It’s too bad that TV shows’ marketing is based on appearances, not accuracy, because the image that opens Fleabag’s second season should be the one on billboards. Wearing an impossibly chic jumpsuit, standing in an impossibly chic restaurant bathroom, Phoebe Waller-Bridge stares at her reflection as hot, red blood gushes from her injured nose. “This is a love story,” she conspiratorially informs the camera as she wipes away the last traces. For a character utterly obsessed with the violence that crawls under the surface of politesse, it’s a rare moment of harmony between her inner and outer selves.
Picking up a little more than a year after season one’s finale, the premiere finds Fleabag seemingly in a healthy groove. She’s working out, eating avocado toast, avoiding tempting hookups (Arsehole Guy, we hardly knew ye), and even running her café well for the first time since Boo’s death. But this commitment to seemingly “good” behavior is really a self-induced punishment. She’s still consumed by mourning and loss — for her mother, for Boo, and now for her relationship with her sister.
At the end of season one, Claire cut ties with Fleabag for attempting to kiss her awful husband, Martin, when it was actually the other way around. The sisters have barely spoken in the intervening year, yet they’ve responded identically to the rift. Claire’s own abstemious routine is centered on overwork — she took that job in Finland after all — and on keeping both herself and the alcoholic Martin off the sauce. Both she and Fleabag would gladly continue quietly punishing themselves in their separate corners were they not expected to keep up appearances at their father’s engagement dinner.
The entire episode takes place over the course of that one nightmarish meal, as the collective stiff upper lip quivers with the application of sufficient wine and recriminations. A return to Fleabag’s theatrical roots, it’s clearly the kind of scenario Waller-Bridge lives to write. But it’s also a grueling experience for viewers, who, like Fleabag, only get a couple of quick smoke breaks to regroup. The episode is almost too good at rendering the dinner-table claustrophobia, leaving less space for the puckish fourth-wall asides that make the show so special.
Fleabag’s greatest strength remains the authenticity of its villains: Olivia Colman’s wicked Godmother (soon to be Stepmother) and Brett Gelman’s two-faced, odious Martin. They may be mere upper-middle-class strivers, but they make Waller-Bridge’s Killing Eve assassin Villanelle look sympathetic by comparison.
Colman’s Godmother (her official name in the credits, just as Claire and Fleabag’s father is Dad) has all the delicious arrogance of her Oscar-winning Queen Anne in The Favourite but none of the vulnerability. She’s the picture of self-absorption, humblebragging about how she needs a vacation after weeks touring Japan with her awful “sexhibition.” Her latest passing fancy is a fast friendship with a Catholic priest (again, billed only as The Priest), who’s the sixth guest at dinner. Never mind that Godmother’s actually “quite suspicious of religion” — The Priest is less a person to her than a bauble to display to her fellow aristocrats on her wedding day.
But Godmother’s privileged arrogance is trifling compared to the hateful Martin, who spends the episode lording his successful lie to Claire over Fleabag, often while sneaking drinks in the restaurant bar. When Claire reveals that they’re trying for a baby, it’s all Fleabag can do to conceal her horror, and Martin revels in it. “I am so intrigued to see how you’re going to make this evening about yourself,” he tells her in a breathtaking bit of projection.
The only person at dinner who’s not driving Fleabag crazy is The Priest. With a roguish streak and a passion for oversharing to rival Fleabag’s own (he tells the group his estranged brother is a pedophile, then immediately notes he’s aware of the irony), he’s beginning to strike Fleabag as oddly appealing. But their flirtation is cut short by a dark turn for Claire. Noticing she’s been away from the table for a while, Fleabag tracks her down in the restroom and discovers she’s having a miscarriage.
Things spiral quickly from there. Claire won’t go to the hospital or tell anyone else at dinner, opting to self-medicate with wine. Martin sees an opening to drink freely and orders up a bottle for himself. A keyed-up Fleabag, desperate to get Claire to a doctor, tells everyone she’s had a miscarriage, to Claire’s horror. Martin insinuates that Fleabag’s fetus jumped ship because it knew what was good for it, and Fleabag clocks him. He punches right back, accidentally landing blows on their overeager waitress and The Priest as well.
And then we’re back in the bathroom, watching Fleabag sponge her bloody nose and passing towels to the equally roughed-up waitress. But while the first iteration of the scene was set to gentle bathroom Muzak, this one is scored with the kind of biblical death-march music used in battle scenes. For Fleabag, family is war, and she’s just gearing up. As she struts out of the restaurant, nose pouring blood, you can almost hear the furious revenge fantasy swirling in her head.
But it’s interrupted by the voice of Claire, calling Fleabag from a cab across the street. Martin is nowhere to be seen, and when Fleabag tells the cabbie to head to the hospital, Claire doesn’t protest. Maybe, amidst all this callousness, chaos, and destruction, there’s still something about her family worth protecting. Fleabag’s no angel, but she could be an avenging one.