Warning: Spoilers for the TV show “Fleabag” ahead.
In the explosive second season of “Fleabag,” the first scene features the main character staring at her bloody reflection in a pristine bathroom mirror. She’s been punched during a family scuffle. She quietly wipes the blood off her face with a slight grimace and sighs. And then, coupled with a devilish smirk, her eyes dart to the camera—“This,” she assures the audience, “is a love story.”
My love affair with “Fleabag” began in mid-July during a particularly lengthy slump in my binge-watching material. My brother recommended that I watch it, and I’ll admit, I was wary at first. Was this a comedy show about a mangy dog, or what? But all my TV show queues had run dry, so I decided to give it a shot.
Let me say this—I learned quickly that Fleabag is not a show about a mangy dog.
Before I watched “Fleabag,” my love life teetered somewhere between non-existent and wishing it were non-existent. Every guy I developed feelings for either wasn’t interested or wasn’t an interesting person. I continued to make a fool of myself every time I fell for the wrong guy, and I felt all the more foolish for never learning. I wanted a partner so badly, and I was willing to resort to just about anything to find one. Love started to feel more like a compulsion than a connection—and even so, I couldn’t stop looking for it.
As evidenced by the show’s six Emmy wins and 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating, “Fleabag” has struck a rare nerve with viewers. “Fleabag” is based on a one-woman play created by British mastermind Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who also stars in the show. The show follows the eponymous protagonist as she copes with the death of her mother and her best friend by flitting through one meaningless sexual affair after another. Not only does Fleabag break the fourth wall—she bulldozes over it, speaking directly to the audience in almost every scene to let us in on her innermost thoughts and feelings.
“Surprisingly bony,” she says to us during one particularly unfortunate sexual escapade. “It’s like having sex with a protractor.”
Fleabag doesn’t know how to live without the genuine connections of her lost loved ones, so she uses sex as an unsatisfying substitute. And perhaps most surprisingly, she is anything but in denial. “I spent most of my adult life using sex to deflect from the screaming void inside my empty heart,” she says cheekily to a therapist, before looking to the camera. “I’m good at this,” she victoriously pronounces to the audience.
This felt all too familiar to me. I was acutely aware of my incessant need to find love and all the irrational behaviors that come along with that search. I was aware of my Facebook stalking, my sob sessions listening to Taylor Swift on repeat, and my endless quest to decipher every cryptic text sent to me by guys who don’t deserve a minute of my time, much less days of it. I was once so smitten with a guy that I wrote him a limerick (yes, really). The worst part was, much like Fleabag, I still couldn’t stop myself from making these mistakes despite being aware of them.
But “Fleabag” made me feel a little less pitiable by breaking out of the “crazy needy chick” trope, and instead, portraying these impulses as understandable. After her mother dies, Fleabag confides in her best friend, Boo. “I don’t know where to put it,” Fleabag says, crying. “What?” Boo asks. “All the love I have for her,” Fleabag responds. “I’ll take it,” Boo offers with an earnest smile. After Boo dies, Fleabag finds nowhere to put her love—nobody else can replace the care and affection she’d lost. She has a love-sized hole in her and tries to fill it with anyone and anything but love.
Fleabag’s poor coping mechanisms don’t imply a defect, but instead, the exact opposite. They indicate a deep, yearning love with no suitable outlet. Is it possible that my own desperation for a partner isn’t pathetic—like so many other books, movies, and TV shows would have me believe—but actually a reflection of my capacity for love, and my desire to find a person worth investing it in?
“Fleabag” knows just how many people are not worth investing in. After several dead-end flings, Fleabag finally leans into her loneliness during a conversation with an older friend. “Most people are shit,” she said, with a resigned half-smile. The older woman rejects this, reminding Fleabag, “people are all we’ve got.”
For so long, I’d not only been lonely, but ashamed of how lonely I felt. I have great friends, an incredibly supportive family, and a satisfying professional life—loneliness should be the least of my worries. And yet, I want the intimacy of a partner and have no shortage of guilt about how much I want it. “Fleabag” makes this desire feel rational. People are all we’ve got, and it’s normal to want to find the people that make us feel safest and most loved. It’s not a sign of freakish desperation to want love, it’s a sign of humanity.
When Fleabag finally does meet somebody she connects with—a priest, no less—he shares her frustration in navigating the vulnerability of love. And what’s more, he is the only one who can tell when she speaks to the camera—he sees through her loveless facade. “I was taught if we’re born with love, then life is about choosing the right place to put it,” the priest says in a wedding speech. “It takes strength to know what’s right. And love isn’t something that weak people do. Being a romantic takes a hell of a lot of hope. I think what they mean is, when you find somebody that you love, it feels like hope.”
I had believed that my desire for a loving partner was a sign that I didn’t love myself enough, or that I wasn’t truly independent, or even that I wasn’t a feminist. I never considered the possibility that my unyielding resilience when it came to finding love was hopeful, not foolish. Sure, I’ve chosen to put my love in some pretty bad places, and I will probably continue to do so, but “Fleabag” taught me that it takes strength to keep trying to find the person who can see your capacity for love. It takes strength to keep looking. And it takes strength to have hope.
One of the final scenes of “Fleabag” features the titular character and her father right before his wedding. Her father, right before descending the stairs to get married, looks to his daughter: “I think you know how to love better than any of us,” he says. “That’s why you find it all so painful.”
For Fleabag, love means a bloody, violent reflection of herself—she cannot escape it without pain. But she still chooses to take the bullet in the hope of finding a new home for her love. I’m done feeling ashamed of my search to find a home for my love. It’s painful, of course. But “Fleabag” taught me that my ability to endure that pain isn’t a weakness, but perhaps my greatest strength.