‘This is a love story’ says the eponymous heroine of BBC’s Fleabag frankly, blood dripping from her bruised nose as she at the stares directly down the camera lens at the viewer. This punchy (no pun intended) opening to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s masterpiece of a second series sets the tone for the rest of the episodes, but also leads us to question ‘what is a modern love story?’
Fleabag gives a simultaneously profound, and yet somehow also unsentimental, view of what it is like to be both a millennial and a woman in 2019. The unnamed main character, referred to by the audience only as Fleabag, manages to show the hideous, humorous, tragic and touching sides of modern-day human relationships.
Haunted by the death of her best friend, Fleabag uses a raft of coping mechanisms to deal with her broken family, struggling small business and infatuation with a Catholic priest. Whilst the programme does not conclude with a traditional ‘happy’ or romantic ending, we see Fleabag journey from someone running from her problems (using some dubious comforts as a crutch), to a place of emotional and sexual honesty. Perhaps through Fleabag, Waller-Bridge is showing us that 21st Century relationships are more a journey of the self in relation to other people, rather than with other people? Throughout the second series, we see a variety of different relationships being built and breaking down, from the second marriage of Fleabag’s father to her mother’s eccentric best friend, the lusting of her sister’s teenage stepson, to the collapse of her sister’s relationship. All in their own ways, love stories!
Known in its first series for its use of ‘breaking the fourth wall’, a term within drama for when actors interact directly with an audience, Fleabag’s trait of conversing with herself via the camera is brilliantly disconcerting and highly comic. In the second and final series, this wry trait is spotted by her lusted-after man of the cloth, as he stomps on the remains of the already broken fourth wall, by commenting on her asides with, ‘where did you just go?’ and ‘you disappeared’. This observance and breakdown of Fleabag’s stress management tool shows how he has seen beneath her outward, public persona and is therefore more connected to her.
This is mirrored by the priest’ reliance on God, symbolised by the haunting presence of the foxes that follow him around and interrupt intimate conversations. In the concluding minutes of the last episode, Fleabag walks away from the audience and the camera, with a glance over her shoulder and a raised hand of farewell. The priest, however, is followed home by a slinking fox. The pair’s fleeting relationship has liberated Fleabag from some of her pain and insecurities but bound the Priest more tightly to the refuge of the church.
Priest’s poignant line, ‘Love isn’t something that weak people do. Being a romantic takes a hell of a lot of hope’, shows how the more fragile and transient romantic connections of today, still mean and take a lot.
English students might like to consider other examples of tragic and comic love stories within literature, for example the works of Shakespeare. Applicants hoping to study Psychology might wish to study portrayals of relationships within modern drama. Those aspiring to take Theology at university could investigate the juxtaposition between love and religion.