Grief, Sex, Sisterhood: Fleabag Is a Revelation

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Grief, Sex, Sisterhood: <i>Fleabag</i> Is a Revelation

Earlier this year, an episode of Hulu’s The Path did something that so few shows do, and offered up a powerful scene depicting the strangeness of sisterhood. I didn’t realize it until midway through a late night binge of all six episodes of Amazon’s incredible Fleabag, but I’d been waiting for another show to do the same—to give relationships between sisters more of the treatment it deserves. That this show has also managed to weave in two of my other favorite TV themes—grief! sex!—means that I have a new favorite series and I exist solely, in this moment, to convert the masses to this incredible work, from British playwright Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who stars as our beloved Fleabag.

You must watch every single episode of this blessed show, and New Yorker writer Emily Nussbaum offers up plenty of reasons why. If I had to summarize my love for the entire series, I’d just say that everything about it makes me want echo Jill Soloway’s plea for cis men to just… stop making things for a while—so we can hear, loudly and clearly, the voices of women who’ve long-deserved a space in media like TV and film. I say this because Fleabag is disguised as a shocking and oftentimes silly comedy, but I’m quite sure that it came here to topple the patriarchy.

But the episode that did it for me—that boldly went places I fervently wish every show could go—is the penultimate half hour, and an installment that involves a breast exam, a celebration of sorts on the anniversary of the protagonist’s mother’s death, the hilarious term “sexhibition” and the repeated descriptor, “fucked me up the ass.” Did I say that this show is perfect? It’s perfect.

Our hero and her sister show up every year at their father’s house to have an awkward remembrance for their mother, who died of breast cancer years ago. It’s awkward because the father can’t be in the room alone with his strange daughter; it’s awkward because our protagonist is ever the “slut” to her sister’s good, dutiful daughter; it’s awkward because their dad decided to re-marry their [former?] Godmother, who serves champagne on what is technically a day of mourning and flirts with our hero’s very attractive date (he of the descriptor “fucked me up the ass”). She delivers, to Fleabag’s date, my favorite line of the episode (just kidding, it’s impossible to pick one—but this one is up there) is probably, “If I tell you, will you promise to come to my sexhibition?” And in the midst of all this awkward, our hero is both missing her mother, and her dear friend, who we’ve only seen in seamlessly inserted flashbacks throughout the season.

This episode also stands out because it offers a hint at the complication of the story’s tragedy, and the protagonist’s role in it. The evil stepmother (played brilliantly by Olivia Colman) often plays as nothing more than a wretched joke to our hero, until she says something and becomes the first person to wipe that constant smirk off her face:

“It’s really all that humans want: is to be loved and to be touched.”

And then we see it: the jump cut to hands, undoing a belt. You’ll have to see the finale to understand why this memory, too, is grief. And why the words of her stepmother cut Fleabag so deeply, that she throws her sister under the bus, and tells everyone that she’s gotten a great new job in Finland. This scene also leads into one of the best flashbacks featuring Boo, Fleabag’s deceased friend (who died from an “accidental suicide”). There may be no greater depiction of friendship among women, than the sight of Boo, dressed in Fleabag’s clothes so that she can achieve her dream of meeting herself, and telling herself off. It’s a familiar dream, and perhaps one of the most human of all—to want to literally come face to face with yourself and all your demons and dangerous quirks.

This perfect episode ends with a slap louder than that one we heard on The Good Wife series finale, as well as an epic feline escape and two sisters coming together in the most wonderful, ridiculous revenge plot against their Godmother-turned-Stepmother (that the plot involves a gold statue of a woman with no arms and no head is something to unpack in a separate, feminist work of Fleabag praise).

I love a show where no one is safe, and no one is safe on Fleabag—not the feminists, not the bad feminists, not artists, not female artists (“I think it’s important for women of all ages to see how my body has changed over the years; I think they have to have a healthy perspective—on my body.”), not lovers, not perfect sisters who refuse to go to Finland for their dream job because they’re too worried about their weird stepson and broken sister. And of course, not the lead. Anti-hero isn’t even the word. I’ve never seen anything like it, even though there are echoes of women and storylines here that we’ve seen on shows like Lady Dynamite, Transparent and Catastrophe.

At the end of the episode, it’s Mr. “Fucked me up the ass,” who captures the beauty of it all, when he admits to getting a bit emotional after the dinner. He was finally, he said, in the presence of a “normal family.”

As a sister, and daughter of an awkward father, and daughter of a dead mother, and woman guilty of having had sex and enjoyed it—and laughed about it, and cringed about it, and then laughed again—and especially as one guilty of making unforgivable mistakes, sometimes towards my closest friends, I also find myself emotional in the presence of fleabag. It’s just so nice to finally be around a normal woman.

Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste, as well as a Script Consultant on Season Three of Transparent. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.