In Amazon’s “Fleabag,” Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s face is perfectly dryly comic. She maintains a straight, almost dour expression, but then there’s always a critical bit of drollness playing behind her eyes. She only seems to be raising a brow. It’s as though she’s amused by everything, but inside, privately.
Generally, Waller-Bridge, as the character we only know as Fleabag, appears to have a built-in sense of irony that mitigates anything life throws her way. Disappointments? Fleabag, so elegantly British and detached, doesn’t expect a lot to begin with. She is immune. On occasion, she cheekily turns her head to the camera and drops us a quip, or a wink, or a juicy, depraved confession, as part of her unbothered approach to life.
So why does this character make me so sad? That’s one of the beauties of the show, written by Waller-Bridge, which recently came out with a second season that, miraculously, is even more brilliant than the first, from 2016. And it’s one of the beauties of Waller-Bridge’s work, which is psychologically perceptive and yet subtle. Fleabag is fronting; she is very much on the run — from the deaths of her closest friend and her mother in season one, from the need to be taken care of and to love and be loved in season two. She is hiding in plain sight, wearing a sophisticate’s mask, wielding her sharp wit and her urbane bob as protective devices.
What breaks my heart about Fleabag is that exact tension between what she feels and what she reveals. It’s brave, but tragic, the face she puts on for the world. She’s the kid none of the teachers worry about, despite the fact that she keeps dropping things. Fleabag’s ability to detach — a useful ability, at times — has gotten the better of her, so that she’s in a constant state of distance from herself. She feels grief and loneliness, but, in keeping with her odd family’s “buck up” nature, she keeps it hidden. She’s willing to circumvent her own pain; the awful collateral damage is her ability to feel at all.
I was wary when I heard that Waller-Bridge was making a second season of the show, since season one, which was on my year-end Top 10 list, was such a self-standing gem. It wasn’t just Fleabag’s compelling presence at the center of the story that made it great, as she used sex and drugs to fight her sorrow; all of the characters were finely designed to surround her with varying levels of unenlightenment and a lack of self-awareness, notably her blustery father and his passive-aggressive girlfriend (played with cringe humor by Bill Paterson and Oscar winner Olivia Colman).
But Waller-Bridge moved forward with Fleabag shrewdly, by mixing her up with a priest, in particular the handsome Catholic priest, played by Andrew Scott, set to perform her father’s upcoming nuptials. She pushed her tragi-comic heroine into a man who is not available, but who, by virtue of his unavailability, might have something to show her about faith and its virtues, about what makes the aches of love worthwhile. At one point, Fleabag visits the confessional to talk to the priest (we don’t learn his name), and the emotional words that pour out of her put to shame all of her little snarky fourth-wall confessions to the audience.
So I’m thanking my lucky stars for Phoebe Waller-Bridge these days. She has delivered some of the best-written television of the past three years, with two pitch-perfect seasons of “Fleabag” and with the clever season one of “Killing Eve.” She writes with a psychological discernment that clashes thrillingly with her brash sense of humor. In “Killing Eve,” she gave MI5 agent heroine, Eve, played by Sandra Oh, a similar duality as Fleabag. On one level, Eve was chasing after killer-for-hire Villanelle (played entertainingly by Jodie Comer) out of a fierce sense of justice; on another level, her obsession with catching Villanelle was actually speaking to something dark inside herself. She was inexplicably drawn to the same sociopathy she was fighting against. She was also sexually attracted to her target, it seemed.
Without Waller-Bridge’s fine sense of what lies below the surface of her heroines, without her ability to indicate their hidden feelings without naming them, “Killing Eve” went down the tubes. In season two, which ended last month, Eve’s obsession was front and forward in the story, and she was thrown together with Villanelle repeatedly and awkwardly. All the tacit complications that drove the series in season one were gone, brought to the surface garishly and stripped of their irresistible elusiveness. Eve’s duality became little more than a gimmick.