Spoiler Warning – I mean, I spoil pretty much the whole show herein, so know what you’re getting in for.
So that’s it for Fleabag then. After two series of self-justification, avoiding emotions, corrupting priests, statue-larceny, realistically evil step-mothers, and lots of sex, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sitcom had its finale last night. I follow the emerging consensus that sees the show as brilliant comedy and the finale as a perfectly judged conclusion to it. Since last night, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the show dealt with love, and feel I figured out what Fleabag was really referring to when, in episode one of the second series, she said, ‘This is a love story’.
The ostensible centre of the second series was Fleabag’s complex romance with a priest played by Andrew Scott. Fleabag at first denies she is pursuing the priest, and the priest denies that he is enjoying being pursued. This pretense is dropped as the two characters before closer. The show wisely had this romance consummated in the fifth episode, allowing the finale to focus on resolving their complex and messy entanglement. When the two finally profess their love for another, they have been sapped of all hope of a shared future. Their under-stated goodbye at a run-down bus stop is shorn of drama, and Fleabag’s lending assistance to a crafty fox is less an act of revenge against her former lover, and more one last submission in the face of the inevitable.
The romance was compelling to watch and full of hilarious and heart-rending moments, but was not, I think, the real love story of the series. For all the show’s flouting of convention, this was a quite conventional English love story; two characters unable to recognize their feelings, much less articulate them. While the priest is an ultimately sympathetic character he definitely does some shady shit. His knowing exploitation of Fleabag during episode 4’s confession scene is the worst offence. His low level but not-quite-functional-alcoholism is another. I couldn’t help but be a little relieved that Fleabag didn’t end up with him. As we say in Ireland, that Lad has some shite going on.
The real emotional pay off comes from Fleabag and Claire’s story. The two sisters began series two totally estranged from one another and barely able to make it through polite non-conversations over dinner. It is the struggling and touching renewal of this relationship that really motivates the action of the second series; Fleabag helping her sister through her miscarriage, Claire helping Fleabag escape the litigious clutches of her own terrible husband, Fleabag re-paying Claire by aiding her to advance her career and find an actually fulfilling love affair.
Many of Fleabag’s visits to the priest are motivated by the feelings brought up by her relationship to Claire. Their sorority is a messy and conflicting business. Claire feels that her career success is challenged by Fleabag’s charisma and personal skills. Fleabag wants nothing more than to be friends with Claire despite this barely concealed resentment. She also can’t help but constantly needle and challenge her sister, which only makes a friendship harder to achieve. It is rare to see a sibling relationship portrayed with this level of honesty and yet manage not to fall into despair. It is clear that the show wants these two to love and support each other.
Claire and Fleabag seem to be forced to reconcile by some logic exterior to either of them. The ending scene of episode one, when Claire breaks a tense silence to acknowledge how hot the priest is, is played as an involuntary outburst. When Claire calls Fleabag in tears in episode 5, one feels as if she felt she simply had to call her sister for help, whether or not she particularly wanted to.
In a finale of break-ups and break-downs, it is the two sisters who manage to indirectly restate their love for each other. Claire’s own break-up with her terrible husband is really an act of belated fidelity to her sister. Claire also admits, in passing, that Fleabag is the most important person in her life. Sian Clifford brilliantly delivers this line in a semi-pained tone, as if she simply cannot deny a visible but unwelcome truth. Claire’s romantic love story occurs off-screen in episode 6 and it is really just another vehicle to display the sister’s love for each other. She needs Fleabag to push her into doing what will make her happy. Fleabag gives Claire permission to care about herself.
The love story of the two sisters’s is as tightly plotted and carefully constructed as any romance I have seen in recent years. I left the finale feeling that whatever happens with the men in their lives, the two sisters will survive and be happy with each other. This is not to downplay the importance of romantic love to either character, for the finale was also a powerful tribute to control romance holds over our lives. Fleabag ends with two characters who have managed to heal themselves of deep hurts. They are freed to love one another, even if they don’t always like each other.