Readers Write In #82: Fleabag, The One Your Mother Warned You About

Posted on June 30, 2019

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(by Vineet Jacob Kuruvilla)

If a movie is named after its lead character, then almost certainly the character will be a terrible person, a friend said to me. I didn’t verify this. He said it in the context of Arjun Reddy. After having watched two seasons of the British TV series Fleabag, I think he is right.

Fleabag is the “name” of the lead character in the series created, written and the titular role played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I hadn’t heard of her before…a simple search on the internet tells me she is the “British Lena Dunham”. Fleabag is a foul-mouthed, sex craving, an irreverent, manipulative, young woman who runs a guinea pig themed cafe in London, who is also funny, self-aware and at times sensitive. The opening of the series tells us all we need to know (almost) what kind of person she is. She is drunk and has sex with a hot hunk she had just met and is told in the morning “I have never been able to do it up the bum with anyone before”. She is clearly confused and displeased, and all she can think of is “Do I have a massive arsehole?!”. She is the one that your mother warned you about.

By her own admission, she was drunk enough to be unable to resist him from going “up the bum”. I can’t help thinking, in the times of #MeToo, this would have been on Babe.net. But this is Fleabag, she is supremely self-aware and knows exactly what she is doing and is not shy from owning the consequence of her actions. In a very entertaining fourth wall breaking narrative style, Fleabag is constantly giving us a running commentary on her life as it happens and also what she thinks is going to happen. Her observations are amusing and are right most of the time. 

She is a psychopath, in the medical sense of the word. Her understanding of the people around her and how they will react to situations is eerily on the dot. It is not that she is merely observing these events, she is actively manipulating them to achieve what she wants. Sometimes what she wants is sex, sometimes money, and at other times, just wants to irritate the hell out of people. The treatment she metes out to her boyfriend, Harry, who breaks up with her every other week is painful, yet hilarious, to watch. She knows he is an overly sensitive and caring person. He is so caring that when he breaks up with her, he cleans her whole house before leaving. She tells us, the audience, sometimes she patches up with him when the house needs a bit of dusting! And she has the gall to complain about his cleaning not being that great! In their final breakup scene, Harry breaks down and goes on an emotional tirade at her cruelty and the pain of having to love her. She interrupts and nudges him to write down some of the words that are coming out of this verbal deluge so that he can use it in his songs. Brutal! In a laugh out loud moment, she is caught, by Harry, masturbating to Obama’s campaign speech. In an interview to The Guardian, Phoebe Waller-Bridge says “…Wanking about Obama is for me a perfect joke because it felt real. And there was also something joyous about the politics of the time. He was hope, and I was wanking to hope.”. Wicked!

She is evil. In funny as well as in cruel ways. Some of the most amusing sequences in the series are between Fleabag and her Godmother (later stepmother), played by Olivia Colman. Fleabag hates her. No, the hate is mutual. Olivia Colman’s depiction of her dislike couched in the most loving words is delightful to watch. Her old, inarticulate dad, played by Bill Paterson, is totally lost and helpless in this shadow games the women in his household are playing. You feel sorry for him. In one of his rare display of anger, he tells Fleabag, “I deserve to be happy”. There is a cat and mouse game between Fleabag and her Godmother with regards to a sculpture of headless, limbless woman’s torso throughout the series. The sculpture gains significance as more and more layers of Fleabag is peeled off.

Andrew Scott plays the charismatic Catholic priest who will be officiating the wedding between her Dad and Godmother. He is young, charming and handsome, at the same time, litters his conversation with the F-word. In their introduction scene where the priest tries to have small talk with Fleabag over a cigarette, she walks away, probably expecting the usual, annoying and pointless chit chat. He responds “Fuck you then”, when most people would have sheepishly said (to themselves) “See you then”. That look in Fleabag’s eyes, sure she was surprised, but if you know Fleabag, it wasn’t that. We know things are going to go downhill from then. She is a controversy-seeking missile that has a 100% hit rate and with major damage guaranteed.

The most tender moments in the series comes between Fleabag and her sister, Claire (played by Sian Clifford). Those are my favourite moments. It gives us a peek into her mind. A real peek, not the witty and smartass commentary she has been giving us throughout. They are very different in character. Claire is a successful lawyer (or is she in finance?), with a swanky office, has money and gets recognized in her work. She is annoyed by Fleabag’s disorganized, unstable, penniless lifestyle and can’t understand her choices. But, Claire really can’t live without her. She is her only source of strength and mental support. There is a side-splitting sequence about a haircut that underlines how much Claire needs Fleabag. Claire’s husband Martin, played by Brett Gelman, is a dimwitted, jerk. An incident with him is the only thing that Fleabag seemed uncomfortable with. Probably, that’s more to do with her love for Claire than anything to do with her character itself. 

Her relationship with her dead friend Boo is a recurring theme in Season 1 & 2. We get snippets of small, intimate moments between the two. Though we only get to see very little of this, this is the undercurrent that is driving her life. The cafe was a joint venture between the two and is run/survived as a monument to their friendship. The death of her mother, followed by the death of Boo has left her with no support structure. The choices she has made since has run through her life like a hurricane, leaving a shambolic mess in its wake. There is a great reveal at the end of Season 1 where everything about Fleabag starts to make sense.

Fleabag might be the ultimate anti-feminist show. Women’s answer to toxic masculinity. The question she asks in the opening of Episode 1 of Season 1, “Do I have a massive arsehole?”, should be read as “Why am I such a massive arsehole?” by the end of the series. She treats her men like shit. As they say about men, she could and would fuck a lamp-post! She swears, she manipulates, she is not afraid to throw a punch (at men). Look at the men around her. The men she toys with are people she can control, either because they are weaklings or they are slaves for sex. Even the men in her family are, in a way, weak. Her dad, an incoherent old man, who finds it difficult to manage his dominating partner, and her brother-in-law, a despicable, drunk fool. If men were to analyse this series as strident feminists do, they would call this a celebration and glorification of toxic feminity. Not one man in this series can stand for himself. Her ex-boyfriend, Harry, is literally shown on the floor, on his knees, scrubbing the floor with sponge and soap. Her pursuit of the Catholic priest is like she saying “mere men are no match for me, I might as well go on a duel with God”. And, towards the end of the series, she gets what she was looking for, love. And this interpretation of her character is not a subjective reading. It is told by Fleabag herself, “I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman”. As if trying to understand herself, she says, “Maybe I’m a feminist because I have small tits”! 

Fleabag is a hilarious, delightful series with a protagonist you will love and you will hate. The performances by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Olivia Coleman, Andrew Scott and Sian Clifford are top-notch. This series should be a must-watch for all politically aware people especially in India, where art and politics are getting more and more intertwined, where people demanding political correctness in art are becoming more vocal and shrill. Here is a high-quality piece of art made by a woman, played by women, presented from a woman’s point of view that shows women can be as evil as men. This series will test you, will force you to introspect, and hopefully, you will get your answer.