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Great Britain

The 50 best TV shows of 2019: No 2 – Fleabag

That the second series of Fleabag satisfyingly enriched and furthered the first, which stood as a perfectly worked standalone series, is a near-divine miracle – appropriately enough, given the figure who supplied most of the fuel for our second journey into Fleabag’s world: Andrew Scott’s Priest. Or, to give him the more accurate title, by which he instantly came to be known: Hot Priest.

It was, as Fleabag noted in the first aside to camera of the opening episode, a love story. The first series had, in many ways, been one of self-hatred as our heroine attempted to cope (largely through sexual misadventures) with the death of her best friend and – we came gradually to understand – her part in it.

The second series retained everything that made the first great – most importantly Phoebe Waller-Bridge herself, who again wrote the whole thing and starred as the charming nihilist she created in a 10-minute monologue for a storytelling night at Leicester Square theatre six years ago. Once more, it had a scabrous wit and emotional intelligence running through every line, whether funny, poignant, lacerating or heartbreaking. It kept its shining rigour, without a wasted word to dilute its subtlety or strength. The strange combination of alienation and intimacy – between the characters and viewers, and among the characters themselves – remained intact. As did the unceasing commitment to finding out just where the boundaries between hysterical laughter and horror lie.

And it kept its cast. Sian Clifford returned as sister Claire, ever humming with tension and misery, most of it induced by marriage to the all-round monstrosity Martin (Brett Gelman). Olivia Colman reprised her role as Godmother, a grandmaster of pass-agg, and Bill Paterson once again played the sisters’ inadequate father. All were at the top of their games, bringing even more to the endeavour as an ensemble than the sum of their parts.

The Priest is the new guy and the catalyst. In him, Fleabag meets her match. In perhaps the season’s cleverest and most profound moment, or meta-moment, he catches her as she delivers an aside to camera. “What was that?” he asks. “Where did you just go?” The breaking of the breaking of the fourth wall is emblematic of the suppleness and increased sophistication of the new series, as well as a beautiful encapsulation of the truth that your soulmate is the one who sees you entire. He knows her instinctively, inside and out. The sex, when it happens, is hot too. Kneeling in church will never be the same again.

What would in lesser hands be a simple raising of the dramatic stakes for shock value becomes the beginning of Fleabag’s redemption. He relieves her of some of her armour and her burdens and shows what forgiveness, hope and self-acceptance look like, and how a better life can be built out of rubble.

There are all sorts of other pieces of brilliance along the way – the peaks and troughs of sisterly love, and Kristin Scott Thomas’s monologue about women’s embodied pain and the liberation of the menopause, among many others – but we end where we began, with Fleabag alone. She doesn’t get the happy ending we and, less certainly, she wanted, but she gets the one she needs.

Some have questioned Fleabag’s “relatability” as a posh, thin, beautiful, white woman, but this seems to me to miss the point. For one thing, Waller-Bridge is writing about universal themes – Fleabag covers a vast amount of human experience in its 12 tight half-hours – and to suggest that people cannot appreciate a piece of art unless it closely correlates with their own exact life and makeup is absurd. And for another, the valiant fight for diversity will – like any other struggle for progression – be won in increments, not all at once. To scorn rather than support a first step will not help us reach the ideal state of affairs – which is that one day Waller-Bridge will not be required to be all things to all people, but will be one voice among many others, equally talented, from everywhere, showing us life utterly in the round. We’ll kneel before them all.

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