This essay is part of our series Episodes, a column in which senior contributor Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great. This entry revisits the fourth episode of Season 2 of the acclaimed comedy Fleabag.
When Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag protagonist wipes her bloodied nose in a restaurant bathroom, glances at her now-famous black jumpsuit in the mirror, and holds our gaze to promise “this is a love story,” it is a moment that hits like an earthquake. The opening sequence of Series 2 of the show is powerful, destabilizing, and over as abruptly as it begins. It isn’t until the second season’s fourth episode, though, that her meaning becomes painfully clear.
It opens with the titular character waiting for The Priest (Andrew Scott) as he tries on new vestments. As with much of Fleabag Series 2, it’s a moment that delightfully toes the line between wry humor and blasphemy. She describes his fashion choices as subtle and elegant before peeking shyly over her shoulder at us. Waller-Bridge is an expert at communicating to viewers through her nuanced fourth-wall-breaking looks. Often, her glances boil down to “I know I’m doing something bad,” but this is different. She really likes The Priest. And her smile shows that, for the first time since we’ve known her, she can’t hide her infatuation under a layer of snark.
The episode moves along quickly in what appears to be a date in all but name. The Priest has already established his boundaries. But he shows interest, too. He playfully interrogates her atheism as they walk down the street. He tells her it’s always better to believe in something wonderful than something awful. “Don’t make me an optimist,” she shoots back. “You will ruin my life.” The two continue on, first to a silent Quaker meeting that Fleabag describes as “very, very erotic,” then to the guinea pig cafe that she opened with her late best friend, Boo (Jenny Rainsford).
All the while, The Priest is attempting to break down our protagonist’s walls. And she, disarmed by his own charm and vulnerability, is showing a bit more of herself than usual. Their friendly tete-a-tete culminates in the cafe, where we learn — with an electric shock of surprise — that The Priest is aware of Fleabag’s fourth wall breaks. Intrusive memories of Boo, shown in quick flashes, have already thrown her off. (The show’s editor, Gary Dollner, is an underrated key piece of its success.) Now The Priest is asking her about her stepmother, and about Boo, and we can see Waller-Bridge’s character visibly withdraw as the conversation becomes more therapeutic than flirtatious. “He’s a bit annoying, actually,” she says to us, over her shoulder.
Then, another tectonic shift. “What is that?” He asks her, indicating her fourth wall break. “What?” she answers. “That thing you’re doing. It’s like you disappear.”
She looks at us again, and so does he, eyes wide, half-laughing in playful confusion. It’s clear, in this one moment, that he sees her in a way that no one else has in who-knows-how-long. It’s clear, also, that Fleabag is so much more than the show we thought it was. The audience isn’t some Ferris Bueller-like plot device for her to wink to. It’s another type of wall. A trauma response baked into the very fabric of the show. Exposed only when the protagonist is finally pushed to examine it.
“This is a love story.” Fleabag, from this moment forward, is about being seen. For someone as guarded and flippant and morally complicated as the lead character, to be truly seen is to be loved. Soon after this moment, she tells The Priest off, uncomfortable with the painful memories he has stirred up. It’s too late, though: they’re already here.
We see Fleabag at her mother’s funeral, Boo by her side. Her sister, Claire (Sian Clifford) is there too, and everyone is marveling at how Fleabag looks, inexplicably, gorgeous. This, too, highlights a major theme of the series: not only feeling like you’re doing the wrong thing but feeling like you are, somehow, wrong despite yourself. It’s funny that she’s inappropriately beautiful in a moment of great grief, but it’s also distressing. It’s yet another way she can’t seem to be as proper as her loved ones want her to be. Darkly comedic bits punctuate the funeral scene. There’s her ex Harry’s (Hugh Skinner) tiny shrunken pants, and her future stepmother’s (Olivia Colman) creepy hovering.
There’s so much going on here that it would be easy to miss a few key moments. But these flashbacks are the lynchpin holding together the entire show. After a strained heart-to-heart with her father (Bill Paterson), we briefly see our protagonist in the modern day. She sits in a pew at The Priest’s church, and it’s nighttime. Then, just as quickly, we’re back in the past. “I don’t know what to do with it,” she tells Boo, and she’s been crying now. “With all the love I have for her. I don’t know where to put it now.” Boo answers promptly, with a line that’s breathtakingly lovely: “I’ll take it.” Fleabag laughs, but Boo insists. The love has to go somewhere, so why not share it with a friend?
Love is, eventually and inevitably, tied up with grief and pain. This is why, two episodes later, The Priest’s wedding speech proclaims that “love is awful.” This is why our protagonist declares her story a love story. The implications of this scene are subtle, but they’re also stunningly clear for anyone who has ever been in Fleabag’s shoes. The show’s fourth wall isn’t a gimmick. It’s a coping mechanism. A way for Fleabag to bottle up all the love she feels and repackage it in the form of scoffs and smirks. Because it doesn’t feel safe for her to give to anyone else. Not to her mother, and certainly not to Boo, who died soon after this conversation.
Many of the best on-screen stories in recent years, from the earnest sitcom Ted Lasso and the sardonic anti-rom-com You’re The Worst to this year’s Nicolas Cage-led indie film Pig, are part of what I like to call Cinema of Vulnerability. It’s a thematic movement that acknowledges the ways in which we emotionally distance ourselves from one another in a world that’s supposed to be more connected than ever. Eventually, all of these works at least partially claw down the walls that their characters have built. Letting a bit of blinding light shine through. The audience, swept up in it all, does the hard work of self-examination, too. In the end, our hands are bloody, but our hearts are bare.
Fleabag is a crown jewel among these texts. It’s a comedy that’s so subtle in its approach that you wouldn’t be faulted for coming away from it without realizing what it’s done to your heart. This episode’s final scene is the perfect example of this effortless transformative power.
You might remember it as the “Kneel” scene. It’s an ever-shifting, dynamic, hungry encounter between Fleabag and The Priest. One that starts with the couple talking about Pooh Bear and ends with them frantically fumbling for each other. A seemingly divine message interrupts their passionate kiss: a painting, loudly falling off the church wall. This end scene is a lot of things: unbearably sexy, heart-poundingly exciting, perfectly shot and written and choreographed and scored. But in the context of Cinema of Vulnerability, one moment stands out. It’s one I return to again and again.
The Priest convinces Fleabag to speak to him as if they’re at Confession. She jokes at first but soon finds herself opening up, bolstered by a drink and the literal wall between them. In Waller-Bridge’s finest, most refined performance to date, she tells us, for the first and only time, what Fleabag really wants:
“I want someone to tell me what to wear in the morning. 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. I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong.”
As a series, Fleabag is remembered as being sexy and funny. But the protagonist’s moment in the Confessional is also one of the rawest monologues ever committed to the small screen. Grief is exhausting, and so is living through the pain with no easy answers. Our hero is laid bare. Stripped of all her quirks and crutches, she’s just as desperate and broken as each and every one of us. The scene is a revelation on all counts.
Don’t forget, though, this is still a love story. Despite what the oft-quoted book says, love is not simple. As Fleabag artfully shows, it’s tied up in pain and intimacy and shame and desire and power. This is a love story between a woman and her family, a woman and her best friend, and a woman and the man who sees her when she’s tried so hard not to be seen. The show’s end leaves us at once heartbroken and hopeful. By that point, it’s one of the greatest love stories of all time.
Fleabag Series 2 is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Related Topics: Episodes