If there's one show that deserves an Emmy nomination this year, it's Fleabag. Phoebe Waller-Bridge's flawless second season playing the titular character, three years after insisting she was done with the story, is hands-down the best television I've seen in 2019. Yet the thought of having to defend my dream Emmy winner fills me with no small amount of trepidation. This is partly because so much has been written about the fourth-wall-breaking comedy (and by critics more eloquent than me), and frankly because I am a little intimidated by Waller-Bridge herself.
At 33 years old, Waller-Bridge is already the architect of three hit TV shows (Fleabag, Killing Eve, and 2016's Crashing) and is working on another series for HBO, she's performed on Broadway and acted in a Star Wars movie, and she's arguably one of the funniest, freshest, and most transgressive writers in Hollywood.
Fleabag, which existed first as a one-woman play, was born out of Waller-Bridge's desire for a character she could relate to, "inspired by the cynicism I was feeling in my twenties ... and also a touch of female rage," she told Vogue. And Season 1, which aired in 2016, introduced us to a thirty-something woman who uses humor (often in the form of witty asides to the viewers) to mask her pain after the deaths of her mother and her best friend — and her guilt over her role in the latter. She's painfully relatable and sometimes downright detestable (buckle in for some spoilers): She flashes the bank manager while he's reviewing her business loan application; she steals a valuable gold statue from her stepmother-to-be out of spite and releases her beloved pet cat out into the street for good measure; her boyfriend prepares a romantic meal to surprise her, and she reciprocates by pretending to attack him with a butcher knife in the shower; and, yes, she sleeps with her best friend's boyfriend. So it's not surprising that when Fleabag's sister's husband makes at a pass at her and then turns the blame on Fleabag when he's confronted, her sister is quick to take his side. After all, as Waller-Bridge explained, Fleabag is a "dark, contradictory, lying, acerbic sex addict."
While Fleabag, the character, lives an undoubtedly messy life, there's nothing sloppy about Fleabag, the show, which uses every second of its expertly crafted 25-minute episodes to reveal feelings Fleabag would rather hide — and to further her growth into someone who can be present in her life instead of performing it for an audience she can't see or hear. Breaking the fourth wall allowed Waller-Bridge "to play with the idea of control of [Fleabag's] own narrative," she told NPR. "She's trying to convince you that she's fine, and actually the relentlessness of being witnessed means eventually that has to break down, because she can't keep that up the whole time."
But though we, the audience, may be aware that we're the other half of Fleabag's most dysfunctional relationship, every arched eyebrow and exaggerated grimace she pulls at the camera feels like a gift to us. This is how she hooks us, exactly one minute into Season 2. We find her in front of a posh restaurant bathroom mirror, her nose and mouth drenched in blood. She cleans her face, turns to the camera, and announces to her unseen viewers, "This is a love story."
And it is. Season 2 allows Fleabag some healing as she tries to curb her more toxic impulses, makes an effort to mend her relationship with her sister, and lets herself be vulnerable enough to fall in love with a man who truly sees her — even when she doesn't want to be seen. The catch? He's truly unattainable, a Catholic priest in a committed relationship with God.
Played with exuberance by Andrew Scott, the Priest drinks and swears and is perhaps haunted by his own sexuality (whimsically represented by unexpected fox visitations), and he treats Fleabag as more than the sum of her self-destructive mistakes. "They satisfy a need in each other," Scott told Rolling Stone. "She's looking for a certain degree of peace, and he's looking for a certain degree of soul connection, somebody who sees him." They see each other, and thrillingly for us, he notices when she escapes the present to talk to her silent audience. "It's like you disappear," he tells her. It's no wonder Season 2 birthed an instant (and thirsty) Hot Priest fandom.
We know from the start that their relationship will end in heartbreak, and so do they: "We'll last a week," Fleabag quips to us in Episode 3. Later, the Priest tells her, "If I fall in love with you I won't burst into flames, but my life will be f---ed." But knowing it's fated to end painfully doesn't make their love story any less powerful. "There's this idea that the only love that is pure and worthy of representation is a love that is forever, a happy-ever-after story," Scott told Rolling Stone. "Sometimes the connection is stronger because you know that it isn't going to last forever."
While Fleabag is not autobiographical, Waller-Bridge revealed some similarities she shares with the character: "Deep down, she's a hopeless romantic," she told Vogue. And, "She lives to make you laugh." Indeed, as Fleabag, Waller-Bridge breaks open our hearts but fills them with hope, and keeps us laughing through it all. In the end, she's alone when she walks away from her audience, sparing us a small wave goodbye, carrying the coveted statue of her mother's form, which offers her (and us) a sliver of comfort. It's a testament to Waller-Bridge's skill as a writer and an actor that the show's ending is at once shattering and satisfying.
So give Waller-Bridge an armful of Emmys — for this perfect show she created, for her brilliant writing, for her hilarious but achingly human performance, for making us chuckle at a funeral but weep at a bus stop, for conveying more with her eyebrows than most actors can show with their entire beings.
While we're at it, give Sian Clifford an Emmy for injecting vulnerability and humor into her performance as Fleabag's sister, Claire, a human ball of tension grappling with a relationship crisis of her own; give Brett Gelman an Emmy for his unflinching portrayal of Claire's loathsome husband, Martin, who in his most sympathetic moment manages only to be pathetic; give Olivia Colman an Emmy for her delicious turn as Godmother, whose passive-aggressive twist on the evil stepmother trope required no hysterical hurling of obscenities (but didn't suffer from it either).
Give Andrew Scott an Emmy for his soulful performance as the Priest, who is hot, yes, but also earnest in his joy, his wonder, his heartache, and his faith; even as the Priest is breaking Fleabag's heart (and ours), Scott manages to convince us his choice is not only inevitable but also (probably) right.
It's how I feel about Waller-Bridge's breakup with the show. She has said she's closing the book on Fleabag: "It's healthy to end it and to know for myself, as well, that this is the end of this chapter," she told NPR. I know she's right, but it still hurts to say goodbye. But you know what would soften the sting? Fleabag walked away from Season 2 with the gold statue she's been stealing and returning since the beginning; Waller-Bridge deserves to walk away from the show with a gold statue of her own.
Fleabag Seasons 1 and 2 are streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Emmy nominations will be announced Tuesday, July 16. The 71st Primetime Emmy Awards will be broadcast Sunday, Sept. 22 at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT on Fox.