“I want to fuck a priest,” the title character of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s seriocomic gem Fleabag confesses early in the second season. For most shows, this would be utterly scandalous. For Fleabag — the ribald, scathingly funny, achingly heartfelt story of a grief-stricken young woman battling her most self-destructive impulses — it feels exactly right.
Fleabag’s reluctant flirtation with a handsome clergyman (Sherlock’s Andrew Scott) is meant not to shock but to illustrate the depths of her loneliness, while also having fun with how mortifying she finds this attraction. Between the death of her best friend Boo (Jenny Rainsford, who continues to appear in flashbacks), her estrangement from older sister Claire (Sian Clifford) and her recently-widowed father (Bill Paterson) getting engaged to her rampant narcissist of a godmother (Olivia Colman, spectacularly awful once again), Fleabag is entirely, painfully on her own.
She frequently breaks the fourth wall to talk to us — or, even better, simply to flash us a conspiratorial look with those saucer-sized eyes of hers. When the series (inspired by Waller-Bridge’s play) began, those direct addresses to the audience just seemed like another way to add humor, and to exploit the very expressive face of its creator and star. But when a therapist (Fiona Shaw) asks Fleabag if she has any friends to talk to, she winks at the camera, because we are her only friends. (Even on those blessed but rare occasions when she and Claire are getting along, Claire is careful to draw a boundary around their relationship, insisting, “We’re not friends. We are sisters. Get your own friends!”) It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so damn sad — or possibly vice versa.
So her crush on the priest — a relative newcomer to the cloth, and a friendless wonder himself — plays not as blasphemy, but as her unwittingly falling for a kindred spirit. The new episodes have a lot of fun with the idea that both of them speak to invisible figures: the audience for her, God for him. But like almost everything else Fleabag does in a way that seems effortless, the joke portends something much deeper about the comfort each gains from connecting to someone who sees and knows everything about them, even if no one else can tell that their omniscient friends exist.
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“This is a love story,” she tells us in the season’s opening moments, and it is — just not in the way she might expect or want. And it’s beautiful.
The Season Two premiere picks up, as a helpful chyron tells us, “371 days, 19 hours and 26 minutes later” from where Season One left off. It’s been nearly three times as long since the original batch of episodes ran on Amazon. Waller-Bridge’s star has risen significantly in the interim, with her work running Killing Eve last year getting her a spot on the creative team for the next James Bond film. The first season functioned as a perfectly self-contained story of Fleabag learning to cope with the loss of Boo (and her role in her friend’s death) and of her mother. It didn’t need another season, and word of this new batch had me fearing it was just a network trying to cash in on Waller-Bridge’s newfound celebrity. But the first episode instantly crushes those fears into dust.
It’s a marvelous farce, set entirely at an awkward family dinner with Fleabag, Claire, their dad, the wicked stepmom, the priest and Claire’s noxious American husband Martin (Brett Gelman), who made a pass at his sister-in-law last time around. The tension throughout is so thick, a steak knife wouldn’t get through it. Waller-Bridge’s script, Harry Bradbeer’s direction and the editing by Gary Dollner all work together with lightning precision, with scenes frequently cutting off early because we can see how badly this is going and would, like Fleabag, rather be off smoking behind the restaurant.
Among Fleabag’s great joys is its ability to be gut-bustingly funny while exploring its main character’s very real and obvious suffering. That gift is on ample display from the season’s first minute to its last — an even more clear farewell from the character than the one we got last time. Each moment has the potential to veer from slapstick to tragedy, or vice versa. This often happens, in marvelously graceful fashion. Waller-Bridge is even better than before at using the direct address in the most efficient (and often hilarious) way possible. Despite the long absence, the characters are all so finely-etched, and played so well by the whole ensemble, that it takes no time at all to remember why nobody gets along, despite mostly good intentions. And because we’ve now spent so much time in her company, Fleabag’s failures and her triumphs resonate even more deeply than before, in a way that lets the season surpass the first on many levels.
At one point, Fleabag has drinks with a powerful businesswoman (Kristin Scott Thomas, delightful), who takes a shine to our scattered protagonist. “Women,” she suggests, “are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny. Period pain, sore boobs, childbirth. You know? We carry it within ourselves, throughout our lives. Men don’t. They have to seek it out.” It’s a wickedly smart bit of writing, the kind that Waller-Bridge sprinkles casually throughout this series. Her keen understanding of how women have to navigate this world — and the ways they can struggle to navigate one another, despite their best efforts — do wonders in elevating what could be a stock tale of a self-destructive antihero. (Ditto for how the little touches in the margins made all the difference for Killing Eve Season One.) Other shows have been like this, but mostly about men. And even the ones about women rarely get to be as light on their feet and empathetic as Fleabag is in almost every moment.
Fleabag Season Two isn’t a necessary sequel. But thank God (or whomever the priest is talking with) we get to enjoy it in all its splendor.
Fleabag Season Two premieres May 17th on Amazon Prime Video. I’ve seen all six episodes.