“Fleabag” reestablishes itself as one of television’s elite series well before an insightful therapist (played by the all-powerful Fiona Shaw) asks Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s eponymous Bag, Flea if she wants to “fuck God.” But I dare anyone to imagine a more idyllic setup, let alone produce a story that can actually live up to it. That’s what the “Killing Eve” scribe and future Bond writer has done in the brilliant follow-up and savvy update to her 2016 breakout. Think about it: an emotional paradox in which the lead protagonist of a TV show wants to… fuck… God? And does she? Does she literally want to sleep with Him? Is she angry with Him? Is it both?
So many questions arise from the existential proposition, and Waller-Bridge manages to answer each one with the playful flick of her eyebrows or a fervent, frustrated frown. “Fleabag” evolves gracefully in Season 2, mowing through its six half-hour episodes with an efficiency rarely seen in prestige TV and a responsible creativity to be admired. The devices introduced in the first season — namely, breaking the fourth wall — are developed in such an intelligent manner it pushes the whole medium forward. Performances are spot-on, the writing crafted as purposefully as all episodic TV should be, and the ending is as sure to satisfy as it is to invite cries for more.
But before we get to the end (no spoilers here, don’t worry), let’s not blow past the beginning. The first episode is a masterstroke all on its own, starting at the end of a sure-to-be-catastrophic dinner and flashing back in time to show how the night reached its bloody crescendo. Trimmed to the bare minimum exposition, edited as tightly as its blocked, and steady in revealing where each member of Fleabag’s family stands, Wall-Bridge delivers a case study in table setting.
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First, she reveals it’s been well over a year since Season 1 ended. Fleabag hasn’t seen her sister Claire (Sian Clifford) or her husband Martin (Brett Gelman) in that time. The two are still steaming over Martin’s attempt to kiss Fleabag, in part because the guilty party is still insisting Fleabag tried to kiss him. Meanwhile, the sisters’ father (Bill Paterson) is still seeing their Godmother (Olivia Colman), and the unwelcome partners are hosting the dinner to celebrate their engagement.
This would be enough to send the old Fleabag spinning. Martin tries to press her buttons, and Colman’s cruel Godmother can’t help but do the same. Yet Fleabag insists she’s doing fine — both to her family and the audience watching. Her cafe is doing well, after securing the small business loan at the end of last season, and she’s no longer using sex as a distraction from her pain. Memories of her deceased best friend Boo (Jenny Rainsford) still surface in Fleabag’s mind, but not at this dinner. She knows what she needs to do, how she needs to act, and who she’s trying to win over.
Or so she thinks. The curveball of the meal arrives in the family priest, simply referred to (like so many critical “Fleabag” characters) as The Priest (and played with a rascal’s jittery charms by Andrew Scott.) New to the parish and the priesthood, the Catholic father will mark his officiant’s debut at Godmother and Dad’s wedding. But Fleabag is smitten early. Surprised by his frank honesty and less-than-holy demeanor (he drinks, smokes, and even swears), Fleabag knows she’s in trouble well before her therapist asks the pointed question: “Do you really want to fuck the priest, or do you want to fuck God?”
“Fleabag” assesses the value of religion, sex, and celibacy without mocking any of them. By setting The Priest as Fleabag’s object of affection, Waller-Bridge invites all the right questions and explores each earnestly. Is Fleabag trying to sleep with the man of the cloth simply because it’s forbidden? Is this just another means to distract herself from the pain of losing her friend, or is there something more to her pursuit of this unavailable man? If it’s the latter, why would she, an atheist, turn to a man of God at all? For guidance? For security? For hope?
The series hints at answers through formal choices, too — including why Fleabag talks to the camera at all. If justifying her fourth-wall breaks was the only exceptional thing “Fleabag” Season 2 pulled off, it would still mark a turning point in TV history. After being brought to prominence by “House of Cards” and mutilated in front of millions through the “Deadpool” movies, the action of a character suddenly turning and talking to the audience shifted from rebellious to reductive in a matter of years. But Waller-Bridge builds the choice into her character; who she’s looking at isn’t literally you, the viewer, but a subconscious audience Fleabag relies on to escape herself. Those glances aren’t letting us into her story, but the character escaping her own life. Exactly how that’s conveyed in Season 2 should be studied in film school, as the clever beats will undoubtedly be replicated (and, hopefully, expanded upon) in future projects.
And yet that’s far from the only merit of “Fleabag” Season 2. It refuses to let any of its characters fall into predictable tropes, rounding out the antagonists as fully as the protagonists. Even Martin, who Gelman gives a more openly malicious tinge this time around, will catch viewers off guard at times, while Colman finds nuance while fleshing out the Godmother’s wicked ways. (Her worst outburst even occurs offscreen.) The cast responds in kind, each and every one stepping up to match Waller-Bridge’s calculated efforts. There’s so much more to say once the series is out, and everyone can talk openly about the specific developments, but this is clear: Season 2 is a towering accomplishment, proving what many have suspected since her debut: Waller-Bridge is operating on a higher plane, and she’s kind enough to take the audience along with her.
“Fleabag” Season 2 premieres May 17 on Amazon Prime.