Before diving headfirst into Fleabag, l feel like sharing something personal. Sometime back, not that long ago, I had gone for a nightcap at Tandoor Park in Kolkata where I had a nondescript yet memorable experience. Especially noteworthy in a country like India which is typically so patriarchal and sexist – even behind its liberal faces. Smack dab in the middle of Kolkata, there are pubs that have an unspoken rule of not allowing women. There are even pubs that ‘very spokenly’ prohibit women from entering. Tandoor Park of course is a cosmopolitan place, so none of that there. But even there, if you went to its upper floor in the evening, you would find it a wholesale “men’s room” – where mostly well-to-do working men in their 30s and 40s go after a hard day at the office.
Anyway, I was in the adjacent smoking room, marinating myself in a cigar. Besides me, there was a group of slightly aged professional men discussing contemporary television and cinema. From their discussions, they didn’t seem to be from literary or artistic fields, but people who did seem to enjoy a good deal of pop culture. At one point, they got to Fleabag. And they simply couldn’t stop gushing about it. What a great show it was, how original, how real, how moving, etcetera.
That got me thinking: what is it about Fleabag that is so appealing – across gender, age, and nationalities? If it is so ‘original’ and ‘authentic’ and ‘unique,’ how can it be universal at the same time? And that got me thinking about the question of authenticity. A question I intend to explore that through two lenses:
- Authenticity as art
- Authenticity as autobiography
Fleabag is a cosmopolitan show. When I said “nationalities” earlier, I strictly imagined a modern-day urban audience modeled on western artifacts. Not some remote, enclosed, survivalist society. This is not to imply that an Inuit or Eskimo might not feel or express very similar things. But I simply do not have the authority to comment on that perspective, from my own position as a historical subject. I called them “remote,” but I am as remote to them as they are to me. Therefore, I must limit myself to how I made sense of Fleabag. From my own cosmopolitan existence, and as an avid consumer of popular culture.
Authenticity As Art In Fleabag
As the closest precursor in terms of chronology and themes, the series that immediately comes to mind is Rachel Bloom’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015 – 19). That show plays around with genres like musical, melodrama, French romance, even slasher movies. But it largely adheres to the template of a self-aware romantic comedy for much of its early seasons. It is a somewhat long show too. On the other hand, the original play ‘Fleabag’ predates Crazy-Ex. So perhaps it’s best that both these shows be treated as two roughly contemporaneous takes on a similar theme. Crazy-Ex is more diverse and expansive. Fleabag is more concise. The wit and intensity are more jam-packed. The artistic inspirations and reference points of this show are built with greater subtlety into its texture rather than gloriously wearing them on its sleeve like Crazy-Ex.
Fleabag vs Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
The idea of a constantly “performative” existence is explored in both shows. The sense of having an invisible camera pointed at the protagonist at all times – but in markedly different ways. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the narrative is more cleanly divided into regular television drama and the fantastical musical universe which highlight the inner fantasies of the protagonist, the lens through which the titular “crazy ex-girlfriend” decodes the world. By contrast, Fleabag mixes up the execution in a more radical fashion. She juxtaposes the act of talking or looking at the psychic camera with her real-life interactions. Further indicating that life has no clean breaks between the “performative” and the “real.”
It’s a thin distinction, but a distinction nonetheless. There is the main point of difference in the vision and execution of the two shows. Fleabag certainly takes its fair share of spiritual inspiration from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Especially in its portrayal of a certain spectrum of mental disorders and all the exhilarating as well as unbearable experiences that come with them. But Fleabag defines herself more by diverging from the Crazy-Ex template. By amplifying the staccato hyperreality of 21st-century life, but also being somewhat more grounded than Crazy-Ex.
There are clearly many conscious or subconscious influences of a multitude of works on Fleabag. It is one of the finest, most well-written examples of its kind, but there are other works that came before it. Those works defined their own respective generations, which in turn paved the way for such a show in our generation. To unpack some of these influences, we must unpack the themes first.
The love story in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Leon Morin, Priest (1961) is very close to the central romance of Fleabag season 2. A similar sense of lingering guilt, bereavement, and sisterly dynamics can be seen in Jonathan Demme’s tragicomedy Rachel Getting Married (2008). Like Kristen Wiig in 2011’s Bridesmaids or Amy Schumer in Trainwreck (2015), Fleabag shares the sense of being lost, with attachment issues and a generally cynical persona, with an added flair for showmanship. Bridesmaids especially was a groundbreaking effort at the time in women taking narrative charge after a decade of tiresome, feel-good, saccharine swill.
Fleabag doesn’t shy away from the basic common interface shared with the male sex either. The dark side of sexual addiction is a cry for intimacy, to escape the numbness of reality, objectification, and alienation – these are the main thrusts of Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon (2013). Emotionally, Fleabag exists somewhere in the interstices between Shame and Don Jon.
Fleabag is a pastiche,
To these several artistic works, and more. But she retells and reinvents those themes on her own individual, lived, intuitive terms. That gives the show its biting sense of authenticity. How it sieves the universal from the particular. To give one example, Fleabag pays respectful tribute to the core philosophy from Leon Morin, Priest. But she does not approve of the (for its time) low-key unfavorable view on lesbian attraction in that film. So she sets the record straight through one of the most honest such interactions featuring Kristin Scott Thomas. And yet she is not really out to “prove a point.” The scene unfolds so naturally – it’s real.
Even when Fleabag pays tribute, she tweaks it just a little bit. In a key scene from Leon Morin, both the confessor and the absolver are visible across the box barrier. In a similar scene from Fleabag, the screen shows only her face for the most part. The Priest is transformed into a voice, a presence – that highlights the allure of non-judgmental listening over mutual confrontation. (And of course, a modern update on the priesthood – if drinking liquor in the confession box wasn’t clear enough. The Internet may call him ‘Hot Priest’, but Fleabag’s name for him is “cool priest.”)
It is important to note that many of these symptoms that movies depict may intertwine in real life. And they often present as comorbidities. The only reason I chose to extract them into separate compartments is that one theme is usually heightened above others in these movies, mainly because of the limitations of the format. That is where much of Fleabag’s unassuming strength comes from. Being a television series (hence a longer form than cinema), it can perceptively deploy these connected themes over two seasons and twelve episodes. Fleabag is a mosaic that attempts to collate together all these related experiences of diverse cinema – into a singular one. Like life.
Authenticity As Autobiography
What is authenticity but a radical, fearless representation of the self in an already established cultural form? A representation that can destabilize and push that form. Have you ever (tried to) read Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions? It can be boring as hell in many places. Especially the adult sections. Basically, it’s a series of Rousseau’s 18th-century social media rants. Yet it is still being read today. Why is that? Because, for its time, it was a radically private and thoughtful text that invented the modern form of autobiography. Not many of such groundbreaking works of their kind is available from that time.
And that insufferable persona of his remained because this certain someone named Rousseau decided to write what many were thinking. And to reclaim himself from the ravages of time through that writing. First, he wrote as an artist and a philosopher: to create the ‘mystique.’ Then he supplemented it with his own life, sometimes with brutal honesty. That was his way of challenging his own mortality, in one of the few ways that a sentient human organism knows how to do so.
The quest for an afterlife,
Perhaps that’s why people maintained diaries and journals. To leave behind a piece of themselves. The diary distracted them from the oppressive banalities and overexcitement of life through reflective observation. The writing itself gave a measure of contentment, a coping mechanism. In today’s explosive digital world(s), the same could be told about stories, posts, photos, videos, blogs – the identities that one produces and circulate. There is no reason to suppose anybody’s life is mediocre or less rich than others. However, it is the construction of identities that gives us an insight into the kernel of one’s life, which otherwise would be doomed to the husks of oblivion, the realm of the unseen.
It is this oblivion, this invisibility, that frightens Fleabag. And it is this sense of living mortality that she seeks to surpass through her art and her life. Her life as art.
Now, now, enough foretalk. It’s time to get down and dirty, into the lonely heart of things.
The Fleabag Journal
Why should the desire for writing oneself into the world be any more or any less today than what it was before? From the early age of cave paintings to the advent of cinema, it has been a driving human need. To write oneself, to recognize oneself through the writings of others. But the digital age offers new kinds of form: fast, available, always accessible, always revisable. For Fleabag, the camera is her journal. Or her ‘Personal Blog’ – to use the parlance of our times. But it is how she deploys that form, which really pushes its limits into novel territories (kind of what I’m doing with film criticism right now? No? Okay. Don’t blame me. Much of the thrill of my existence comes from vicariously living through other people. It’s fine. Everything’s fine. This article is lovely.)
That intimate deployment of form is what connects her to the audience as well as sets her apart. The dialogues in that live blog are her journal entries. The reader: she herself. But not just her, us too. It’s set up to look like she is the only audience of her mind (hence the appeal), but she isn’t.
That is the paradox of the diarist.
Especially for a diarist who is also an artist. There is this intensity of privacy, of seeing oneself reflected in one’s own pages. But there is also the desire for exposing oneself in that very act, of leaving behind traces of oneself in legible forms. Words that are likely to be scavenged by others, especially if that person is an artist. A diary is a retrospective, revisionist identity put together by oneself that seeks to both deflate and inflate the artist’s ‘mystique.’ And Fleabag is that epitome of Millennial art: an autobiographical artist.
A diary is a more authentic version of oneself than a letter. It is a letter to oneself. So it is close to the ‘autobiography’: a form accepted as factual enough to be fiction. (There’s a reason why the epistolary novel was short lived, but the autobiographical novel is still extant. As both writers and readers, we desire our autobiographies to be fiction and vice versa).
Everybody wants to be a celebrity in life and love.
I sometimes fantasize about which celebrities I would NOT want to meet even if I got the chance. And the answer is most celebrities. Because one learns to differentiate the person from their mystique. That’s what makes the autobiographical actor so appealing a figure. Because in them the person and the “mystique” are so congruently close. In them, our subconscious dissonance with the world comes to visible life, even as they (and we) become a part of that very world. James Dean, River Phoenix, Heath Ledger, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Take your pick.
In our modern world where the ‘self’ has easy ways to magnify and expand over everything, Fleabag’s ‘real,’ ‘authentic’ self has to traverse this existence that is caught in the ironic web of both the ‘private’ and the ‘public.’ Sometimes the two are indistinguishable. It screams for both intimacy and solitude. Social media is hardly present in Fleabag, but its architecture looms over the show.
She realizes her solitary, melancholic outlook on life makes her interesting and special, but also simultaneously visible and invisible. She has her back turned in her stepmother’s painting. It’s as if she is afraid to face the world as much as the world is afraid to face her. Which makes it unbearable after a point for the individual, because the world is impersonal. And the core anguish of her existence comes out poignantly in the ‘cafe scene’ towards the end of season 1:
“Either everyone feels like this a little bit and they’re just not talking about it, or I am completely fucking alone. Which isn’t fucking funny.”Fleabag, Season 1 (Episode 6)
Note the layers in this declaration.
First off, the phrase “a little bit” is not used lightly (nothing is ever ‘light’ with her, even when they are). It is a layered choice of words that comes quite naturally to her, from a place of intimate sincerity. “A little bit.” These few words highlight both the universal commonality of her experience, as well as her neurodivergent personality. A personality that makes even a “little bit” of human emotions so much more potent on her. Often quite unbearably so.
And the weight of that power and that burden is what puts her both in sync and out-of-sync with the humanity surrounding her. Because she feels what everyone feels, she is ordinary. But because she feels them so strongly, she is a storyteller. And the journal camera can only go so far in suturing that schism. That is when the necessity for a healing touch from someone like the Bank Manager, the Hot Priest, or Belinda Friers becomes a matter of life and death for Fleabag. As it is with most of us, to a greater or lesser extent. And every person has their right value, at the right time, under the right conditions. The Bank Manager and Belinda choose to come to Fleabag. But Fleabag chooses to go to Hot Priest.
In the second and final season,
The paradox of the diarist is resolved through the character of Hot Priest, through whom Fleabag acknowledges that desire in a diarist to be seen in a state of vulnerability, to be wholly understood. Ideally without a diary and in their own lifetime. Not only understand but to be challenged.
It is not just Fleabag who challenges the Priest. He challenges her too. For one thing – if he knew about it – Hot Priest would call Bank Manager’s timely arrival at the cafe in season 1 “a godsend,” whereas Fleabag would simply call it “coincidence.” On the other hand, Fleabag’s poster art often shows her in a Jesus pose. Scandalous egotism, or a genuine change of faith? Perhaps a little bit of both? Wow. Maybe that’s how Jesus himself was in his own time! Why is he so loved otherwise? Even the Italian mafia love that guy and they’re the worst. They love him because Jesus could see the bad in good people and the good in bad people.
Anyway, I’ll stop being scandalous and move on to the next section, since I’ve pushed the limits of television review enough… (for the moment)
The Fleabag Perspective
There are some motifs that recur as both comic and tragic scenarios. The bicycle, for example. The bicycle appears at a funny juncture (the hilarious “walk of shame” scene). But it is also an ominous sign. We learn Fleabag’s friend accidentally killed herself by wading into a bike lane. Later Fleabag attempts to do the same impulsively after hitting rock bottom. Or the headless statuette, which is shown in both funny and melancholic scenes. And the song she sings with her friend: “And we are happy / so happy / to be modern women” – has both a liberating edge to it and pathos. Even the dinosaur and the fox appear in laugh-out-loud hilarious as well as quietly heartbreaking moments.
There is what might be called a ‘dual perspective’ model in the series. We primarily observe the drama through Fleabag’s eyes. But her mental condition indicates that she can show sympathy for a wide range of people around her. Characters initially shown in unflattering light are given an uncommon level of nuance. The Bank Manager, the Tooth Guy. The all-male getaway healing session. Even the obnoxious brother-in-law gets to be a real person than a mere caricature. Fleabag’s perspective makes it possible that even when we do not get to know these stories, we come away wondering what it might have been to live life through the eyes of the Tooth Guy, for instance. Or, what future awaited the Bank Manager; did he find his poker-faced happiness? We come away feeling these could be interesting stories in their own right.
This duality is a key narration technique.
Characteristically, the show injects moments of melancholy with a touch of levity. Take Fleabag’s last interaction with the Bank Manager, for instance. The series implies that both he and Fleabag are quite similar in some ways. And their dynamic seems more like a couple of adult siblings than adult professionals.The attitude and humor that each deploy to traverse their respective interior lives comes more from a generational gap than an actual difference. (One can imagine a more mature Fleabag intrigued to find out what a “guinea pig cafe” is, as the Bank Manager.) So when they finally part for their own destinies, it is a bittersweet moment. But Fleabag breaks the tension with ridiculous commentary (“he took the pinny”).
A similar thing happens after her separation from the Hot Priest. When she sees that, on top of everything else, her bus has been canceled for the night – she gives a comically sad groan. This dual style of narration highlights the focal experience of the show: that hanging out in her skin can be a great deal of fun, until it isn’t.
That nuance doesn’t wholly take away the perspective bias. Which is not a negative thing, since it is inherent in the art of storytelling itself. That is how any narrative takes shape – both useful and harmful ones, political and personal. So we still see the show through Fleabag’s eyes, and hence do not fully feel the extent of Harry’s trauma, or the Tooth Guy’s vulnerability. Even though we do get to witness them. We sympathize with Fleabag, but not so much with her father who is understandably lonely too. We understand Fleabag’s betrayal, but do not grasp the full extent of her best friend’s sorrow.
Yet somehow, Fleabag manages to use perspective bias to its advantage. Because there is always that moral question she has to deal with. The notion that, even when your morality lapses into surrender from constant psychological pain, you must still attempt to do the needful; make amends. To be responsible for what your actions might mean for other people, even when you cannot always identify with them. And in the final episode, it is she who holds the ceremony together by being the sanest, most grounded, most responsible person at the wedding – as everybody else around her (including Hot Priest) devolves into chaos and doubt. Once she assumes that responsibility, she becomes a looking glass where everyone can see what they need to see, not what they want to see: acceptance, liberation, humiliation, or affirmation. To each their own.
Fleabag is a story of how a “bad girl” tries to become a “good girl.” But not in the sense of some old Morality Tale meant to educate women on how to behave. Rather, it is a ‘moral’ tale that works on the level of emotion and understanding, and the turmoiled realities of life. Life that can feel too long or too short – in the blink of an eye.
There’s her understanding that while Martin can be kind and useful sometimes, the weight of his bad behavior is much heavier. There’s also the understanding that while the occasional sexism of Harry can be offensive, it is still less severe than her own long-term maltreatment of him. Fleabag underscores how fragile or distorted that understanding can be – when seen through a haze of perpetual pain. But it is her underlying sense of responsibility that ultimately keeps Fleabag on the right side of the border – and alive.