Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always
With stunning performances from two completely genuine young leads, this is a movie people will talk about all year.
A professor once told me that all art has a target, and the more complex and challenging the art, the smaller the target. A shot that comes close is still impressive; the room for error is massive and the risk of failure great. But hitting a perfect shot at a tiny target is a staggering achievement; something like “Waiting For Godot” doesn’t come around every day. Yes, I am comparing the six-episode second season of Amazon/BBC television's exquisite "Fleabag" to Samuel Beckett; I am also comparing it to the work of writers like Elizabeth Bishop and Dorothy Parker, writers whose economy increased the potency of every word, every joke, every thought and feeling. In under three hours, Phoebe Waller-Bridge tells a story with that kind of poignancy, a portrait of grief, fear, and love that’s startling, painful, achingly funny, unbearably sexy, pretty much perfect, and somehow better than the first season. It is a marvel. It should not exist. You look at the arrow, in the center of the tiniest of circles, and can do nothing but wonder.
Fleabag (Waller-Bridge, as good an actor as she is a writer and that's saying something) has come a long way in the time since we’ve seen her—371 days, a card helpfully reminds us. In the days since an unexpected friend threw her a lifeline and enabled her to save her café, she’s taken care of her body, broken some bad habits, and tried to maneuver herself toward a healthier, more stable place. She’s done so successfully, but improving yourself doesn’t magically rejuvenate your relationships, and in the premiere, we see that the damage there has, at best, remained static. Godmother (Olivia Colman) is still a resentful, passive-aggressive force that Fleabag can barely endure. Dad (Bill Paterson) remains distant, largely incapable of expressing anything like feeling and painfully unsure how to care for his daughters. Martin (Brett Gelman, giving what might be TV’s most perfectly unbearable performance) is still a tip-to-tail asshole, intent on provoking the woman he thinks is poisoning his marriage with Fleabag’s sister Claire. And then there’s Claire herself (the remarkable Sian Clifford), furious with and for her sister, so desperate to connect with her that Fleabag’s nascent, tenuous stability seems to be a bit of an inconvenience.
Luckily for Claire, this is a work of fiction, and stability isn’t great for storytelling. Just as luckily, there’s also a new player on the scene: a “cool, sweary” priest (Andrew Scott of “Sherlock”), who’ll be officiating the wedding of Dad and Godmother. At the deeply uncomfortable engagement dinner that makes up the bulk of the season two premiere, Fleabag’s family smile and snipe at each other (and especially at her), playing at happiness and burying all else under piles of lies. The endless empty chatter leads Fleabag to turn to her only confidant—the camera, and whatever or whoever it means—and says, “No one’s asked me a question in 45 minutes.” Before the sentence has even truly ended, he turns abruptly to her and asks, “So what do you do?” and the wall of small talk shatters. He’s seen her, she’s startled, and an unlikely friendship is formed.
To say that relationship drives the second season of “Fleabag” is to ignore the two relationships that have anchored the series since its inception: Fleabag and Claire, and Fleabag and the person or people on the other side of that camera. But the bond between Fleabag and The Priest definitely comes close. That’s in part because Waller-Bridge and Scott are so good, both together and separately, and in part because that connection also ends up shaping much of the season from a narrative and thematic perspective. Through it, we learn more about how she sees herself and the world, her connection with her mother, her relationship to grief, the cost of love and of addiction, the importance of silence and of honesty, the ways in which we hurt each other, what love is, what God is, and whether or not, if such a being existed, they might have a sense of humor. It’s a lot, and it earns every piece.
It also looks and sounds amazing. Director Harry Bradbeer (who’s also directed two episodes of Waller-Bridge’s other incredible TV achievement of the year, “Killing Eve”) plays around with religious iconography, unsurprisingly, but it never comes across as overly referential. Instead, he uses the bodies of the actors, the positioning of the camera, the warmth of light and impenetrability of darkness to underline moments of connection or loss; the third or fourth time one person kneels at the feet of another, you’d think it might start to wear thin, but it only gains in resonance. So, too, the chorus of “Kyrie Eleison” that percolates throughout, sometimes used to underline a joke, sometimes in depth of feeling, and most often both. It’s clever, compelling, and endlessly thoughtful.
That’s true of the series as a whole. Too often you watch a television show and wonder what could have been excised; here, not a beat is spared. Yet when it reaches its bittersweet, indelible conclusion, the ache isn’t one of wishing “Fleabag” could go on forever. It’s a simple, sweet moment of loss. Waller-Bridge makes the camera Fleabag’s confidant; it’s a relationship that’s not in the least one-sided. When her sidelong glances end, you might long for the connection to continue—but when you love something, you open yourself up to loss. As with all the great loves one encounters in life, this one is worth the heartache.
All episodes watched for review.
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