“Fleabag” season two opens in a dimly lit public bathroom. Our heroine (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, “Crashing”) looks up, blood smeared from nose to chin, cleaning her face with a cloth napkin. She turns to the audience with a smile and delivers the fateful line: “This is a love story.”
In the words of John Mulaney, “we don’t have time to unpack all of that.” But we do have time to talk about the scene’s brief but significant dialogue. As a show based around a lonely woman and her many (many) relationships, what, and more importantly, who, makes “Fleabag” a love story?
While watching the show’s second season, I thought long and hard about who the other half of Fleabag’s great “love story” was supposed to be (for those unfamiliar, yes, Fleabag is technically her name). Scenes featuring the titular character and her late best friend (Jenny Rainsford, “Death of a Farmer”), her romance with the “Hot Priest” (Andrew Scott, “Sherlock”) and her constant admission of the work that needs to be done on her own personality led me to believe that any of these could be the show’s most important relationship, — the love that drives the series and gives Fleabag’s world real meaning. I even briefly thought that this main relationship could be one between Fleabag and the audience, to whom she constantly breaks the fourth wall, which, I’ll admit, was a prediction I patted myself on the back for (I was wrong. My ego is back to its usual size).
But during the series finale, Fleabag insists that her sister Claire (Sian Clifford, “See How They Run”) rush to the airport to confess her feelings to the man she’s interested in before he leaves the country, and in a surprising turn of events, Claire shuts down the idea. She tells Fleabag in a rare moment of genuineness that “the only person I’d run through an airport for is you.” In retrospect, I can’t believe it took such a simple line for everything to click. “Fleabag”’s true love story isn’t one of friendship, romance or of self-improvement. It’s one of siblinghood.
It’s no secret to those familiar with the hit series that Fleabag’s story is inherently tragic. From losing both her mother and best friend within just a few years to falling in love with the one person she can’t have, Fleabag is no stranger to tragedy, no matter how many jokes she cracks to distract herself from the fact. However, after hearing Claire’s subtle yet eye-opening remark, we can look back at the show’s two seasons with a changed perspective. It isn’t that Fleabag is going through a personal tragedy that Claire doesn’t understand. It’s that Fleabag and Claire are both undergoing similar personal tragedies, but dealing with them in entirely different ways.
Claire is the classic type-A character: uptight, organized and a little condescending. As she deals with the loss of her and Fleabag’s mother, as well as her failing marriage to a deadbeat husband (Brett Gelman, “Stranger Things”), Claire turns to the only coping mechanism she knows: control. Meanwhile, as messy and aimless Fleabag deals with the loss of her mother and her best friend Boo, she also turns to the only coping mechanism she knows: sex. While the sisters’ different methods for dealing with their traumas lead them to clash and belittle the other’s ways of life, it doesn’t change the fact that these women are two sides of the same coin. As the show is told from Fleabag’s perspective, we spend most of the series believing that she is the only tragic figure in the show and that she is battling her trauma all by herself. However, Claire’s constant presence in her sister’s life and the tragic experiences they share serve as a reminder that no matter how lonely Fleabag feels, she has never truly been alone.
Star and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge also chooses to incorporate more sibling-centric elements into Claire and Fleabag’s relationship in order to highlight their role as a “love story.” From Fleabag claiming Claire’s miscarriage as her own to help her sister save face, to Claire’s emotionally guarded encouragements for Fleabag to improve her life, to the perfect and iconic “I look like a pencil” scene, the two women find subtle ways to show how much they truly care for one another — no matter how much arguing may get in the way. My brothers may get frustrated with my sarcastic tone or my inability to navigate out of a driveway, but a minute later, they’ll offer me rides, bring me coffee or ask me to join their game of pickup basketball. Fleabag and Claire will have it out just seconds before asking if the other is all right, proving that to have a sibling is to love each other — whether or not you like each other at the present moment. Waller-Bridge includes the sibling-centric tendencies of the pair in order to highlight the truth about their relationship: Despite their arguments about anything from elevator farts to alcoholic husbands, these two will always find a way to better one another’s lives.
Finally, what truly helps Fleabag and Claire’s relationship stand out as the show’s main “love story” is something that no other pair in the series can relate to: a complete and total understanding of one another. I love Andrew Scott’s character. But the Priest easily comes in second if we’re discussing familiarity with Fleabag. He does love her — he’s just still in a state of infatuation. He’s seen some of her negative qualities in the limited time they’ve been together and cared for her anyway. He’s even been able to see through Fleabag’s fourth wall breaks unlike anyone else in her life. However, the Priest’s choice to begin a relationship with Fleabag is proof that their connection was doomed from the start — he chooses to pull himself away from something as eternal as religion for something as fleeting as a romantic relationship. Due to the newness of their romance, the Priest is still charmed by Fleabag, by her wit and her candor. She’s still new to him, still shiny.
Claire, on the other hand, isn’t so impressed. She’s lived a lifetime of frustration caused by Fleabag’s outlandish humor and inability to grow up. She’s had her tops stolen, her money borrowed and her patience tested her whole life, all by her younger sister. She’s also the only person in Fleabag’s life who’s seen every side of her, no matter how sick and twisted, and been there for her regardless.
The similarity between Claire and the Priest is that loving Fleabag hasn’t been an easy feat for either of them. Fleabag strains and frustrates Claire to no end and puts the Priest in a position of ultimate sacrifice, with both his love and his faith on the line. The difference is that Claire and Fleabag will stand the test of time. They won’t give up on their relationship because of tragedy, because it’s painful or because it’s messy. Claire and Fleabag have accepted the messiness in their relationship: It’s a given. But each day, the sisters make the choice to fight, taunt and even hate one another sometimes — and yet love each other all the while.
So yes, Fleabag was right. This is a love story. Just not the one we first think it is. A love story doesn’t have to be about getting down on one knee or walking down the aisle. Sometimes, a love story is about screaming at your sister in a public setting that her new haircut does not make her look like a pencil (even if it does). In just two seasons and 311 perfect minutes, Phoebe Waller-Bridge cultivates a near-perfect relationship full of passive-aggression, sibling love and, most importantly, an eye-opening piece of dialogue: “The only person I’d run through an airport for is you.”
Daily Arts Writer Olivia Tarling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.