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The Best Show on TV Is Fleabag

No movie or TV show is perfect. But then along comes something like season two of Fleabag.

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Amazon
Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Amazon
Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Amazon

Looks directly into camera: Did you really think we’d choose another show?

No, but seriously. We considered other very good series for this honor but kept coming back to Fleabag, the same way Fleabag, the character created and played by the magnificent Phoebe Waller-Bridge, keeps going back to the Priest during the perfect second season of this fantastic series. The attraction can’t be denied.

The six episodes that comprise season two landed on Amazon Prime on May 17, two months after its initial U.K. airing on BBC, and the same weekend that the Game of Thrones finale aired. After a couple days of GOT-ending outrage and disappointment, Fleabag took over the TV discourse. The most massive show on television, one with dragons and battles that take days to shoot and has millions upon millions of viewers, was quickly overshadowed by a series about a woman resisting her feelings for a priest.

When people finished bingeing that second season, it was as if they wanted to shout their love for it from rooftops. The day after one of my best friends made her way through it, she texted me, “I finished Fleabag. Nothing will ever be that good again.” It didn’t even sound like hyperbole.

So what makes Fleabag season two elicit such responses at a time when it’s harder than ever for a single work of television to capture public attention? If I had to single out one thing, aside from Andrew Scott, a.k.a. the Hot Priest, it’s how unbelievably tight the show is. There are just six episodes of Fleabag. Each one lasts 27 minutes or less. From the very beginning, it drops us into a moving car and never lets up on the gas. In an extremely efficient kickoff, it recaps the major moments of the first season, advises in a single title card that season two begins exactly 371 days, 19 hours, and 26 minutes after that previous season ended, and shows us Fleabag in a bathroom, wiping a bloody nose for reasons we don’t yet understand. “This,” Fleabag explains, breaking the fourth wall in her signature fashion, “is a love story.” We don’t yet know why her face is bloody, or why there’s another bleeding woman in the bathroom with her, or who is standing right outside the door asking, “Can I do anything?” Smiles. Charm. Off we go.

Mainstream comedy tends to move at a much quicker clip than it did even a decade ago, the result, perhaps, of shorter attention spans, and the influence of lickety-split television like Arrested Development and 30 Rock. But some sitcoms move quickly simply to prove they can exceed the speed limit. Fleabag, on the other hand, has its own rhythms and invites us to keep up. Season two is really a dance, between Fleabag and her sister Claire, Fleabag and the audience, Fleabag and the Priest.

Oh, lordy, the Priest. The fascination with his character can seemingly be explained in the simplest of terms — he’s hot — but that doesn’t quite capture it. It’s the way that Scott and Waller-Bridge, who have enough chemistry to ignite several biology labs’ worth of Bunsen burners, relate to each other that makes him sexy. As he and Fleabag become more intimate, we, as viewers, palpably feel like we are part of this relationship as well. That’s a testament to the performances of the two actors, but it also speaks to the way that Waller-Bridge has orchestrated our relationship to Fleabag.

By turning us into her confidantes, she draws us into her reality, and therefore her new relationship, too. As the only person who notices that Fleabag regularly winks and comments to some unseen presence, the Priest also becomes aware of us. And because both Fleabag and the Priest are aware of us, we feel seen, in a way that few television shows ever see us. What might have been a clever little narrative device on another show suddenly has much deeper resonance because Waller-Bridge uses it with such smart and specific intent. She has made her two leads fall in love with each other, but she’s also made us fall in love with them and a whole season of television she’s created.

Life teaches us not to expect perfection. No relationship is perfect. No job is perfect. No movie or TV show is perfect. But then along comes something like Fleabag that says, actually, every once in a while, you get to have this. You get to have perfect.

A Closer Look at Fleabag

“You know when you’ve done everything?” (Episode 1)

This scene should be used to teach screenwriters how to efficiently incorporate exposition into a narrative. It is extraordinary how much information Waller-Bridge, as a writer and as an actress playing Fleabag, is able to convey in the space of three and a half minutes.

In that short period of time, we learn that Fleabag has successfully engaged in a great deal of self-improvement over the past 371 days, including exercise, healthy eating, and running, quite literally, from sex. We are informed that she and her sister Claire (Sian Clifford) have not fully repaired their relationship after the night Claire’s oily husband Martin (Brett Gelman) tried to kiss Fleabag. We also find out that Fleabag’s dad (Bill Paterson) and her nightmarish godmother (Olivia Colman) are getting married, that a “cool, sweary” Catholic priest will officiate the ceremony, and that Claire and Martin have stopped drinking as a sign of their solidarity, a solidarity that seems very forced and fake. Not only have we been brought up to speed, we also have a hint of what’s going to be important in the episodes that follow: Claire’s relationship with Fleabag, the Priest, and the wedding, which will ultimately mark the end of the season.

When this sort of plot recap happens on TV, you can usually spot the seams showing. Here, it feels dynamic. It’s funny, filled with wryness, sarcasm, and repartee. And remarkably very few words are used to say what needs to be said.

“You know when you’ve done everything?” Fleabag asks from her spot at the table. “When you’ve been all —”

Camera cuts to Fleabag doing a series of harried squats while a trainer screams at her.

Back to Fleabag in the restaurant: “And —”

Cut to a shot of avocado toast and Fleabag, in her café, looking at the camera as if to say, “I can’t believe I have to eat this shit.”

Back to restaurant: “And you’ve even —”

Cut to good-looking guy asking Fleabag if she wants to have sex, prompting her to run down the street to get away from him. 

Many other characters have spoken directly to the audience before the way that Fleabag does here. It’s not like Waller-Bridge invented the idea. But she may be better at it than anyone else who’s attempted it. She’s confident and direct in a way that feels personal. She slides into her random asides so naturally, they don’t feel like some gratuitous tic on the part of a writer trying to be too clever by half. Waller-Bridge and Fleabag are too clever by exactly the right amount. Take the brilliant switch from the dinner scene to Fleabag on a smoke break.

“You know the most fascinating thing about Father here,” says Godmother, who always finds sexual details the most fascinating things about a person, “is that his mother was originally a lesbi —” Before she can get out the “ian,” Fleabag’s already gone, in an alley, exhaling a puff from her cigarette. She stares at us, and she doesn’t have to say anything for us to know what she means.

“Here’s to peace, and those who get in the way of it.” (Episode 4)

You were probably expecting me to dissect the “Kneel” scene from this episode, perhaps the most talked-about moment in season two of Fleabag and also, not coincidentally, the most transgressive. (In case you forgot, after Fleabag confesses a few of her sins to the Priest, he commands her to kneel, and they start making out.)

I’m going to focus on the scene just before Fleabag enters the confessional, when she surprises the Priest in his office and engages him in conversation. It’s a confessional scene of a different sort, and one that’s equally sexy. Waller-Bridge crafts every line with gorgeous precision, then wraps them in layers of meaning. When the Priest says, “You were in my head then, but now you’re there,” he’s speaking literally. He’s surprised to see Fleabag in person and genuinely thought he had just imagined her. But it’s also an expression of how shocked he is to realize that a woman like Fleabag actually exists in real life and that he’s found her. But here she is: a woman so damaged that she used to dash toward sex to forget her pain, standing in front of a man so damaged that he runs toward cellibacy for the same reason.

Scott does most of the talking here, and he delivers every line with all the swagger of someone who’s already had a few nips and is too sauced to bother censoring himself. “Oh, fuck you calling me father,” he tells Fleabag, “like it doesn’t turn you on just to say it.” First of all: whew. That line is as good as “kneel,” and maybe better because it’s the precursor to it. It shifts the energy and activates the molecules in the room. It’s also the Priest’s way of calling out Fleabag on her attraction to him and letting her know he’s aware that his “holiness” only makes him even more appealing. Stop pretending is the subtext of his statement.

When the Priest goes on to announce his love of Winnie-the-Pooh, it seems, at first, like the sort of random non sequitur that spills out of a person’s mouth when he’s a little tipsy. But this is another confession. “I can’t read a Winnie-the-Pooh quote without crying,” he says. “Fuck,” he adds “Piglet.” He puts his hand to his chest as though his heart can barely take the mere idea of Piglet, a gesture Fleabag mirrors. Whether he knows it or not, the Priest is explaining how much he values love and friendship. He’s telling Fleabag that whatever is going on between them means something to him.

“Here’s to peace and those who get in the way of it,” he says as he makes a toast, a variation on the traditional “Peace be with you” spoken by parishioners during Catholic church services. He’s referring to their visit to a Quaker prayer meeting, where Fleabag broke the silence with an inappropriate question about feminism and the size of her tits. But he’s also confessing that she has disrupted his own sense of peace. By raising a glass in her honor, he’s admitting that he likes it.

Once the Priest reaches the point where he suggests a trip to the confessional — “Come with me,” he says to Fleabag, with an intentionally naughty undertone. “I know what to do with you” — he’s giving her the opportunity to tell him how she really feels, but with the protection of the confessional divider. Thanks to Waller-Bridge’s dialogue, the Priest has already done the same thing. He’s spelled out his feelings, yet still kept them covered in just enough darkness to convince himself he hasn’t really sinned.

“He went that way.” (Episode 6)

In the movie Moonstruck, Nicolas Cage makes what is the best rom-com speech of all time. “Love don’t make things nice,” he shouts at Cher, his breath coming out in puffs of winter air. “It ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess.”

This final scene in Fleabag season two reminds me a lot of that speech. It’s sad and brimming with humanity. It’s focused on two people declaring their love for each other while knowing they can’t do anything about it. It doesn’t make things nice. It breaks your heart.

After the wedding of Fleabag’s dad to Godmother, the Priest sits beside Fleabag at a bus stop. They look into each other’s eyes. “It’s God, isn’t it?” Fleabag asks, referring to the choice the Priest has to make between her and the other soul mate in his life. “Yeah,” he responds.

Director Harry Bradbeer dials in on their faces so we can see the tears glistening in their eyes when Fleabag confesses her love to her priest (“The worst thing is, I fucking love you”), and the moment when the Priest nearly leans in for a kiss and instantly realizes he can’t. But Bradbeer also pulls back for wider shots that show us Fleabag in her red dress and the Priest in his jacket with that clergyman’s collar. In those moments, it’s so obvious that this was never going to work out. He’s a priest! Look at him! But when we’re locked in tight and all that’s visible are the glances between them, it still seems possible, even a little like destiny.

Every ingredient in this scene is so well-chosen that it puts another crack in your heart: the “176 Dollner Ave Cancelled” message that pops up on the bus stop right after the Priest leaves; Fleabag’s wave good-bye to the camera in the final moment, which, as Kathryn VanArendonk pointed out, feels like she’s breaking up with us; and the arrival of the fox, an animal the Priest swears has been stalking him for most of his adult life. Fleabag looks at it, then dryly tells him how to find who he’s looking for: “He went that way.”

One of the great things about Fleabag is that it leaves a lot open to interpretation. The fox is one of those things. My interpretation of it comes from Song of Solomon, a book in the Bible that’s quoted frequently at weddings. “Take us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes” goes a key passage. The foxes are supposed to represent the things that may get in the way of a healthy marriage. For the Priest, the fox is a symbol of the vices — his drinking, his desire to be with Fleabag — that sully his marriage to God. Even after he breaks things off with Fleabag, he’s still followed by that fox, just as Fleabag still carries her Godmother’s sculpture. Neither of them have outrun their demons.

As the Priest says during his remarks at the wedding, “Love isn’t something that weak people do.” In the end, Fleabag tells us that simply by loving each other and saying it out loud, Fleabag and the Priest have proved they are strong. Which is beautiful and sad and a conclusion that stubbornly, appropriately, resists an easy, happy ending.We might think we want to see the Priest giving up everything for Fleabag and passionately embracing her. But those are just our sins — our lust and greed and laziness — talking. Instead, both he and Fleabag walk away, leaving us behind, and in the process, implying that we, too, are stronger than our impulses. How many TV shows this year ripped your heart out and, at the same time, made you feel like you’re capable of being a better person? For me, there was only one.

The Other Contenders

We considered a number of quality shows for this award, including Russian Doll, which, like Fleabag, explores whether it’s possible for human beings to truly evolve. Honestly, that’s the central idea in a lot of finely crafted series from the past year, including Better Call Saul, Barry, and Succession.

I could go on about all the other great shows that aired during the past 12 months, but I’ll be honest. The small group of us who decide on these awards concluded more quickly than usual that there was an overwhelming favorite. When you’re madly in love with someone or something, even attractive, worthy alternatives don’t match up. Fleabag made us fall madly in love with it.

Throughout all of season two, right up to that bittersweet wave at the end, Fleabag and Fleabag don’t lie to us. On some subconscious level, maybe that’s what makes us admire this season so much. The first season of Fleabag, which came out way back in 2016, deliberately kept us guessing about what was going on with Fleabag, who was a blatantly unreliable narrator. It’s what made her, and the series, intriguing. In season two, after 371 days, 19 hours, and 26 minutes have passed, it’s obvious Fleabag has become a better person since we last saw her. In her to-camera asides, she’s more often truthful with us than not. The minute she realizes she’s falling in love with the Priest, the sort of thing that perhaps a person might not want to admit, she shares it: “Oh God, I fancy a priest.”

Fleabag isn’t honest with everyone around her. She deflects and bends the facts during her therapy session. Even when she’s talking to us, she can be a bit glib. But she’s no longer hiding her flaws or a major part of her story from us. It’s as though we know each other better, and she’s more comfortable showing us who she is. There are a lot of reasons to admire this series, but the biggest reason is the intimacy Waller-Bridge forges with us, her audience. In every episode, she’s like an old friend inviting us to hang out with her.

Vulture’s sixth annual TV Awards honor the best in television from the past year in six major categories: Best Lead Performer, Best Supporting Performer, Best Writing, Best Direction, Best Miniseries, and Best Show. Eligible contenders had to have premiered between June 1, 2018, and May 31, 2019.

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The Best Show on TV Is Fleabag