo.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s economically privileged and morally depraved characters should NOT be likeable - yet they're somehow loveable. And it is her incredible ability to make her audience feel compassion for even the most morally debased characters which truly makes Fleabag a masterpiece.
With the exception of Boo, who only ever appears in tearfully wholesome flashbacks, Phoebe only constructs characters who are warped in some way, because if they weren't then they wouldn't be relatable. Thrust into her world, we are obliged to alter the settings of our moral compass to align with the faulty one that guides Fleabag. Indeed, our protagonist is blatantly and unapologetically narcissistic, and her insatiable need for male validation is the primary cause of the loss of her only ever true friendship. Yet against all odds, Fleabag becomes our hero.
The genius of Fleabag is partly in the casting. Firstly, let's address the elephant in the room: Andrew Scott playing the character most commonly known as ‘The Hot Priest’. Being both a priest and Fleabag’s main love interest, he is the embodiment of ‘wanting what you can’t have’. Is it problematic? Most likely. Blasphemous? Definitely. However, it seems Fleabag is certainly not alone in her penchant for the priest, as Pornhub said that immediately after the Season 2 premiere, searches for ‘religious’ increased by 162%. And, when you thought that Twitter couldn't get much more bizarre, there is a strange dimension kept solely for people who still haven't emotionally recovered from Scott’s portrayal of the character: “the hot priest from Fleabag can fix me”, “I still can't believe I fell in love with a priest”, “single because I’m still not over the Hot Priest from @Fleabag”. And I don't blame them; no one can watch Fleabag and not need a therapy session afterwards. But when therapy is too expensive, Twitter is the next best thing. And if you don't feel like you need therapy, well, then you're watching it wrong.
However, our Hot Priest is so much more than what his title might suggest. He is one of, if not the most conflicted of all the characters simply because he must choose: God, or Fleabag. It is this inner conflict which leads to his heart wrenching speech in the final episode:
“Love is awful. It’s awful. It’s painful. It's frightening. It makes you doubt yourself, judge yourself, distance yourself from the other people in your life. It makes you selfish. It makes you creepy, makes you obsessed with our hair, makes you cruel, makes you say and do things you never thought you would do. It's all any of us want, and it's hell when we get there. So no wonder it's something we don't want to do on our own”.
In this moment the Priest allows himself to be intensely vulnerable. He demonstrates that his role as a priest doesn't mean that he possesses the answers to everything, nor does it make him immune to temptation or to the very human pain that comes with loving. Through the tangled and complex relationship between Fleabag and the Priest, Phoebe gives us an honest representation of what love really looks like, without the rose-tinted glasses that are donned all too often by writers to make their content more palatable; Fleabag doesn't end happily ever after because that's not how life works.
Other examples of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s immaculate casting include the now-Oscar winning actor Olivia Colman, as Fleabag’s insufferable godmother, Waller-Bridge herself as our protagonist, and well, us; we play an integral role in the programme because we are Boo. By breaking the Fourth Wall, Fleabag replaces the friend she lost with us and so we hold a strange sense of responsibility. She looks to us to validate her behaviour, her thoughts and her witty jabs. By making us complicit in her chaotic life we come to understand the characters, rather than judge them for all of their many flaws.
Fleabag is a show to remember. It is both hilarious and heart-wrenching, witty and unfiltered and at its core, incredibly powerful. And the brilliant thing about it, is that if you ever feel like you're failing at life, slap on an episode of Fleabag, and enjoy watching someone who is failing so much harder.
Words: Meg Hughes