Few writers could pull off turning such a deeply upsetting turn of events into a ridiculous dark comedy; the return of 'Fleabag' marks Phoebe Waller-Bridge out as one of the most talented faces in British comedy
Contains spoilers for ‘Fleabag’ Season One, and Season Two episode one
Opening a show with an arty shot of a mirror and bathroom sink – soundtracked by an old-timey crooner warbling away in the background – must be a good omen for new seasons of TV comedy. It’s one that worked exceptionally for the Natasha Lyonne-starring Russian Doll, and in the second season of Fleabag, it’s where we meet Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s protagonist in an unusually reflective state.
To be precise, we meet Fleabag exactly 371 days, 19 hours and 26 minutes after we last saw her at the end of season 1, helping herself to some pricey bathroom lotion (my bet’s on Cowshed or Aesop or something equally poncy) and calmly washing her hands. All seems serenely normal, until a quick cut to the mirror reveals Fleabag with blood pouring down her face.
Smirking through the crimson and mopping her face clean to a soundtrack of Frank Sinatra’s ‘Strangers in the Night’, an unfamiliar man’s voice speaks to Fleabag through the door. Inexplicably, an eager woman is kneeling nearby on the floor, with an identical bloodied nose. “This is a love story,” Fleabag cheerfully tells the camera. And then, Waller-Bridge hits the scriptwriter rewind button. Welcome to the most awkward dinner party of all time.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge – who also wrote the acclaimed Killing Eve – has a flare for the excruciatingly tense. She’s particularly adept at feeding off grief and gravely sad moments – and turning them into a bleakly comic farce. It’s an ugly, caustic kind of comedy, like dissolving into fits of giggles during a funeral. Just think back to the seat-shuffling agony of that solemn memorial lunch held for Fleabag’s dead mum last season; each time that Fleabag, her sister and dad stumbled upon a rare moment of tender reflection, it was swiftly and expertly ruined by the show’s very own patronising Lairy Godmother (played by recent Oscar-winner and certified snack Olivia Colman) quick to interject with a poorly timed tray of champagne, faked sympathy, or a passive aggressive comment about her new partner’s deceased wife.
Centring all action around a single restaurant table, Phoebe Waller-Bridge takes this awkwardness to the extreme in season two. After joking about her own father’s death in a recap montage – which includes an imagined image of Claire and Fleabag standing by a grave, “just joking, he’s over there,” Fleabag adds with a dark smile to camera – it’s off to dinner. Joined by a rakishly handsome Irish priest with a penchant for tequila and cigarettes, and a suffocatingly over-helpful waitress who won’t stop flapping behind them, the entire family, along with Claire’s insufferably creepy husband Martin, have gathered to celebrate Godmother’s impending marriage to Fleabag’s dad; in Dad’s own words it’s “a very special family gangbang”.
At said, er, gangbang, Colman’s stepmother is brilliantly grotesque; banging on about her distinctly average art show Sexhibition, waving her mink fur clutch bag around (“it’s ok because it had a stroke,” she insists mournfully) and referring to a recent trip to Japan as “just a little fortnight”. She pongs of privilege like a Jo Malone candle. The show’s new sweary priest, meanwhile, adds an extra dimension; acting as Fleabag’s own bemused viewer outside the bubble, he asks the searching questions on viewers’ behalf. Played by Andrew Scott, he’s the only character who sees through the bullshit and thinks to ask Claire and Martin why they’ve actually given up alcohol. Outside, when Fleabag rudely ignores him, he responds with a curt, “Well, fuck you then”.
This same smoking area plays host to numerous other fumbled conversations. Out of the blue, Fleabag and her dad have a genuinely touching interaction after he hands his daughter a birthday present to open later on. When he dares to press her further on how she’s coping with the dual loss of her mother and best friend Fleabag resists. “It doesn’t matter” she says defiantly, taking a puff of her cigarette. Expecting a spa voucher, or some spending money, Fleabag later rips open her present in the restaurant. It’s a voucher… for therapy. “Maybe happiness isn’t what you believe, but who you believe,” Fleabag spits at her know-it-all sister; referring back to Martin’s attempt to kiss her last season, and Claire’s refusal to believe it.
From this point onwards, dinner descends into disaster; Claire disappears to the toilet, and doesn’t return. Marching into the bathroom, yelling about poo and periods, Fleabag goes in all guns blazing; tragically it’s suddenly revealed – with one deft, dark twist in dialogue – that Claire has just lost her child. “Get your hands off my miscarriage!” she yells. “It’s mine. It’s mine”.
By switching their roles around after they leave the bathroom – Fleabag pretends that she has miscarried in order to force her sister to hospital – events develop by way of a reversed dialogue. As Godmother frets about who got Fleabag pregnant in the first place (“was it the tooth man?” she chirps up) Claire holds back her tears by downing wine, and Martin finally reveals himself as a truly abhorrent and uncaring man in front of Claire. “It’s probably for the best” he slurs.
He’s promptly lamped in the face in return, and following a ridiculous scuffle which sees multiple people elbowed in the face, we’re taken cyclically back to the serene opening scene of Fleabag mopping up her bloody nose in the bathroom. Leaving the restaurant, she takes a business card from the sexy priest, and scrubbing the slate clean, Claire and Fleabag start up their friendship again from fresh. Finally, they’re on the same page.
Few comedy writers could pull off turning such an deeply upsetting event into a ridiculous farce. Throwing around such weighty subjects – miscarriage, dead parents, mourning – can so easily come off as utilising extreme shock value for cheap impact. That’d certainly be true if a show like Fleabag was written with a less sensitive handling, but Phoebe Waller-Bridge juggles sorrow expertly alongside slapstick hilarity. It’s a mean feat, and it marks her out as one of the most talented pen-wielders and actors in British comedy right now.
Fleabag continues next Monday, airing at 10.00am on BBC Three, and at 10.35pm on BBC 1