In praise of Fleabag and the unapologetically flawed female antihero
Fleabag — a show named for its seamy protagonist — is a tremendous, oddly nourishing show about a liar and thief. It's the story of a café owner with no business sense; of a woman who reads people too well and takes advantage of them. It's the story of a pair of sisters — one sex-addicted, one repressed, both unhappy. It's the story of an unwanted guinea pig, of the aftermath of a friendship, of the forms of loss you keep returning to and the holes you try to fill (sometimes literally). The further you watch, the more Fleabag becomes about, and it accomplishes all this in six half-hour episodes, all of which are coming to Amazon on September 16.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge is repulsively winsome as Fleabag, our angular, scheming, perpetually smiling confidante (whose real name we never actually learn). Tall, attractive, and somehow desperate, Flea's physicality — her very way of walking — make her seem indestructible. (It's an effect that goes way beyond gender, although a drunken woman she helps calls her a "lovely man"). That athleticism serves the show well. When her father asks her, "Are you healthy?" it's hard to imagine a better index of the distance between father and daughter: Waller-Bridge is robustness itself.
That isn't really the issue, of course: Fleabag's winning grin is betrayed by frequent flashbacks to scenes with her deceased friend Boo (Jenny Rainsford). Boo's penchant for warm accidental insults in those flashbacks — "I'm always saying the wrong thing!" she cries — creates a surprisingly muscular emotional backdrop for Fleabag's present problems: She's near-broke, lonely in ways we don't fully grasp, and her gift for predicting people's behavior is a double-edged sword. Sometimes it turns her into a lean, amoral Matilda with no impulse control.
The show experiments with perspectives in ways that index its intimacy with Fleabag. While meditating at an amusingly upscale retreat, for instance, Fleabag thinks of Boo. "Let go of your past," says the guru. "Bit on the nose," Fleabag says, interrupting her memory of her friend to look directly into the camera and crumple her nose. And the program's philosophy on enlightenment echoes her worst impulses: "It is about leaving your voice in your head and trapping your thoughts in your skull," the leader says. "Think of it as a thought prison in your mind."
That Fleabag is something of an emotional escape artist comes as no surprise (she hates thought prisons almost as much as earnest sex). So the show traps her in ingenious ways. The plot pinballs from one confrontation to another, but it never constructs them predictably: Olivia Colman isn't the obvious casting choice for a passive-aggressive stepmother, for instance, but her scenes with Waller-Bridge crackle with static hostility. Or take the meditation retreat: The visitors aren't allowed to speak, so the humor derives from other things — a woman leaping in the background in one scene, a blackboard that reads "I'VE BEEN STUNG BY A WASP" in the next.
But the best experiment, in my opinion, takes place in the London underground. Fleabag is on the train watching her fellow passengers reading, doing crosswords, staring into space. You hear a beat in the background, and suddenly, on the downbeat, everyone on the train contorts their face into an agonized scream. There's no sound; the collective scream is silent. Within less than a second, everyone's resumed their initial positions and behaves as if nothing has happened. This repeats a few times. It's surreal and worrying and visceral. But this isn't an homage to expressionist cinema, nor is it a comment on the horror of existence. Our hero, Fleabag, looks at the camera — she does this often — and says, "I think my period's coming."
Fleabag will be hailed, maybe rightly, as another entry into the pantheon of female antiheroes — women granted the space to be morally as well as physically flawed on camera without sacrificing their protagonism. It's a valuable addition on those grounds alone. Still, what Waller-Bridge has created feels complete unto itself and less explicitly competitive than, say, Jessica Jones. Fleabag dives into its own artistic objectives without reference to our ongoing antihero conversation and that feels — I'll be frank — like an extraordinary luxury.
That Waller-Bridge is able to do that is a function of how far ahead the British are when it comes to showcasing thoroughly imperfect female characters: Fleabag joins an archive of happily transgressive female-centric television that includes Sharon Horgan's show Pulling (co-written with Dennis Kelly), Julia Davis' Nighty Night, Annie Griffin's The Book Group, and even Victoria Pile's Green Wing. It's a category we're only now starting to accept in America (thanks to shows like Lena Dunham's Girls, Tig Notaro's One Mississippi, Jill Soloway's Transparent and I Love Dick, and Pamela Adlon's Better Things).
Another way to put that? Fleabag is finally less antihero than schlemiel, and that's what makes the Waller-Bridge's show great. Once you allow flawed women a lot of space onscreen (and get viewers used to it), they can shrug off the sometimes irksome burden of antiheroism.