Phoebe Waller Bridge writes and stars in Fleabag. Photograph from IMDb
Culture Movies

Fleabag and the rise of the a-hole protagonist

Phoebe Wallers-Bridge brilliantly weaves a complicated tale about womanhood and the pitfalls of being nice. Following a recent trend, the show also makes you root for crappy people.
Jam Pascual | Jun 22 2019

Fleabag is a show about people who say they’re fine, but actually aren’t.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s the pitch, the gist. It’s a show about extremely emotionally stunted people who don’t know how to talk to each other except by deriving twisted joy from pushing each other’s buttons. It’s like when you’re at a family dinner with your father’s girlfriend whom you deeply hate, and a sister who wishes you didn’t exist, and her terrible husband who tried to make a move on you one time at a party, and a priest who has absolutely no business being a man of the cloth with that much sex appeal.

Trouble in the family: Olivia Colman and Bill Paterson respectively play Fleabag's godmother and father, who begin their relationship after Fleabag's mother's death and deal with that fact in unusual, unhealthy ways.

 

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And there’s no other way a situation like that plays out, except with the usual ritual of empty niceties. Until somebody finally erupts, sick of the charade—and everyone seated at the table is left reeling from the shock of seeing the illusion of “everyone is fine” shattered before their eyes.

This is the scenario that starts us off in Fleabag’s recently concluded second and final season. At the heart of that is our eponymous hero, played by Phoebe Wallers-Bridge, who is also the show’s creator and executive producer. She is a young, discontented, chaotic neutral (but sometimes chaotic good, at best) woman with a concerning sexual appetite who, for better or worse, is tasked with dragging the people she tries to love, kicking and screaming, out of Plato’s cave of common decency. She also, despite her best efforts, says she’s fine when she’s not.

Mind games: In Rick and Morty, mad scientist Rick Sanchez (voiced by show co-creator Justin Roiland) wrongly assumes that all problems, including emotions, can be solved by science and intelligence, even when it warms his family. Photograph from IMDb

We are right now living in a small renaissance of—to put it frankly—a-hole protagonists. Rick Sanchez of Rick and Mortyand Bojack Horseman both fit this mold, as charismatic slaves to their id who earn our sympathy with tragic flaws, seemingly unbeatable inner demons, rocky road character development, and a way of living that flies in the face of the social order they seek to disrupt. Perhaps this began with Heath Ledger’s Joker, one of the greatest cinematic villains of all time—but which also inspired droves of male edge lords to put on the same clown makeup for five Halloweens in a row.

Hollywood blues: Bojack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett) is one such a-hole character: a washed up TV star who struggles with alcoholism and existential dread. Photograph from Netflix

These a-holes blur the line between bad guy and tragic hero. They are mentally ill, with messed up moral compasses, and yet there are whole droves of toxic fans (mostly male feminist-haters) who worship these characters and, by extension, worship the toxic behaviors their shows and movies aim to discourage. Is it twisted wish fulfillment, watching douchebags get what they want—in badass cinematography—seemingly deriving their power from how amoral they can be?

I want to include Waller-Bridge’s character in this cultural moment, but Fleabagis interesting for reasons other than the above. In a political climate that produces the impossibly heavy expectation of being morally upright despite it all, the show strikes a severely raw nerve. Fleabag is, after all, a woman who seems cornered into the position of being an a-hole and worries about being a bad feminist. Waller-Bridge also weaves a complicated tale about womanhood and family and grief and the unusual burden of desire, and does it so well that it makes the title character’s decisions—whether it be punching someone in the face or hooking up with an old, long suffering ex—seem almost sensible. Imagine Estelle Rigault with ten times more agency and at least a hundred times more self-awareness.

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It is a weird journey to take, meeting a character who embodies everything you hate either about yourself or other people (but is just charming enough to get by), and getting to a point where you root for them to “win,” but that’s what happens. Sure, Fleabag’s genius stroke of breaking the fourth wall plays a big part in earning our sympathies (oh, to be there back when this show was still a monologue play, what power that must’ve had), but it’s the even pacing and well-propelled plot that really brings it home.

Season 1 highlights the fact that Fleabag makes terrible decisions, her actions propelled by a sense of grief or discontent that—let’s be honest—can overpower the best of us. At the end of first season she allows herself to succumb to a breakdown, exclaiming to a man who could’ve been easily #MeToo’d if things turned out differently, “You know, 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.”

But in Season 2, without giving too much away, we see our hero’s brash actions, impulses, and power plays as the heroic gestures they really are. Over the course of both seasons, Fleabag hones and perfects her combative stance against the hypocrisies of polite, non-confrontational society. She never quite repairs her brokenness, but uses it to bring about reasonable ends for almost everyone involved.

Unlike Rick and Mortyand Bojack Horseman, which are still ongoing a-hole stories awaiting season renewal (and are, therefore, tragic heroes stuck in arrested development), Fleabag is a complete portrait, the story of the tragic heroine realized, at its highest form, even if it is often times painful to watch. You will not be fine.

 

Fleabag currently streams on Amazon Prime. 

Photograph from IMDb