The last time we saw the titular antiheroine of Fleabag, she was at rock bottom, or at least something close to it. In six episodes, Fleabag had alienated her father, her sister, and her boyfriend; in the process, she peeled back every layer of psychological bandage separating Fleabag from reckoning with her role in the suicide of her closest friend. The lone bit of solace Fleabag offered either its protagonist or its audience was a small scrap of consolation from Fleabag’s loan officer, himself a less-than-stellar human being: “People make mistakes.”
So complete was Fleabag’s unraveling, so thoroughly did Fleabag break down her emotional defenses, that wanting more seemingly made one a glutton for punishment. Besides, Fleabag was designed as a self-contained piece. Adapted from writer-creator-star Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s stage show of the same name, Fleabag accomplished its mission of introducing Waller-Bridge’s witty, macabre, tonally dextrous voice to the world. Having done so, Waller-Bridge was free to apply her talents elsewhere: to the more straightforward sitcom Crashing, premiering a few months before Fleabag’s filmed version but commissioned on the strength of the original; to the cat-and-mouse thrills of the spy drama Killing Eve; to voice acting in Star Wars and producing for HBO. Fleabag’s journey appeared to be complete, while her author’s was just beginning.
On Friday, Fleabag nonetheless joined Big Little Lies and The Night Manager in the ranks of limited series turned multipart sagas. As with its peers, popular demand surely played a factor in Fleabag’s return; television networks are not in the business of financing stories without an audience. But, miraculously, the second volume of the Amazon show satisfies a creative need, too—one that went unseen by those with less of a command of its characters than Waller-Bridge herself. Not only does the latest batch of Fleabag episodes build upon its predecessor; retroactively, the second installment elevates, even improves, the first. By the time Fleabag’s story has come to a close, what was once a downward trajectory now looks more like a parabola, each half the mirror image of the other. Given how insistent Waller-Bridge has been that this latest edition of Fleabag really is the end, it doesn’t feel right to call the release a “second season.” The show, in keeping with its newly acquired religious concerns, is a diptych.
Fleabag is not the first show to ask how a once-irredeemable person can be redeemed, nor even the first to answer that question successfully. In its quest to introduce idealism to a character once defined by their nihilism, Fleabag recalls peers as disparate as Barry and You’re the Worst, fellow stories that marry formal invention with rigorous internal logic. The impulse to let a character evolve can be at odds with the hard-won, intricately mapped-out knowledge of what makes that character tick. How do you pivot away from cynicism when one’s reasons for being a cynic are so firmly established? Should you even try?
What escalates Fleabag from triumph to near-magic trick is its ability to show this evolution without television’s typical trump card: time. Where other series use the space afforded by a multi-season run to show a gradual shift in temperament, Waller-Bridge uses humor, psychological insight, and the strength of her own performance to achieve the same effect in twelve efficient parts. By its end, and in its own bittersweet way, Fleabag has convincingly edged Fleabag away from the abyss.
Granted, at least some time as passed since the emotional carnage of Fleabag’s erstwhile conclusion: 371 days, 19 hours, and 26 minutes, per the title card that opens the sequel. What follows is a classic “dinner party from hell” scene, the sort of bottle episode one might expect from Waller-Bridge’s background in theater. Fleabag’s family has come together once again for the kind of pesky life event that forces a bunch of people who dislike each other into the same room: her father (Bill Paterson), who’s lost all ability to communicate with his daughters after their mother’s death four years previously; her godmother-turned-evil-stepmother (Olivia Colman, fresh off her Oscar), to whom he’s recently become engaged; her uptight sister Claire (Sian Clifford); and Martin (Brett Gelman), Claire’s boor of a husband. Last but not least, there’s a newcomer—a Catholic priest, played by Sherlock’s Andrew Scott.
Through the momentary fourth-wall breaks that mark her show’s aesthetic signature, Fleabag catches the audience up on what she’s been up to: exercising, eating right, even eschewing casual sex. But Fleabag doesn’t just tell us how she’s changed in her time away. Waller-Bridge embodies it, with a quiet and stillness that’s disarming from a character we’ve previously known to be compulsively hyperverbal, forever lashing out with an ill-timed barb or inappropriately sexual comment. Fleabag’s newfound restraint is a mark of maturity. It’s also a display of resignation, internalizing her self-loathing instead of taking it out on others; there’s no way to change her family’s opinion of her, so there’s no point in taking their bait. “You’re not being naughty,” her father observes. “Because I guess it doesn’t matter,” she replies. This is a person who’s better, though by no means better.
Fleabag has walled herself off. What it takes to break her open is an act of blasphemy so extreme it qualifies as divine intervention: She falls in love with a priest. Specifically, The Priest, who—like Fleabag or Colman’s Godmother—is known only by his title, never his proper name. Such designations suggest an allegory, and Fleabag does deal in weighty, universal themes like sin, forgiveness, love, and God. Yet Waller-Bridge and Scott share a volcanic chemistry that can only exist between two flesh-and-blood individuals. Their attraction is Fleabag’s sine qua non; for their unlikely romance to work, you need to believe Fleabag and the Priest have the kind of connection that would make them both question their most bedrock beliefs. His conflict is clear enough: “I can’t have sex with you because I’ll fall in love with you,” he says. “And if I fall in love with you, I won’t burst into flames, but my life will be fucked.” But so, in a way, is hers: “Don’t make me an optimist,” she half-jokes, half-warns. “You’ll ruin my life.”
As absurd and tragicomic their attraction may be, this shared predicament is a heightened version of a near-universal human experience. Fleabag has come to love someone who may not be in a place to love her back. The ordeal teaches a paradoxical lesson: On the one hand, love might not be enough; on the other, intensity of feeling might be an end in itself. “Most people are shit,” Fleabag scoffs to a business associate of her sister’s, played by the glorious Kristin Scott Thomas. “Look at me. Listen. People are all we’ve got,” Thomas tells her. “Now grab the night by its nipples and go flirt with someone.” It’s a profane, perfectly Fleabag version of the dad speech from Call Me By Your Name. Feelings are a gamble, but they also put you in touch with personhood, both your own and others.
As singular as Fleabag’s encounter with the Priest may be, Fleabag also situates it within its lead’s particular history. Fleabag has always, secretly, been a show about family, and the hole left in Fleabag’s without its linchpin. In Fleabag’s first volume, the death of her mother still feels like an open wound. The emotional gear shift in its follow-up can be felt in how Fleabag allows herself to reflect on her mother’s legacy as well as her absence. “I don’t know what to do with it—with all the love I felt for her,” she confesses to Boo in a flashback to the funeral. “I don’t know where to put it now.” In the Priest, she’s finally found a place—perhaps the worst possible one, but a step forward nonetheless.
Nor is Fleabag the only one in extended mourning. Unlike its antecedent, Fleabag’s latest entry was written specifically for television, a distinction that manifests itself in a richer, more evenly distributed ensemble. Fleabag has always had a colorful cast of supporting players, but its earlier incarnation bore unmistakable traces of the one-woman show, grounding itself entirely in Fleabag’s point of view. The story’s conclusion broadens its circle of empathy in lockstep with Fleabag’s emotional thaw. We finally get a sense of the good intentions behind her father’s inarticulate stutter. Claire has her own, parallel run-in with unexpected infatuation. Even Martin gets a chance to show his vulnerable side, while still remaining, flagrantly and insistently, The Worst.
Fleabag nevertheless earns the privilege of closing out her own story. In a season marked by achievements, Fleabag’s last and greatest is turning its central narrative device into a metaphor. Fleabag’s running commentary on her own life, in split-second reaction shots and snarky asides, is responsible for many of Fleabag’s funniest moments. But it’s also a distancing mechanism, a way for Fleabag to detach herself from the people and interactions around her. When the Priest reveals he’s able to sense her tuning out, it’s a brilliant illustration of someone truly seeing someone else, a sensation equal parts thrilling and terrifying. For Fleabag, it’s mostly the latter. When the Priest says he’s just trying to get to know her, she can’t help but blurt out, “Well, I don’t want that!”
Eventually, Fleabag and the Priest’s affair reaches its inevitable conclusion: He chooses God. The news is crushing, though Fleabag’s parting shot manages to feel both definitive and strangely uplifting. Fleabag gets up to walk off the pain, but when the camera starts to follow her, she gently shakes her head. The breakup between storyteller and audience isn’t angry or contemptuous; we even get a sheepish wave goodbye. Having left her shell and suffered the horrible, incredible consequences, Fleabag knows she can survive. She’s ready to enter the world without a filter.