‘Fleabag’, Guilt, and Beautiful Grief
Chloe discusses presentations of grief in the 2016 comedy drama Fleabag.
With the clatter of a donkey charging through an orchestra, Fleabag came crashing onto our screens in 2016. In a show like this, jet black humour and sharp remarks concerning the very essence of womanhood (“Do I have a huge arsehole?”) run a mile a minute. For that reason, you’d think it would be easy to miss any deep, emotionally resonant moments Fleabag has to offer. Where its star and creator, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is concerned, ignoring those pivotal moments is rather impossible.
"Though Fleabag is dangerously (often perversely) funny, it has a spine made up of much more serious stuff – a spine weighed down by grief and guilt."
The eponymous Fleabag (played by Waller-Bridge) is heralded as a refreshing interpretation of a female lead due to her frank and honest nature. But even more refreshing is her character’s habit of doing the wrong thing. By the end of episode one, it’s obvious that Fleabag lives a life so unapologetically wrapped up in herself. After losing her mother and best friend in the space of a year, who can blame her? Well, evidently, she can.
It turns out that Fleabag’s hedonistic pursuits don’t go without causing a few bumps in the road, the most noticeable being the complex feelings of guilt tied up with the death of her best friend Boo. When creating their relationship, Waller-Bridge tells Vanity Fair that she imagined how she would react if her real-life best friend was to die. Taking it a step further, she asked herself:
“But what if it was my fault?”
We see that lightning bolt of guilt occasionally etched on Fleabag’s face; “Not now,” she grimaces to the audience as a confessional flashback flashes across the screen for a moment. Scenes like this allude to a character who - despite her apathetic wit and a wry smile - isn’t quite holding it together.
“I think I’ll always write vulnerable rascals.” Waller-Bridge tells The Guardian, “I can’t help but tell stories about loss or grief, in one way or another. Mainly I’m writing people who are desperate for love, but don’t know how to ask for it.”
Though the show might deal big grief guns out to our protagonist (death, illness and the like), Waller-Bridge doesn’t shy from exploring other losses, too. These are the kind of losses that play out in our lives on a minute scale, but nonetheless possess the power to completely wreck things anyway. This is most obvious in The Banker, played by Hugh Dennis. Initially, his character appears comedic and one dimensional as we witness a sardonically awkward exchange between himself and an accidentally shirtless Fleabag.
By episode three, we meet The Banker again. He has experienced a very emotional shift.
“I touched a colleague’s breast …” he confesses to Fleabag, “I’m just a very … disappointing man.” This scene – not lacking in irony as far distant cries of “Slag!” echo through the hills – slows down the tone of an otherwise racing show. Fleabag and The Banker sit upon the grassy hill of a countryside manor; the former taking part in a silent retreat, the latter at a workplace harassment workshop (hence the profanities). Despite the outcries of misogyny, it’s a beautiful scene. As The Banker begins his monologue, Allistrum’s March by The Gloaming plays on in the background, the pensive strings echoing the scene’s slow beats.
“They keep asking me, ‘What do you want from this workshop?’” he begins, “I want to move back home. I want to hug my wife. Protect my children, protect my daughter.” Another moment of grief interlocked with guilt. He continues, his list of wants trailing from the big losses caused by his harassment up to the everyday mundanities that are lost at the hand of such indiscretions; mugs and dishwashers, cupboards and theatres.
“I just want to cry,” Fleabag retorts, breaking her vow of silence, “all the time.” Cry for who, though, it’s not clear. Her mother? Boo? Herself? The only certainty - as two almost-strangers share a secret cigarette - is that these quiet, beautiful moments of shared loss are as integral to the nature of Fleabag as breaking the fourth wall and “using sex to deflect from the screaming void inside an empty heart.”
As seen with The Banker, Fleabag is a character whose brutal honesty grants those around her the room for self-reflection – but not so much for herself.
"Whilst researching for this piece, I was unsurprised to learn that people who’ve lost a loved one (or are losing loved ones) empathise with Fleabag’s coping mechanisms for grief."
“There’s a polarization of choice that appears when your life is altered by death. You can either let it consume you and embrace what it is or run in the complete opposite direction, ignoring it completely,” writes Raven Ishak, observing that Fleabag chooses to run - very, very hard. To really hammer that metaphor home, there’s a scene where she literally runs through a graveyard. Very on the nose.
What Fleabag also shows us, though, is that grief will come for us whether we run from it or not. By season two, Waller-Bridge offers insight into what life has to offer when all the dust you’ve kicked up running from grief finally settles. Reconsolidated family bonds, reconciliations, there’s even finally time for romantic love and loss again. Fleabag has received endless praise for its veracity when it comes to all things relating to the idea of women. But it’s a show that just as truthfully depicts grief: its nonlinear nature, the moments that make us feel inconceivably guilty, and – sometimes – the beauty of it all.