overnights

Fleabag Recap: Bursting Into Flames

Fleabag

Episode 5
Season 2 Episode 5
Editor’s Rating *****

Fleabag

Episode 5
Season 2 Episode 5
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: Amazon Studios

After one very dark night of the soul, Fleabag has returned to her preferred vices: telling both the patriarchy and good-looking men where they can stick it. The cold open compresses her drinks date with Hot Misogynist into 45 hilarious seconds, as Fleabag rapid-fire switches between arousal and horror. When Hot Misogynist invites Fleabag to sleep with him because he’s “really good at it,” her inner monologue responds: “He won’t be. He won’t be.” The next shot is a rueful pillow-talk confession: “He’s really good at it.”

It’s a short sequence that says more than many entire TV episodes. But it’s only the beginning for this rollicking, hilarious episode, which might be Fleabag’s all-time best. Unfolding over a single Chatty Wednesday, it takes a freewheeling approach to plot, tossing characters around the board with wild abandon. Like its heroine, it’s here to upend your expectations and utterly dazzle you, and it succeeds wildly on both counts.

The episode opens on a punishingly hungover Fleabag, who’s been laid low by too much gin and too many orgasms (nine!!) from her remarkably gifted attorney. Death-marching to Dad and Godmother’s home for another portrait session, she perks up considerably when she finds the Priest already inside.

The Priest, who looks as depleted as Fleabag, has come to tell the happy couple that he can’t officiate their wedding. His brother has been in a dubious “lorry accident” and the Priest has to care for him, pedophile or no. Only he and Fleabag know the real reason for the decision, but her glee in anticipating Godmother’s reaction is merited. Olivia Colman’s obsequious play at forgiveness while the Priest is in the house, followed by her full-decibel screams of “WHAT A CUNT!” the second the door closes, make for one of the funniest scenes I’ve seen all year. We honestly do not deserve her.

Things are less amusing outside, where the troubled Priest gravely tells Fleabag not to visit the church again. But before Fleabag has time to mourn, Claire calls her in full meltdown over a personal crisis that turns out to be … a really bad haircut. Fleabag takes the situation with the appropriate gravity. When the defensive stylist tells the sisters that “hair isn’t everything,” she rightly fires back: “Hair is everything. We wish it wasn’t, so we could think about something else occasionally, but it is. It’s the difference between a good day and a bad day. We’re made to think it’s a symbol of power, a symbol of fertility. Some people are exploited for it, and it pays your fucking bills. Hair is everything.”

But rather than revel in the sisters’ righteousness, the scene flips back just as quickly, revealing Claire got the exact haircut she asked for. “If you want to change your life, change your life — it’s not going to happen in here,” the stylist tells Claire, a statement that will likely draw hand-over-heart “yasss” responses from hair artisans all over the land.

It’s a perfect showcase of how Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s writing keeps viewers off-kilter, refusing to let vulnerability be the arbiter of rightness for a character. If Fleabag had a coat of arms, it would probably say, “Everyone is right in their own minds.”

As it turns out, hair is everything — including the impetus for Claire to actually change her life. She confesses to Fleabag that she really didn’t want Martin’s baby, because she doesn’t want to be with Martin anymore. She wants to be with goofy, lovely Klare, who also happens to love her new look.

But leading Claire to this unexpected happiness puts Fleabag right back in Martin’s sights. Drunk and belligerent, he corners her in the café, menacingly stroking Hilary as he tries to extract Claire’s whereabouts. Then he gently puts Hilary back in her cage, only to violently collar Fleabag herself. It’s a complicated scene that expertly plays with viewers’ expectations, lulling them with moments of relief and glimmers of humor before shocking them again with Martin’s depths of self-pity and violent rage. He’s everything Fleabag hates, she very much wants him to know it, and yet she can’t help but feel a bit badly for him, too.

The drama culminates with a wink to season one, as Fleabag once again awaits a gentleman caller in her doorway by pretending she’s “just walked in.” But instead of Hot Misogynist, she’s surprised by the Priest, who’s already regretting his ultimatum from the morning. But just as he’s on the verge of confessing his love, he’s railroaded by the arrival of Hot Misogynist, who won’t go away until Fleabag reassures him that she’s not giving him the boot for a lack of sexual prowess.

The intensity of Fleabag and the Priest’s connection is briefly relieved by the farce. But soon enough, they’re alone again, in a fog of sexual tension. If he has sex with Fleabag, the Priest tells her, he’ll fall in love with her. And if he falls in love with her, he’s fucked. He’s only supposed to love one person, the big one in the sky. But Fleabag has her own inner prophet, rendering its unerring judgment: “We’re going to have sex.” The Priest is just gearing himself up to accept a foregone conclusion.

Fleabag’s great accomplishment is making what could come off as easy transgressiveness — a sexually shameless woman turning away an orgasm wizard at her door so she can fuck a priest instead — feel wildly romantic. Fleabag is not loved in spite of being slutty and sharp-witted and vindictive and crazy, but because of those things. In both its dialogue and themes, the show points the way to a rare truth: Discomfort is the only true path to comfort. Somehow, it manages to make that look easy.

Fleabag Recap: Bursting Into Flames