The major surprise at the end of the first season of “Fleabag” is not your ordinary plot twist.
The major surprise at the end of the first season of Fleabag is not your ordinary plot twist. The nameless episode 6 is the crash you knew was coming; less of a plot twist and more of a plot reveal. It is a shock that builds up through foreshadowing for the first five episodes. The show offers a flurry of flashbacks like puzzle pieces, only revealing the last piece when it is time. When it is finally revealed, the shock shifts the unique convention the show established for almost every scene prior: the fourth-wall break. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the multi Emmy-winning creator and star, nearly ended Fleabag after its first season because of how deeply the surprise affected the show. Likewise, the surprise deeply affects this essay, so I must warn spoilers as this will unveil perhaps the most important plot thread to be spoiled of Fleabag Season 1. The surprise of Fleabag is ingrained within its fabric, and it is the elevating piece of information that justifies the show’s existence.
Fleabag sets a unique convention by utilizing a fairly common dramatic device: breaking the fourth wall. The show starts with Fleabag (Waller-Bridge) speaking directly to the camera. She narrates a hook-up scene as it’s happening, letting the audience in on her thoughts and opinions. In this first sequence, she can barely make eye contact with the man she is in the scene with; she seems to be more interested in speaking to the viewer than the sex she is having. Fleabag introduces us to her world as if we are her new friend. In the first episode, we learn everything we think we need to know about our protagonist in just over twenty minutes. We see a day in her life through her eyes, and she almost always acknowledges the viewer. Soon enough, we know our new friend so well that a quick glance to the camera is akin to a monologue of exposition. She can show us exactly what she is thinking or feeling with just a sly grin or a pouty frown and everything in between.
Fleabag builds trust with the viewer by baring all, showing off her wit and humor, but also some of her less than appealing traits. An antihero in her own right, Fleabag is imperfect: a likely nymphomaniac, troublemaker, jokester tonic, as the British would say, but we accept her for her flaws because she is the one who shows them to us. Still in the first episode, she has a scene with her father in which she admits, “I have a horrible feeling that I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”1 Not only does she let the viewer in on this should-be-private scene with her father, but her father is positioned just next to the camera, making her eye contact with him seem to swerve to meet our gaze. It is almost like she is talking directly to the viewer, maybe because she struggles to face her father or the rest of her family on her own after the passing of her beloved mother, or because she is trying to build trust with the audience. Either way, this honesty and admission does foster the trust needed to carry us through the rest of her antics. Without that trust, our relationship with Fleabag would shatter, and she needs it to stay intact so that she can lie by omission and create the tension needed to increase the power of the major revelation at the end. But until that surprise, we the viewer are a character, a friend, the person she pours her life out to, the one person in her life that she can just be with.
We discover as we watch that we are a replacement: before us came Boo (Jenny Rainsford). Boo was Fleabag’s best friend who we learn recently died of an accidental suicide. After her boyfriend had slept with another woman, Boo wanted to get his attention and sympathy. So, she stepped into a bustling bike lane with the intention of only sustaining minor injuries, not dying. That was Boo’s fatal mistake. Boo was Fleabag’s everything; her number one. We meet Boo through flashbacks, like Fleabag’s memories, and during these scenes, Fleabag never acknowledges the viewer. She does not need to, because in these memories, Boo is that person that Fleabag can be herself with.
Boo seemed like the perfect match for our imperfect Fleabag, displaying a similar quirky personality and humor. An original, Boo developed an endearing obsession with guinea pigs after being gifted one by Fleabag. She soon transformed the cafe she and Fleabag founded together into a guinea pig themed one. “She was a surprising person,” Fleabag puts it in the sixth episode. After hearing about an eleven-year-old boy who was put in juvenile prison for repeatedly sticking rubber ended pencils up the school hamster’s nether regions, Boo’s immediate reaction was, “why would they do that?” A question Fleabag—and admittedly this viewer—thought was referencing the boy’s actions, but instead, she clarifies that she meant “why would they send him away. He needs help.” It was a compassionate and unexpected question in response to hearing a disturbing piece of local news. She further emphasizes her point by saying, “it’s the very reason why they put rubbers on the end of pencils . . . because people make mistakes.”2 This memory of Boo shows what a subtly special person she was. In other memories we learn that she was nothing but a good friend to Fleabag and was always there for her. There to make her laugh, there as a shoulder to cry on, and there to build up her confidence. Even when she might have said the wrong thing, Fleabag could not stay mad at her. This is one of the reasons why the shock, when the viewer learns that Fleabag was the person who slept with Boo’s boyfriend, is so devastating.
The camera dramatically shakes, cornering Fleabag as the viewer learns her big secret. She tries to get away from us, but she cannot. After we learn that she is the reason for Boo’s death, the one who slept with the boyfriend, she can no longer face the viewer. With this surprise, she shatters the trust that she built with her seemingly honest facade. For the rest of the episode, she does not look into the camera once. This surprise, the release of new information, is so massive that it breaks the convention of this show and fundamentally changes its defining feature: it builds the fourth wall. We are just like Boo at this moment. Fleabag lied to us, and our relationship falls apart. All at once, the viewer feels betrayed by Fleabag and sorry for her. Maybe the viewer feels like a bad friend for being upset with Fleabag, as we have been her emotional crutch throughout the season; she has relied on her relationship with the viewer to keep her from feeling alone. We might even feel stupid for missing the signs, because they were there.
Throughout the season, the surprise is foreshadowed and hinted at. In every episode, there is at least one moment of gravitas, where we recognize that something is tormenting Fleabag, and we think it is just Boo’s death. There is a moment in the third episode when Fleabag sees the person we know to be Boo’s ex-boyfriend, and we understand when she rightfully runs out of the store. We get a big hint, however, that there is something deeper going on in episode 4, when she is at a therapeutic weekend retreat. A woman asks the group to, “think of something you can’t let go of: moment of noise, a moment of tension,” and Fleabag looks at the camera and says “not now” after we glimpse an incomplete flashback of her enwrapped with some man, who we later come to realize is Boo’s boyfriend.3 That moment continues when the woman asks them to then think of “a moment when you were peaceful,” and Fleabag thinks of a time when she and Boo were just hanging out. Fleabag is deeply flawed and hurting, and it is tragic to look back on this episode once we know her secret. She is genuinely sorry and trying to better herself. That is the meaning of the show, which is made all the more poignant after the surprise.
Fleabag’s earnest struggle to improve can be seen in her scenes with the bank manager. Other than Boo, he is the only character with whom Fleabag never addresses the viewer, even before the surprise. There is no subtle glance to the camera, no snide joke. Fleabag is totally present and in the moment in these scenes, highlighting how serious and genuine she is. The bank manager is the gatekeeper to Fleabag’s future. He is the vehicle in which she is trying to turn her life around. In the first scene with the bank manager, Fleabag is trying to get a small business loan to keep her cafe afloat. After a wardrobe mishap and a miscommunication, the initial meeting in the first episode does not go to plan to say the least. In the moment, this is played for comedy as just another mishap in Fleabag’s darkly funny life. After the Boo surprise, we realize how tragic that scene was, in retrospect. Seeking that loan was a major attempt at Fleabag’s betterment. After letting it fall into neglect, she was trying to save the cafe she and Boo had opened together. After revealing the broken path she has been on, it is powerful and rewarding to know our friend Fleabag has been trying to do something good and positive from the very first episode, despite failing to secure the loan at the time. In a flashback in that episode, Boo tells Fleabag, “Let’s never ask anyone for anything” and getting a loan from a bank rather than family is honoring Boo’s sentiment.4 She refuses money from her rich sister and father throughout the series because she wants to do things the right way: Boo’s way.
Their second meeting between Fleabag and the bank manager is a lot more emotional. After meeting by chance in the fourth episode, the Bank Manager reveals his issues and desires to her and she admits, “I just want to cry all the time.”5 This is a level of honesty that she barely displays directly to the viewer. Happening before the surprise, it was a hint at a deeper storm brewing within Fleabag, and it was a cry for help and an acceptance of defeat all at once. He had just gone on an inspirational rant on how he was going to better his life, and all she could do was admit how low she was in a solitary, glib, defeatist statement. Facing the man who once held the key to her future was probably not easy, but she did so with empathy and sincerity of intentions. She was just connecting with this man, a walking reminder of her failure, on a human level. Due to that connection, however, a bridge to their third and final meeting was built.
Happening after the viewer learns about Boo, the Bank Manager shows up at Fleabag’s lowest point, right as she is about to do the unthinkable like Boo. In their most emotional scene, Fleabag cries, “You know, either everyone feels like this a little bit, and they’re just not talking about it, or I’m completely f*cking alone. Which isn’t f*cking funny.”6 Fleabag finally admits how low she feels rather than trying to mask it with jokes or sex. After losing her mother, Boo, then us, she has nothing left to lose. She is honest at her lowest point, and she has only one direction to go. This is when the bank manager starts the loan process again. This is the bittersweet happy ending of season one.
The revelation that had been bubbling since the first episode is a powerful hit to the gut for the viewer, but the surprise is not without its good reason. It emphasizes the true justification for the existence of this show. What is Fleabag, and why are we watching it? Are we just watching it because she says and does funny and inappropriate things? That could be the reason for a sitcom, like Seinfeld, where we watch morally questionable people do funny things for comedic value, but Fleabag is deeper than that. Fleabag is not a show about nothing. Fleabag turning her life around is her redemption after what she did to Boo, and if we knew all this from the start, Fleabag getting the loan in the end would not be as powerful. This is a story about a woman in recovery and without the surprise being delivered as such, the show would be less profound. We needed to fall in love with her so that we could accept her for her failures and mistakes, and rejoice when she turns her life around.
- Fleabag, season 1, episode 1, aired on BBC 3, July 21, 2016.
- Fleabag, season 1, episode 6, aired on BBC 3, August 25, 2016.
- Fleabag, season 1, episode 4, aired on BBC 3, August 11, 2016.
- Fleabag, season 1, episode 1, aired on BBC 3, July 21, 2016.
- Fleabag, season 1, episode 4.
- Fleabag, season 1, episode 6.