You never learn the real name of Fleabag’s main character, but you never have to.
Throughout the first season of the beautifully candid British comedy, the woman known only as “Fleabag” (played by show creator and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge) makes herself known by letting us into the darkest, weirdest corners of her mind.
When we meet her, she’s mourning the death of both her mother and — as she reveals in a gut punch of a flashback at the end of the first episode — her best friend, whom we learn more and more about as Fleabag struggles to understand her accidental suicide.
And all the while, Fleabag — who would rather make jokes than talk about her grief — is hilarious.
Thanks to Waller-Bridge’s empathetic wit, Fleabag manages to find humor in just about any situation, from adventures in dating to family obligations to just trying to cope — even though all she wants to do is cry and break things. And she often does this while talking directly into the camera like she’s writing in a journal, completely unfiltered, daring us to look away.
In the series’ opening scene, for example, Fleabag turns to the camera and explains how she gets ready for last-minute, late-night sex by trying to relate to us:
You know that feeling when a guy you like sends you a text a 2 o’clock on a Tuesday night asking if he can “come and find you,” and you’ve accidentally made it out like you just got out yourself, so you have to get up out of bed, drink half a bottle of wine, get in the shower, shave everything, dig out some Agent Provocateur business, spin about the whole bit, and wait by the door until the buzzer goes?
Bzzt. Right on cue, there’s the buzzer, and even though she plays it cool with the impossibly attractive man on the other side of the door, we’ve already seen past that facade to the nervous, though excited, Fleabag underneath.
Throughout the series, Fleabag frequently makes grinning eye contact with us during everyday conversations (“See what I mean?”) or throws looks of confusion our way when something’s gone awry (“Oh, shit”). She flashes back sporadically to important moments; some are complete scenes, some just fleeting glimpses of her life before everything fell apart. She tells us the candid truth — or at least as much of it as she’s willing to acknowledge at that particular moment.
Much of Fleabag focuses on how she and her brittle older sister, Claire (Sian Clifford), grapple with their mother’s death. The two couldn’t be more opposite, but since their father would rather “gift” them with supposedly restorative feminist lectures and silent retreats than talk about their grief (and the 30-something sisters are too polite to refuse), they end up accidentally forming a tight bond despite their instincts.
Fleabag and Claire’s shared story ends up being the series’ biggest and best surprise, especially since Waller-Bridge and Clifford are so good at playing the kind of reluctant affection that very different siblings tend to have for one another.
But the most searing moments of Fleabag — not to mention the ones that motivated me to watch all six episodes of season one when I was only planning to check out the premiere — come courtesy of Fleabag’s sex life, and how it connects to her approach to just about everything else.
Throughout the season, Fleabag’s relationship to sex reveals increasingly complicated layers. She loves it, she needs it, she can’t fucking stand it. She turns to it when she’s sad, lonely, happy, bored, you name it. When she doesn’t know what else to do — or how to navigate a world that sometimes feels like it’s caving in — her first instinct is to sleep with someone, quickly, before any other emotions come spilling out.
It’s not very often that a TV show can talk about grief and the merits of anal sex in the same breath. But Fleabag is so wonderfully messy, funny, and deeply human that these seemingly chaotic collisions feel natural.
Fleabag season one is now available to stream on Amazon.