"Fleabag" was a rare example of a breakout success getting better in its second season. Why, then, has creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge decided to call it quits?
The second season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge's devastatingly well-written tragicomedy, Fleabag, was made available to American audiences over the weekend, and critics can't stop gushing about it—for good reason.
Despite the raving reception of season two, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and real-life best friend and co-star Sian Clifford have announced that there will not be a season three.
Fleabag chronicles the life of its titular protagonist––a nihilistic 30–something–year old owner of a failing guinea-pig themed café, who attempts to fill the void left by her late mother and best friend with destructive behaviors. She searches for something to relieve the guilt of a complicated grief process that, most of the time, takes the form of reckless sex. Though it's not the first show to explore the inner workings of a woman trying to navigate love and loss––and the reckless behaviors that leave a trail of dysfunction in its wake––it is one of the few that does so with a wink and a nod.
Some shows find their footing a few seasons in (think Parks & Recreation), while others start off blazing hot until the fire dwindles and the plot lines putter out around the sixth or seventh season mark (Girls). Fleabag exists in neither of these camps. The show, which initially started off as a one-off adaptation of Waller-Bridge's play, wasn't conceived the way a regular series is. That's been both a blessing and a curse. After season one's release and critical acclaim in 2016, PWB was hesitant about a second season.
Season two maintains all of the aspects that made season one so compelling but somehow elevates them. This time around, the fleabag is still figuring it out, but she's starting to get a hold on things. The episodes revolve around a rom–com–esque arc between the anti-heroine and a hot priest with a drinking problem (Andrew Scott), as they dance around and find some solace in one another. As cute as that romance may appear, the show is still rife with all the messy tangles and hilarious missteps that make Fleabag so consumable. Along the way, the surrounding characters (namely the fleabag's dad and godmother and her sister Clare's skeevy husband) are given room to have their inner lives fleshed out and colored in by the chaos surrounding the family's dysfunction.
Waller-Bridge, who writes and stars in the show, often breaks the fourth wall, shooting the camera a knowing glance or making a wry comment. Her expressive facial features and deadpan delivery add a sense of levity as the audience watches her make mistakes she can't seem to learn from and relationships crumble around her. Season two gets meta when the hot priest begins to ask the fleabag where it is that she goes when she looks to the camera or mumbles under her breath, revealing that perhaps her use of the fourth wall indicates a darker dissociation, far beyond the realm of a gimmicky film tactic. Or, maybe it points to how the audience at home listening to these asides are the fleabag's own form of Catholic confession. As much as it is a show about suffering and the destructive lengths one can go to in order to avoid feeling alone, Fleabag mostly uncovers how even those filled with the most existential dread are invariably searching for meaning in the people around them.
Sian Clifford, who plays Clare and is PWB's real-life best friend, recently elaborated on the decision not to continue with the show on BBC Breakfast.
"It's closer to poetry," Clifford said. "I think people will accept this is the end when they see it because I think it is complete. I think the story is complete."
This sentiment sparks a larger conversation about the forms that television series can take. As a recent article in The Ringer points out, these collections of 6 episodes each are less like conventional TV seasons than a diptych to be viewed in parallel with one another. Perhaps season two isn't so much a continuation or a finale of the first than it is an equal but opposite way to portray the ways the fleabag (and humanity at large) relate to love and pain.
Quitting while ahead is certainly one way of looking at the creative choice to finish at season two. But maybe it's less about salvaging the show's legacy and more a way of challenging how and what we expect from a beloved TV show. Of course, this decision will help calcify Fleabag into a beloved cult favorite untainted by excessive seasons, much like Judd Apatow's Freaks and Geeks. But fans may find it hard to grapple with the lack of resolve. After all, there are still questions left unanswered: How will the fleabag's relationship with the Priest unfold? Will Claire find fulfillment? Will Olivia Coleman's godmother character ever stop being evil?
Does a TV show owe us these neat conclusions, or is it better to challenge its audience by asking them to look inward and think about why they want so badly to know what happens next? Perhaps the dissatisfaction is due to how deeply the show resonates with viewers, who see a part of themselves in fleabag's search for meaning, or maybe it simply speaks to how well-crafted the characters and story are.
Either way, PWB, and her stellar wit are not going anywhere. The writer and actress' work spans from writing on the British sitcom Crashing and developing the acclaimed spy thriller Killing Eve to most recently getting tapped to spruce up the forthcoming James Bond script. Perhaps this is the end of Fleabag, but it's still just the beginning for Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
Sara is a music and culture writer. Her work has previously appeared in PAPER magazine and Stereogum.
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