Fleabag: Grief, And Those Around Us

We’ve all been through our fair share of emotional crisis. Pains from all sides, of all sizes, and all sorts; the kind that jab and the kind that dig; the type that end, and the type that always start fresh. What Fleabag has been to me, in my interpretation, is a show about grief and family and all of the other things that it has been commonly described as, thematically. But is also a show about someone suffering, and being made to suffer alone; it is also a show about playing the roles your given; it is also, and perhaps with the most resonance, a show about being denied second chances.

I

Who is Fleabag talking to, exactly, when she breaks the fourth wall?

All of those outbursts, of both enthusiasm and pointed mockery, and of facial expressions and reddening eyes, are directed at someone else. You talk to someone to communicate something to them; that, of course, is the whole point. What is the point of Fleabag telling us, the audience, what she’s feeling, except to make sure that somebody, somewhere, actually knows how she’s feeling?

What she did to Boo is not a secret to her sister, a person who she has a sometimes tenuous relationship with; she was not afraid to tell someone about what she had done, and never expected it to come back up in conversation, let alone to be thrown in her face at her worst, most vulnerable moment. Fleabag is treated as the leper of the family, and of the people around her, but she is no more awful than anybody else. There is absolutely nobody who has their stuff together in this show, especially those who proclaim it the loudest.

II

Fleabag’s father shouts at her during her stepmother’s exhibition, telling her that he’s moved on, and that she should to. But the thing is, that she isn’t acting the way that she’s acting because her godmother replaced her mother to become her stepmother; she’s acting that way because her friend is dead, and her business is failing, and she has nobody in her life that she feels any connection with. It’s no surprise that, when Fleabag and her stepmother get into their fight, that he comes in to only see her stepmother slap her. The stepmother offers nothing outward to Fleabag’s father, nothing that would explain his frankly bizarre behavior, and yet her chooses her over Fleabag.

There is only one conceivable interpretation: her father chose her stepmother because he can’t stand to be around Fleabag. She talks about how her father is uncomfortable about being alone in a room with her; he mentions, when they first meet in the series, that she got all of her problems from her mother. The charitable conclusion to draw is that Fleabag reminds him so much of his late wife that he can’t stand to see her, and the darkest, more heartbreaking conclusion is that he doesn’t find her that appealing. To think, really and truly, that the only thing that affects Fleabag is the death of her mother, is wholly bizarre; it shows a specific, purposeful lack of understanding. People forget birthdays, or don’t notice when you’re upset at something a co-worker says; but they do not forget that your best friend died, and maybe killed herself. That is burned into your brain, driven deep, and every time you see something that reminds you of your daughter, you remember what she’s been through.

All of the people in her life go out of their way to make her feel as if she’s the bad guy; as if she’s the only person who has made mistakes or misspoke. She is forced to endure her sister’s accusations, knowing that her husband is a drunk and a man who makes sexually inappropriate remarks; she is forced to endure her stepmother’s exhibition, as waitstaff instead of participant, and as a pariah when she finally stands up to her.

The real secret of Fleabag, and Fleabag, is not that it’s a show about a broken woman who alienates around her; Fleabag is about a woman with severe and deep-rooted emotional problems who has made catastrophic mistakes, and  who is the convenient receptacle for all of her friend and families problems. Fleabag has done bad things, and has caused pain, but she is not obligated to play the black sheep role so that her family and friends can feel better about themselves.

III

It is on purpose that the one person to really get through to her is a man she hardly knows at all. The bank manager, a man with his own emotional issues, casts no judgments and brings down no hammers; he apologizes for his behavior, and opens up to her. Her probably doesn’t remember her first or last name without consulting her loan papers but he is willing to take the time and talk to her, and give her a second chance.

“People make mistakes,” he says, and sits down to do her loan interview again. He gives her a second chance, like nobody else ever has. She is who she is, in part, because she is playing a part. It’s easier to play the part you’re expected to than to break the mold and become someone different. It’s easier for Claire to use Fleabag as an excuse to get out of going to Finland, to paint her as the loser sister, than it is for Claire to face her own breaks and cracks.

It’s easier for her father to tell her to move on, to paint her as the long-grieving daughter, than to acknowledge that he has no idea who Fleabag is.

IV

The bank manager, way back when, tells her that her application was funny; she is taken aback, and they discuss it no further. But the last few seconds of the show is her laughing at her description of her business as a ‘café for guinea pigs’.

“I told you it was funny,” he says, and this time, he took the time to show her what she meant. This time, they’re both in on the joke. And isn’t that interesting, in a season of television in which the comedy was mined through forced, painful interaction, that the first real laugh came a joke that was shared, instead of inflicted.

5

Summary

Fleabag is about grief, and regret, and second chances purposefully denied.

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