Fleabag: Vulgar, Depressing, and Brilliant

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag Season 2 (Steve Schofield)
The TV comedy is surprisingly deep.

‘In an age where women enjoy the same money and successes as men, why shouldn’t women be able to enjoy sex like a man?” asks Carrie Bradshaw in the first-ever episode of Sex and the City, broadcast in 1998. Over twenty years later, another massively popular TV series, Fleabag, seems to have an answer: Because while men want sex, women want more to be wanted. That, and the world of casual sex is bleak — or hadn’t you noticed?

Last week, as if in “the most beautiful dream,” Fleabag’s creator and star, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, walked into a room she “never imagined” she would be in. The occasion was the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where the 34-year-old collected yet another award for what began as a one-woman show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Fleabag was picked up by a joint BBC and Amazon production. Season 1 aired in 2016 and was an instant hit. Season 2 came to laptop and TV screens last year and did not disappoint.

Fleabag tells the story of a thirty-something café owner living in central London whose mother and best friend have both recently died and who uses sex, in her own words, to “deflect from the screaming void inside my empty heart.” Her name (also the name of the show) is never explained, though it’s easy enough to suppose that it reflects her self-worth. Charming though she supposedly is, Fleabag is a tragically selfish character. Her sexual compulsiveness leads her to sleep with, or at least to imagine sleeping with, most men and women (and, in one scene, a dog) she encounters. Much to the distress of her irritatingly sweet boyfriend, she is utterly bored by his gentle attempts to “make love.” Instead, she masturbates to a political speech by Obama (I mean, really. . .) and watches fetish porn.

While the writing is often vulgar, depressing, and profane, it is also brilliant. Brilliantly funny, precise, and unnerving in its exploration of the inadequacies of feminism in responding to our culture’s prevailing sexual nihilism. Why shouldn’t a woman enjoy sex like a man? one asks, hand on hip. Well, first, because she isn’t a man. But at any rate, the question is the wrong way round: Why should she try to?

Whether it’s with “A**hole Guy,” “Handsome Man,” or “Hot Misogynist” (very few characters in Fleabag are given proper names); whether he is old or young, attractive or repulsive, single or married — in the end, it’s all one inexhaustible cosmic “drama.” In volume one of The History of Sexuality, the French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that anything “fundamental, useful or dangerous, precious or formidable” about sex is socially constructed. Modern feminism makes similar claims, only in reference to the patriarchy. But although Fleabag claims to share these sentiments, she is entangled in self-contradiction, often bluntly challenging the assumptions of modern sexual politics by accident.

Throughout the series, Fleabag experiences unshakable deep-rooted shame. Her best friend, Boo, appears in touching flashbacks, as her only source — since removed — of grace. In one scene, Boo reassures Fleabag that “people make mistakes,” which is why they put erasers on “the ends of pencils.” But Boo is dead: killed by stepping out in front of traffic after her boyfriend slept with another woman — the other woman, we learn later, being Fleabag.

In another scene, Fleabag shows up at her father’s door in the middle of the night, with a confession: “I have a horrible feeling that I am a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.” Her father — who is a warm, if slightly pathetic, character — replies clumsily with a joke: “Well . . . um . . . you get all that from your mother.”

And it gets even more interesting in season 2. Still desperate for meaning, Fleabag decides to go after a different sort of father figure — an extremely unholy (and often theologically illiterate) Catholic priest, whom she successfully lusts after. Sitting in the confessional, she breaks down into tears in another soul-baring outburst:

I think I’ve been getting it wrong. I know that’s why people want people like you in their lives, because you just tell them how to do it. You just tell them what to do and what they’ll get out of the end of it. And even though I don’t believe your bulls***, and I know scientifically nothing I do makes any difference in the end anyway, I’m still scared. Why am I still scared?

Quite profound for a comedy . . .

A Nietzschean reading of Fleabag’s sexual compulsions would be that her behavior is essentially a pattern of eternal recurrence whereby every action that has happened must happen again (∞), and in the same manner (though of course, all Nietzschean readings ought to be considered untrue since, per Nietzsche, literally nothing is true, including all statements about truth).

Fleabag’s commentary on the promises of sexual liberation is much like a person who has stepped through an elevator door only to realize that the elevator does not exist, though the laws of gravity still do. For Fleabag’s promiscuity is not presented as a glamorous “choice” like the Sex and the City gals. Rather, it’s an inevitability, she believes — shame, misery, and destruction be damned. That might be depressing. But as the show demonstrates (thankfully with redeeming humor), it’s where a lot of us are at.