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8 April 2019

The final episodes of Fleabag prove it is more than just a comedy

By Rachel Cooke

If Fleabag began its life as a scabrous comedy, it ended it by being barely funny at all. Devouring the second (and final) series like so much liquorice, I was often close to tears: even as it cheered me – being in possession of more than one stepmother myself, I am blessed with an unstinting appetite for droll portrayals of reconstituted families – it made me feel melancholy in ways I could barely explain.

And then, finally, I blew: a total, snotty collapse into weeping, performed in private, but pretty dramatic nevertheless. This was during an episode in which our heroine delivered a speech that felt so unerringly true, she might as well have taken a knife and cut out my heart. If I’d heard this monologue in some modish new play, I would have been impressed. But to listen to it like this, thrown out almost casually, in a so-called sitcom that began its life on crummy old BBC 3? My God. And people say the licence fee is no longer value for money.

The scene in question (which occurs in episode four, if you want to go back) takes place in a confession box. Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is talking to the hot Priest (Andrew Scott) whose face she cannot see, but whose laugh, which sounds like marbles rolling in a china basin, is still there to comfort her.

Under his questioning, she admits to a few sins: theft, fornication, a little light sodomy. After this, she hesitates. “I’m ashamed of not knowing,” she says. Then she corrects herself: “No, I know what I want. I know exactly what I want. I want someone to tell me what to wear in the morning… 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, and who to love and how to tell them. I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life because, so far, I think I’ve been getting it wrong. I’m still scared. Why am I still scared?” Fighting tears, she asks him: what should she do? Would he please tell her what to fucking do?

The old bat in me – I’m 15 years ahead of Fleabag in this wondrous, vexing rat race – disapproves of this kind of stuff. I expect women, now, here, in the sodding 21st century, to know what they want, and to act on it. But the fact is that life is so bloody hard, and we are, all of us, assailed by so many doubts and missteps and so-called choices; we must fire our decisions like arrows, and only hope that we hit our target. Though you need to watch Waller-Bridge chuck it out to experience its full force, this speech covers the strange and sometimes paralysing vertigo that is born of freedom like a bell jar. Younger women will recognise it. Older women will know that even as we grow ever more fearless, we are still afraid. What should we do? Sometimes, I’m damned if I know.

A friend of mine says no Catholic priest in the world would behave as Scott’s character does (taking Fleabag to bed is really only the half of it). But he’s not so much a man as a metaphor, an extreme version of all the unattainable blokes she has ever adored: those ratbags (and even non-ratbags) who loved someone, or something, far more than her. He’s a symbol of the impossibility of having everything that you want. She craves his embrace, even as she knows that to long for such a thing is utterly futile. This is the way with life, with men, and with religion. As someone much cleverer than me once wrote: I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.

Yes, full plaudits to Olivia Colman’s ego-maniacal stepmother and Sian Clifford’s tight-ass older sister. They’re very funny. In the end, though, I think Waller-Bridge has delivered something much more profound than an extended skit on family life and one slightly goofy woman’s place in it. She is a philosopher at heart, albeit one for whom masturbation jokes come as easily as making tea.

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This article appears in the 10 Apr 2019 issue of the New Statesman, System failure