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Scene Breakdown: How ‘Fleabag’ Dissolved a Toxic Marriage With Wit and Heart

A detailed look at the work of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Sian Clifford, and Brett Gelman that led to the show's 11 Emmy nominations.

Amazon

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The second season of “Fleabag” created, written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge features a memorable, chemistry-laden scene in which the title character kneels in front of her priest-turned-lover. They kiss, an act that kicks off the central relationship in this season’s love story. But there’s a second scene – also involving a woman kneeling in front of her partner – that is equally powerful but for far different reasons because it marks the long-awaited dissolution of a toxic marriage.

In the final episode of Season 2, which earned 11 Emmy nominations last month, Fleabag’s sister Claire (Sian Clifford), emboldened by alcohol, has just revealed that she had a miscarriage and that she wants to end her marriage to the boorish misogynist Martin (Brett Gelman). But she knows that they won’t split unless the stubborn lout agrees to let her go. After Martin lays out mindnumbingly bad reasons for them to stay together – “I’m not a bad guy, I just have a bad personality … I’m a douche but I make you laugh!” – he challenges her conviction.

“I think the thing that you hate about yourself is that you actually love me,” he says. “So I am not going to leave you until you are down on your knees begging me.”

Without missing a beat, Claire kneels and then coldly demands, “Please, leave me.”

The three-minute scene is meticulously crafted, and yet it’s also the result of last-minute changes. “The moment you’re actually on set listening to the characters or the actors actually say the words, sometimes it would just be incredibly clear to me what needs to be done and what’s on the page isn’t necessarily right,” said Waller-Bridge.

The hilarious yet heartbreaking scene between Claire and Martin required both rewrites and a completely different line reading to perfect it. Clifford’s first take on the “Please, leave me” line was much more emotional, which was consistent with Waller-Bridge’s script.

“We got two takes, and I had one where I was really emotional that I had literally tears pouring down my face. And then we were suddenly like, ‘No, I don’t know that that’s right. I don’t know that she has any tears left for Martin,'” said Clifford.

“[Claire] was so tired and so resigned and so over [everything], that she had nothing left. And so that, “Please, leave me’ is a war cry, a plea: ‘I have no energy left. I need you to do this for me. Let that be your parting gesture.'” And that worked so much better. It’s more powerful and accurate.”

Later at her father’s wedding, Claire actually does start to cry when she hears the Priest’s (Andrew Scott) speech about love representing hope. “And that’s when Claire decides to leave and go to [her Finnish lover] Klare at the airport,” said Clifford. “We were just like, ‘That’s who she’s got tears for, that man. That’s who she loves, that potential, that seed that’s been sown. There’s nothing left for Martin.”

As for Martin, despite his protests, he doesn’t have a leg stand on. He’s an angry alcoholic who appears incapable of saying anything kind and often devolves into cringe-worthy sexual innuendo. To top it off, he even tried to kiss Fleabag (Waller-Bridge) on Claire’s birthday in Season 1, but later claimed it was Fleabag who had come on to him.

Armed with the knowledge that he’s not a model husband, Martin delivers his unconvincing speech to try to win Claire back. “Yes, I tried to kiss your sister on her birthday. Fine. I mix up birthdays and I have an alcohol problem just like everybody else does in this fucking country, but I am here and I do things,” he said before listing chores like picking up his own son Jake from bassoon lessons. “The main fucking problem here is that you don’t like me and that has been breaking my fucking heart for 11 years.”

Brett Gelman, "Fleabag"

Brett Gelman, “Fleabag”

Amazon

Gelman said, “Yes, Phoebe rewrote it. It was one of those things, where you’re showing up to set, and she’s like, ‘This is shit. This is not what Martin would say.’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, it feels good, it feels really good.’ We’re in the car, and she’s rewriting it next to me. And then once she finished rewriting it, it was like, ‘Oh, this is better.'”

“Once [Brett] got into the car there was a few minutes to drive, I just remember slowly peeling the script out his hand, I’m going, ‘Sorry, we’re going to change it,'” said Waller-Bridge. “[I had] all this stuff that had been going around in my head about this idea that he thinks he does so much for his wife, but actually the things he lists are so ridiculous and mundane and tiny… All of this came pouring out in just one speech, and then Brett contributed with this brilliant line about like everyone in the U.K. is an alcoholic.

“In 10 minutes, by the time we’d got back, I’ve written this new speech, and by the time [Brett] got to set he was completely off book and he performed it. He was on fire,. He got a round of applause afterwards because he was so extraordinary, and there was something really live about it.”

The speech is fascinating because it appears that Martin simply can’t help saying awful things even when he’s trying to reconcile with his wife. Perhaps a year ago this tactic may have worked on Claire, but instead, Martin is flailing until she has her final say.

“He both knows that he’s an asshole and hates that he’s an asshole,” said Gelman. “It’s this person who’s completely self-destructive, who feels completely alone, who behaves badly, knows he’s behaving badly, but just can’t make a different choice because he is so buried in his own self-hatred and his own dread of the inevitable, that is behavior is going to lead him to being completely abandoned and pushed away.

“And every time you look at Sian, what we were transferring in that scene was this culmination of the whole relationship,” he continued. “Even though I have more dialogue than her, what she is giving energetically in that scene is just as important,” said Gelman. “It was so cathartic. It just felt so right for that to happen. You heavily relate to it when you’re acting it, especially with where I’m often at in my life, moments like this, where it’s making a play for extreme empathy in the midst of a serious folly.”

Brett Gelman and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, "Fleabag"

Brett Gelman and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, “Fleabag”

Amazon

There’s a third party in the scene, however. Martin’s sister-in-law Fleabag is just as important to understanding him as Claire is. Besides blaming his botched pass on Fleabag, he appears to have a deep-seated ill will that he reserves just for her.

“They really are the most similar characters to each other in the show. They both feel incredibly on the outside of everybody else, and especially the family. And they both use inappropriate humor in order to both try to connect, but also alienate, but also alleviate the deep pain and stress they’re feeling,” said Gelman. “Martin thinks that that connection is deeper than she does. With the kiss, it was not so much like this guy just decides to try and take what he wants, as much he tries to connect even further … and when he finds out that she doesn’t see it that way, he feels betrayed.”

As much as “Fleabag” has been about various characters being honest with themselves and finding love and happiness this season, Martin is still living in a miserable existence of his own devising.

“One of the lessons for Martin is how heterosexual men misbehave in these situations,” said Gelman. “Where the toxic masculinity comes in there, even more than him kissing her, it’s him then going out of humiliation, punishing her for not connecting with him and abandoning him. The major damage comes at how a man will then try to cover up the mistake that they did, whereas if they just took responsibility for it, we could then have a discussion and move forward. And so, that’s really one of the many things that I think is so brilliant about the writing.”

“Fleabag” has 11 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Comedy Series, writing, directing, casting, cinematography, editing, and five acting nods that include Waller-Bridge and Clifford.

Final-round Emmy voting is open from Thursday, Aug. 15 through Thursday, Aug. 29 at 10 p.m. PT. Winners for the 71st Primetime Emmy Creative Arts Awards will be announced the weekend of Sept. 14 and 15, with the Primetime Emmys ceremony broadcast live Sunday, Sept. 22 on Fox.

Additional reporting by Libby Hill.

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