Asides can sometimes feel a bit cheesy in comedy, but in 'Fleabag' they're an insight into absurd tragedy
- This article contains spoilers for both series of ‘Fleabag’
“I was in an airplane the other day, and I realised – I’ve been longing to say this out loud – women are born with pain built in,” announces Fleabag’s formidable business powerhouse Belinda, swirling a cocktail glass and frowning disdainfully at a golden bust on the bar; her new award for Best Woman in Business. “It’s our physical destiny,” she tells a silent Fleabag. “Period pain, sore boobs, childbirth, you know. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives.
Delivered flawlessly by actor Kristen Scott Thomas, Belinda’s abrupt monologue is one of the most astonishing pieces of writing to come out of comedy in recent years. As recognition begins to register on Fleabag’s face (perfectly pitched by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) the pair bond over the painful weight of womanhood; Fleabag is so taken by the speech that she spontaneously kisses Berlinda.
More than ever, perhaps, being a woman feels particularly exhausting. Every day, it seems, another dirtbag is exposed for attempting to take ownership over other people’s bodies through manipulation and abuse; scores of men continue to occupy the highest positions of power in the world – from the US presidency to supreme court – despite their heinous treatment of women. As much as the #MeToo movement has prompted a wave of vocal women speaking out, the backlash – and the refusal to believe us – is poisonous. The ongoing news coverage – many of these stories hitting hard and close to home – is painful to weather.
“We have it all going on in here, inside. We have pain on a cycle for years and years and years, and then, just as you feel you’re making peace with it all, what happens?” Belinda later asks Fleabag, rhetorically, before heading an unexpected direction. “The menopause comes. ‘The fucking menopause comes and it is the most wonderful fucking thing in the world. And yes, your entire pelvic floor crumbles and you get fucking hot and no-one cares – but then…. you’re free. You’re no longer a slave, no longer a machine with parts,” she declares. “You’re just a person, in business.”
Fleabag knows what it is like to carry pain, and uses dark humour and wanking – a hell of a lot of wanking, mainly to videos of Barack Obama – to mask what she carries with her. Left with the ludicrous task of running a guinea pig-themed cafe that she started together with her dead best friend, mourning for her dead mother, squabbling with her IRL evil stepmother, and horny for a priest who has supposedly taken a vow of celibacy, Fleabag’s life is a series of increasingly absurd tragedies; they mount up so high that all you can do is laugh at them.
Continual loss has given Fleabag her pessimistic streak too, and sometimes, she can be very mean. Often her snarky detachment comes off as smug superiority. She’s also blunt and emotionless in a way that can make viewers wriggle in their seats; the first ever episode of Fleabag opens with a deadpan monologue, delivered as she’s having sex with a man the show affectionally credits as Arsehole Guy.
“He’s edging towards your arsehole, but you’re drunk, and he made the effort to come all the way here, so you let him,” she tells the camera in one bleak line that says so much, before breaking the tension as she sips tea in her empty cafe the following day. “You spend the rest of the day wondering… do I have a massive arsehole?!”
Asides in comedy can sometimes feel a bit cheesy and slapstick; they make me think of Miranda burping and smirking at the camera, or a laboured flourish to hammer a joke home. In Fleabag, they serve another, more interesting purpose.
Consistently Fleabag reveals most of herself when she talks directly to the audience, and the scathing remarks she often blurts out involuntarily are often followed up with quick asides to camera. Through these extra footnotes – and the occasional soliloquy – she shows herself to be an altogether more complex character than the brash, heartless persona everyone else sees.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s gift for monologues should come as no surprise; this show originally begun as a one-woman play at Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was just Fleabag, and a listening audience unsure whether to laugh or gasp. In a sense, that’s still true, and many of the most cuttingly brilliant moments from Waller-Bridge’s original monologue reappear in the TV version. “Mum died two years ago. She had a double mastectomy and never really recovered. It was particularly hard because she had amazing boobs,” says Maddie Rice, who played Fleabag in the original stage play. The line appears again in the TV show, this time delivered by Phoebe Waller-Bridge as she sits on a bench in front of her mother’s grave.
“The character has been through a lot of grief and loss,” is how Rice put it. “She’s completely covered it up. The play is a comedy with a horrible punch at the end”
Through her moment of connection with Belinda and moments where the Priest notices Fleabag going somewhere else – “where did you just go?” he asks her – the show’s monologues, and their purpose, gradually shift in season two. In the most recent episode of Fleabag, she speaks openly, for the first time, to another character who can hear her. Sipping whiskey and speaking to Priest in the church confession booth, Fleabag jokes about her past sodomy and masturbation, before her guard suddenly drops.
“I want someone to tell me what to wear in the morning,” she says. “I want someone to tell me what to wear every morning. I want someone to tell me what to eat. What to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what band to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what not to joke about. I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, who to love and how to tell them.”
It’s the moment where Fleabag’s most vulnerable. Casting aside the safety net of her secret asides, she admits that she’s lost. Being confronted with death can serve as an unwanted reminder that life is fleeting and short; the weight of wanting make the most of every second going forward feels overwhelming. Perhaps that’s what Fleabag is getting at when she says that“so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong”. And you can’t help but think back to Belinda’s monologue the previous episode about the pain of being a woman and living up to other people’s expectations when Fleabag pleads for somebody to give her the secret code to crack the game.
It’s not quite clear if Priest replies asking her to call him “just Neil” instead of Father, or if he’s asking her to kneel before him; either way this monologue also ends with a kiss.
Fleabag continually excels at establishing a dramatic tension between laughter and despair, kindness and cruelty. In this scene, it’s a wrestle between erotic submission, and the nagging feeling that Priest is exploiting his power over her. If there’s one talent that places Phoebe Waller-Bridge in another league of comedy, it’s the way she effortlessly shows us that a moment – or a person – can be both of these things at once.