It's not often a show is too honest about its characters, so Fleabag may be the exception.
Fleabag, the Phoebe Waller-Bridge series based on her play, released in 2016 on BBC (and later on Amazon Prime Video), is an all-encompassing look at a woman with difficulty moving on from an important part of her life.
It's a hard look at Fleabag's life, one that does not make it easy on her or the people in her life. The show is brutally honest with itself, reflecting on poor choices and impulses in a way that does not treat them as bad but rather as difficulties and obstacles everyone faces.
The show manages to find deep comedy through that exploration.
All of the characters' flaws come out in surprising ways. That leads to humor never in spite of their flaws, but because of them. The show walks a fine line of never punching down on its characters even if at times they punch down on each other.
Fleabag's quick asides and witticism provide powerful inner monologues of not only her current state of mind, but how she views everyone and everything in her life.
The show suggest there constant reminders of traumas for Fleabag around every corner. Fleabag Season 1 Episode 2 in particular is a heavy one.
She can't cross the road without thinking about her friend's death. The store she owns is full of guinea pig pictures, and items that belonged to her friend, but her apartment gets scrubbed clean by her ex after every break-up, as though he is getting rid of any evidence of their existence together.
It all adds up to an epiphany of everything having meaning to someone in some way or another. For Fleabag, she sees reminders of mostly the bad things in her life, the things she wants to avoid.
The relationships she has with others are complicated and mostly unhealthy. There's a level of obligation to them, as though under other circumstances, Fleabag would have nothing to do with the people in her life.
Despite the obligation, Fleabag does know them all well, to their very cores. Her aforementioned asides painstakingly tell their stories and their flaws, and while they mostly cut to the bone, there are some with an earnest affection behind them.
The loss of her friend Boo (Jenny Rainsford) intermittently cuts in and out over the course of the season and shows bits and pieces of a story not quite told in full. It's deliberate and a significant source of Fleabag's troubles as a character.
But it's done masterfully, showing that while she is a colorful narrator of the story, she can be somewhat unreliable in providing everything we needed to fully understand her tale. That blocks the trauma not only from herself, but the audience.
Her sister, Claire (Sian Clifford), is near-impossible to read making Clifford one of the more fascinating actors on the show. Claire's reactions are usually defensive or frustrated, and always well-masked.
Fleabag Season 1 Episode 4 does a great job of holding a magnifying glass to Fleabag and Claire, showing both going through their own issues together at a retreat. The episode manages to take a relaxing retreat meant to reset and calm them, and reverses it putting a microscope on their problems.
The relationship Fleabag shares with Martin (Brett Gelman), her sister's husband, is particularly pointed. There's a lot of animosity between them with horribly cruel and barbed comments, which somehow also manage to be helpful.
The reading it gives off is a level playing field, on which both Fleabag and Martin are equal in a dark and depressing way with a game of anger playing out between them.
Even side characters are written with levels of depth.
The men Fleabag meet with whom she fosters relationships have their own hang-ups and issues to deal with, offering fleshed out and lived-in characters. The snippets of dialogue and character traits offer brief snapshots of men who do not stick around for long.
Somehow, despite all of the issues she faces, Fleabag progresses. It may not all be forward progress, but she learns enough to move forward in some form.
Fleabag Season 1 is a powerfully confident piece of storytelling from Waller-Bridge. It's a unique voice and she digs deep into her characters to find bounties of emotional riches, even if it's also a long journey for them.
At one point she says, "I want to cry all the time." It's a sharp admission, a reminder that despite the enthusiasm she displays, Fleabag battles her hardships but puts on a brave face in order to keep moving.
The show is a wonderful testament of moving on in spite of that which should hold you back. Fleabag is an unflinching look at the trauma she carries.