This week’s poem is the last scene of Fleabag, the hit TV series by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I realise I’m stretching most definitions of what a poem is; and I’m sure many of you know a lot more about film/TV studies than me. But I think the boundary between theatre and spoken word and poetry is porous, and I’d count this scene as one of my absolute favourite poems.
If you haven’t seen Fleabag, I’d strongly recommend that you don’t read any further. Go watch it instead; you are so lucky to be able to watch it for the first time. All 12 episodes are available on BBC iPlayer.
The best video of the final scene that I can find is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7K3ffDrignk. Go have a watch, then you can read the transcript below, which begins a few moments before that video. In the previous episode, Fleabag and the (Catholic) Priest have slept together for the first time. The question hanging over this final encounter is whether the Priest has chosen God or Fleabag.
From Fleabag: Season 2, Episode 6. By Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
FLEABAG: It’s God, isn’t it?
FLEABAG: Damn. [laughs] Damn. You know, the worst thing is that I fucking love you. I love you. [the Priest opens his mouth to speak] No, no, don’t. No, let’s just leave that out there just for a second on its own. I love you.
PRIEST: It’ll pass.
FLEABAG: This bus is not magically coming.
PRIEST: I think I’ll walk.
FLEABAG: Okay. [laughs]
PRIEST: Uh, see you Sunday? I’m joking. You’re never ever allowed in my church again.
PRIEST: I love you, too. Okay.
[The Priest walks away. A fox approaches the bus stop where Fleabag is still sitting.]
FLEABAG: [pointing in the direction of the Priest] He went that way.
[Sitting at the bus stop, Fleabag reaches into her bag to pull out a small golden figurine. The digital sign changes to show that bus is cancelled. Fleabag walks away. She waves to the camera.]
In this scene, our (anti-)heroine of the past two series has been able not only to fall in love, but even admit it. Over the past two series, we’ve watched Fleabag attempt to bear the weight of deep grief and self-hatred with a mixture of alcohol and meaningless sexual encounters. The now-famous feature of the TV show – Fleabag’s direct narration of her life to the camera – points to a deep fear of emotional engagement. Unable to process the events of her life, she turns to the camera and delivers a hilariously, tragically dead-pan narration of them. She tells her life, because living it is too difficult.
What happens, then, when this traumatised young woman begins to fall in love? Love is terrifying at the best of times. What is it like to fall headfirst into the deepest feeling when you’ve spent years trying not to feel at all?
One thing I love about the series is that Waller-Bridge leaves the ‘how’ of the above process deliciously ambiguous. How does Fleabag move from running away from her feelings to falling into them? We don’t know. We can’t be sure why Fleabag at the end of series 1 is so different from the Fleabag at the start of series 2, when she meets the Priest: just like in a poem, the transformation has happened in the fuzzy unwritten space.
When Fleabag begins to fall in love with the Priest, that symptom of her emotional detachment – narrating her life to the camera – begins to change. The Priest notices when she turns away from him; he asks her where she’s going, and brings her back to the real world. Unfortunately, that real world is still full of sorrows. One of those sorrows is that even though Fleabag has truly fallen in love and been able, for the first time in our view of her, to confront it, the Priest decides that he does not want to be with her.
Waller-Bridge could have created a world in which the Priest renounces his celibacy to be with Fleabag: that is a much more straightforward argument for the value of emotional engagement. But what happens in this scene is so much more beautiful. Fleabag decides to tell the Priest that she loves him even after he has told her that he does not want to be with her. It is one of the bravest things a human can do. She has decided to run head-long into the world of real emotions, even though it is messy and full of pain and sorrow. This is what is symbolised in that final wave to the camera: Fleabag is saying goodbye to the time when she could only narrate her life instead of living it. She is walking away from us, her audience, into a brave and terrifying new world of feeling.
Yet Fleabag is nothing if not tongue-in-cheek; and her theft of her stepmother’s little golden figurine should remind us of that. It’s unexpectedly funny. Importantly, it throws us back to the end of the first episode, when she turns up at her father’s house crying, and then steals the figurine before flashing us a cheeky grin in the taxi home. The moment casts doubt over any simplistic redemptive arc we might wish to see; and serves as a reminder that Fleabag is chaotic and unpredictable. We really have no idea what she might do when turns away from us. We can only trust that she’ll be okay.