Here’s to ‘Fleabag’ – a searing examination of grief and love, and the comedy show of this decade

WARNING: this piece contains spoilers for all episodes of 'Fleabag'

Few shows in recent memory – particularly comedy shows – have prompted the level of discussion that followed each episode of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. Based on her stage monologue of the same name, which debuted at Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013, the show follows the adrift character of Fleabag as she attempts to steal, manipulate and cheat her way through life. Mourning the death of her best friend and the loss of her mother, Waller-Bridge’s lead is a grief-addled mess who drowns her feelings in tequila and wanking seshes.

When the show started out, Fleabag was the human equivalent of a runaway train, wreaking gleeful chaos wherever she went. Into season two, we see her dropping her guard a little, and piecing together her life again. As time goes on, Fleabag leans towards the camera less and less, depending more on herself than having spectators – the final shot of the entire series shows Fleabag walking away and waving goodbye to you, her audience.

Wrapping up after just two seasons, Fleabag ended at exactly the right time; going out in perfectly knotted up blaze of glory. It’ll be remembered as one of the best comedy shows of this decade, and here’s why…

It’s a devastatingly accurate depiction of grief

One thing people will never tell you about losing a parent – in amongst the whirlwind of sadness, anger and confusion, you’ll frequently find yourself cornered into surreal and ludicrous situations that are strangely… hilarious? As Fleabag’s tight-knit family falls apart in front of her eyes – Olivia Colman wrenching the Fairytale trope of the evil stepmother straight into the real world – many of the moments that you expect to be solemn and reverential turn into laughable farce. The annual memorial dinner held for Fleabag and Claire’s mum on the anniversary of her death (episode five, season one) skewers this perfectly; it’s a seat-wrigglingly tense moment.

“I hope you don’t mind my being here, but my pilates fell through,” simpers Step-Mother with hammed up sincerity, relishing the chance to hijack their grief. “A sad day,” she adds theatrically, with an obligatory arm-stroke for both Claire and Fleabag. “A sad, sad day. I’ll get the champagne!” The two sisters – who spend so much of the show bickering elsewhere  – share a rare confiding look. “Let’s just get out this alive, ok” deadpans Claire.

The sisters are forced together again into something resembling a united front the next season. “I just woke up looking amazing, and now everyone’s going to think I got a fucking facial for my mother’s funeral!” yells Fleabag as disaster strikes during a flashback.

“No matter what I do with my hair, it just keeps falling in this really chic way!” It’s a bleakly comic moment; Fleabag is supposed to be saying goodbye to her mum, not scrubbing at her face so that everything thinks she’s been hopelessly sobbing all morning. In true to life form when it comes to other people trying to navigate the minefield of death, everybody manages to say precisely the wrong thing. “Grief clearly agrees with you,” leers a pervy family friend at the church doors. “Thank you, Jeremy” the sisters mutter.

The tragic death of Boo is handled with equal doses of absurdity; as Fleabag mourns for her best mate – whose death she feels responsible for – she’s also tasked with the running of a guinea pig themed cafe as a strange kind of repentance. Over the course of the show, her cafe – which runs an irritatingly popular event called Chatty Wednesday – also becomes the destination for pivotal chats, second chances and wiping the slate clean. It’s where she’s given another attempt at her disastrous interview with the bank manager (played by Hugh Dennis) and where season two’s sexy Priest spots Fleabag secretly conversing with the audience through the fourth wall. “I think you’ve played with my guinea pig long enough,” she tells him tersely.

“This is a love story”

Or at least that’s what Fleabag tells us in the opening moments of season two as she mops up her bloodied nose. Understandably a lot of people predicted that she was talking about love in the romantic sense; these lusty narratives, after all, fuel most traditional storytelling. And though Fleabag quickly finds herself immeasurably horny for a Catholic priest – spot the massive red flag! – their own love story doesn’t end up unfolding how you’d expect.

There’s obviously a real connection between them – in omnipotent and slightly unsettling fashion, Priest is the only character who can see Fleabag whispering asides to camera, and he understands her like nobody else in the show. This comes to head in the confession scene of season two, when Fleabag opens up for the first time, and he orders her to “kneel”. It’s a moment that left me hot under the collar and very unsure of it all at the same time; steeped in messy power dynamics and with God peering over Priest’s shoulder, it’s as complicated as their relationship. In their own different ways, they’re both characters who give into their various vices and end up surrounded by the messy fallout; whether they’re chugging tins of gin & tonic in the church or acting on sexual desire without considering the consequences, abstinence isn’t something that comes naturally to either of them. In the show’s final scene – a conversation at the bus stop – they decide they love each other, but can never be together. Priest chooses God. “It’ll pass” he tells Fleabag with brutal tenderness.

Fleabag’s sister Claire is also ordered to “kneel” by her greasy-haired husband Martin; a foul and selfish man who feels entitled to love without earning it. “I am not going to leave you until you are down on your knees, begging me,” he tells Claire in his final pathetic effort to win her back. Like Fleabag, Claire kneels to ask for what she really wants, spurred on by Priest’s wedding speech moments earlier.

“I was taught if we’re born with love then life is about choosing the right place to put it,” he told the guests. “…it takes strength to know what’s right. And love isn’t something that weak people do. Being a romantic takes a hell of a lot of hope. I think what they mean is, when you find somebody that you love, it feels like hope.”

It’s a family affair

As she notices Claire crying during the speech earlier on, Fleabag leans over and tells her to leave immediately so that she can intercept the man she’s in love with – in Waller-Bridge’s surrealist style he’s also called Klare – at the airport. Poking fun at the laughable rom-com scenes where lovers end up falling into each other’s arms at the departures gate, Claire notes that she doesn’t even know what terminal his flight leaves from, and besides, she’d have to waste money on a dummy ticket to get through security. And as she tells Fleabag, “the only person I’d run through an airport for is you.”

It’s a touching revelation from Claire, who once told Fleabag “we’re not friends, we are sisters.” Uptight, snappy and riddled with insecurities, Claire – played to comedic perfection by Sian Clifford – doesn’t exactly have an inbuilt knack for expressing her emotions. Her moments of crisis usually come with elaborate codes: a compliment through gritted teeth is the first warning sign of a meltdown, and a radical new hairstyle signifies that she’s having an existential crisis (either that, or she’s about to come on her period).

As is often the case with siblings, Fleabag is tuned into this complicated unspoken rulebook, and can read Claire – to Claire’s dismay – like a book. By the end of the show, they realise that they’re both in this together.

So sure, maybe Fleabag is a love story after all –  but it’s one about following what you believe in. Priest ultimately chooses his faith, Claire chooses the love she deserves, and Fleabag finally stops believing that she’s impossible to love. Everyone decides to keep quiet and support their Dad doing what he believes will bring him happiness, even if his wife-to-be is absolutely insufferable and probably a psychopath. And through it all, Fleabag ends up falling back in love with her fragmented, dysfunctional family.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s writing is razor sharp

With an ability for cramming layers and layers into episodes that barely pass the twenty-minute mark, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s writing is like the puff-pastry canapés Fleabag hands around at Claire’s doomed work event; run through the plot alone, and it barely scratches the surface.

Just think of Belinda’s monologue in the astounding third episode of season two. “Women are born with pain built in,” she says. “It’s our physical destiny. Period pain, sore boobs, childbirth, you know. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives.” The speech that ensues dismantles tokenism in the workplace, attitudes towards women’s sexuality as we grow older, male privilege, and the rarely spoken about relief of the menopause. It’s a masterclass in cramming so much into such a small space – when Belinda declares “you are a tonic!” she may as well be addressing Phoebe Waller-Bridge. “Most people are…. shit” Fleabag says at the bar. “Look at me, listen,” Belinda replies. “People are all we’ve got. People are all we’ve got.” It’s the line that seems to set Fleabag on a new path; from this point onwards she seems to accept her own flaws, and those of the people around her.

The final episode, meanwhile, is a feast of minuscule details. When Stepmother attempts to garner woke brownie points by inviting a series of hilariously specific friends to her wedding – the bisexual syrian refugee, a lesbian, and a deaf guest called Daniel – Daniel signs ‘what am I doing here?!’ in a hopeless plea for help. And when Stepmother tries to introduce her fiance, she realises that, like the viewers at home, she doesn’t know his name. “I always call you darling!” she says.

When it comes to underrated pieces of scripting that steal the show, first prize has to go to Martin’s creepy son Jake, who has an unhealthy obsession with Claire’s whereabouts. At the ceremony, he performs what we’re told is an original song for bassoon; in reality he plays a painfully inappropriate rendition of ‘Where Is Love’ from the hit musical Oliver! “Written specially for today,” frowns Priest, “I believe it’s called ‘Where’s Claire’. Genius. Silly, ridiculous, brilliant genius.

Scrape back another layer, and everything is here for a reason. In the final moments of the show, Priest and Fleabag wait together at the bus stop for the 176, which goes to the non-existent Dollner Avenue. Their destination is named after the show’s editor Gary Dollner (Waller-Bridge snuck in the frame without him realising)

From the naked statue that Fleabag can’t stop thieving (we later learn it’s based on her late mother) to Priest’s dubious claim that he’s followed everywhere by foxes being proven true, every single detail slots together in the show’s final episode. We’ll miss you, Fleabag, but it’s hard to picture a more perfect ending.