“Fleabag” Might Be a Perfect TV Show

The only bad part of the second season of Fleabag, the comedy written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is how inept it made me feel as a writer. I try my best not to compare myself to others and at this point I don’t even have grand artistic ambitions, especially in the realm of fiction. But when the screen went black on this season, which I devoured in a couple of days, I just sat on my couch and let it sink in for a few minutes, keenly aware of how impossible it would be for me to ever come close to producing something this good. Fleabag might be the best comedy I’ve ever seen.

What makes it so great? I guess it makes sense to start with Waller-Bridge herself, who is intimidatingly talented, not just as a writer of dialogue and characters, but as an actress with precise comedic timing who can make you laugh just with a quick look at the camera. Her titular character (real name unknown) breaks the fourth wall constantly, which is Fleabag‘s most distinctive narrative device, but it’s used differently than a show like The Office. Rather than purporting to be a documentary, this feels more like the character perceiving the audience as her friend that she can always confide in. Without giving away too much, her looks and quips at the camera end up tying into the season two plot in a piece of writing that is almost impossibly smart and perceptive.

The character of Fleabag is a great tragicomic creation; she uses jokes and sex as a way to mask her inner pain that comes from feeling responsible for the death of her best friend and the loss of her mother. She is essentially the black sheep of her family, who all mostly treat her like crap, particularly her insufferable godmother played by Oscar winner Olivia Colman. Her sister, Claire, is a fascinating character in her own right. She’s tightly wound, passive-aggressive and a workaholic, which is in direct contrast to Fleabag’s impulsive lifestyle that avoids responsibility. What the two characters share is that each has built up these different kinds of walls to avoid letting others see their true feelings, and their sisterhood is one of the more unique relationships on TV.

Fleabag faces a conflict with Claire’s husband this season, but her biggest turmoil comes when she becomes attracted to the young, cool priest who is working on her father’s wedding. This leads to an obvious clash of belief systems between the optimistic, religious priest and the atheist Fleabag, who has been through enough that the whole God thing is a tough sell. Again, without giving away too much, the relationship that forms here is fascinating and feels real despite its comedic origins, and the will-they-or-won’t-they tension had me about as nervous as I was at the end of Game of Thrones.

I’m always a fan of comedies that come with a healthy dose of sadness and bitterness, and this show might walk that line better than any other. It has all kinds of jokes: raunchy sex jokes, quiet observational jokes, character-based jokes — there’s even a pretty good fart joke. But its best moments are when the characters let their guards down and reveal their true feelings, and the show has moments that rival the pathos of any drama. Like the main character herself, the humor in Fleabag is what draws you in, but the impression it leaves is ultimately much more impactful than just a laugh.

The Bells and the Mirror

The most famous scene in Game of Thrones is undoubtedly the Red Wedding at the end of season three. With one scene, the writers of the show completely upended what viewers were conditioned to think the story was about as the group of characters assumed to be heroes were slaughtered. In its latest episode, “The Bells,” they pulled off an even bigger long con, revealing the true nature of one of the main protagonists of the series in one of the most daring and confrontational episodes in TV history. Understandably, people are a little upset: it hurts to have the mirror turned on you, to have your own biases and assumptions exposed for what they really are.

Daenerys Targaryen was a character who had many redeeming qualities, and she was often positioned opposite of loathsome characters like Cersei Lannister, which added to her likability. But despite all her proclamations of breaking chains and wheels, something was always a little off: she demanded people bow to her or she’d burn them alive, she killed people for nothing but vengeance, and she was always being kept in line by her advisors, whether it was Tyrion, Missandei, Jorah, or Varys. With all but one of them out of the picture, in “The Bells” she snaps and lays waste to King’s Landing, even after the enemy has surrendered.

People didn’t see all of the cracks in Daenerys because the show convinced them she was the best leader and deserving of the Iron Throne, even though she never led very impressively and was later revealed to not even be the true heir. Fans named kids after her, put “breaker of chains” in their Twitter bios, and celebrated her as a badass woman here to overthrow the world of terrible men. They waived away her other murders and poor decisions as actions that needed to be taken to “break the wheel.” They watched the show eagerly anticipating the moment she would finally take what was rightfully hers, but seemingly none of them thought about what it would actually look like.

“The Bells” shows you, in gruesome detail. It is directed from the perspective of the common people along with Arya Stark, who flee for their lives amidst falling rubble and ash, all in broad daylight, forming a stark contrast with the show’s previous epic battle against the undead in “The Long Night.” As scary as those zombies were, this episode shows that what humans do to each other out in the open in search of power is even more terrifying.

Faced with Daenerys’ “heel turn,” the viewers who worshipped her are now engaging in cognitive dissonance, criticizing the writing and calling it misogynistic because there’s no way they could have been duped. Let’s just say all those memes comparing her to Hillary Clinton are more than a little ironic now. This is also the same group of people who subscribe to the “only good things should happen to women characters and they should never do anything bad” mentality, which is put forth as a feminist idea even though it limits the diversity and agency of women characters. If you didn’t want to watch characters who have flaws make bad decisions that ruin lives, you shouldn’t have still been watching Game of Thrones. And if you think any of this is unrealistic other than the dragon, then you probably don’t know much about history or reality.

Comparing Game of Thrones to contemporary politics is a cliché at this point, but I don’t know how you could watch that episode and not think of so many years of misguided U.S. foreign policy. Many people buy into the idea that what our military does abroad is for the greater good, it’s necessary, and it’s worth celebrating. More than any piece of entertainment I can think of, “The Bells” shows what war really is: it’s horrible, it’s brutal, and there are no heroes, only victims. This show with a massive audience aired an episode that is a strong leftist argument in favor of pacifism and non-intervention. Unfortunately, its audience has become too bloodthirsty and entitled to understand it.

A revealing comment I’ve seen from many was a complaint that Cersei Lannister’s death in the episode wasn’t satisfying enough, as she ended up buried in rubble while embracing her brother/lover, Jaime. Many viewers were like Arya Stark, craving vengeance and blood, even though, as Sandor Clegane points out, it leads to a life of misery. So it’s fitting that Cersei’s death, like her son Joffrey’s, showed her in a more sympathetic light, as a woman who was raised in a horrible environment and has lost everything. She was a piece of shit, but she was also human, and it’s pretty messed up to wish death on anyone, even a TV character. Once again, the show holds a mirror: it confronts the audience and shows them that what they thought they wanted wasn’t actually a victory. It’s not unlike how Daenerys felt, sitting on that dragon, having won what she wanted her whole life and realizing that it wasn’t enough.