Sian Clifford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Screenshot: Fleabag
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What is it about fancy parties that brings out the worst in everyone but Fleabag? The opening reception for Godmother’s “Sexhibition” in the season-one finale saw Fleabag get dumped by Arsehole Guy, but only after being made to work the event and pick out a mold of her father’s penis on the wall. To make matters worse, although it looked like Claire had realized just how awful her marriage was and was going to do something about it, she showed up at the party with Martin, who’d weaseled his way back into good standing by telling Claire it was Fleabag who tried to kiss him. Their fight led to a huge revelation about Boo’s death, which had been haunting Fleabag all season—it turns out, she’d had sex with Boo’s boyfriend, and therefore saw herself as the catalyst for everything that followed.

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Even smaller gatherings, like the dinner party that kicked off season two, have proven to be rife with abuse for someone who genuinely seems invested in change. So it’s with some trepidation that we watched Fleabag accept the job of catering the “Women In Business” party at Claire’s office (the fictional Hurbot’s, some kind of finance company?). And sure enough, no matter how hard Fleabag tries, everything she does infuriates her sister, whether she’s following a direct order to speak or not speak, or walking around with canapés that are increasingly less vegetarian as the night wears on.

At first, Claire’s nervousness just seems like a byproduct of her taking the responsibility of throwing this party a little too seriously, though, as Fleabag notes, she actually loves it. When we meet Belinda Frears (Kristin! Scott! Thomas!), it seems Claire might just be trying hard to impress one of the evening’s honorees. But then Klare, Claire’s business partner in Finland, enters the room, and the perspective shifts. Suddenly, Claire’s anxiety seems more like giddiness; for once, she speaks openly of her desires, albeit unwittingly. Fleabag can’t help but be amused by her sister’s inability to keep words like “cockwork” from tumbling out, but she’s not just thriving on the chaos—just as she did during the silent retreat last season, she’s urging Claire to consider all of her options.

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The episode is a spirited romp early on, full of great physical comedy, most of it playing out on Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s gorgeously expressive countenance. Her face moves from a chastened look over any number of errors, including demolishing Belinda’s award at the top of the episode, to a beaming smile whenever a joke lands (regardless of whether she’s the one telling ) or when she thinks she understands what’s had Claire on edge all night. She reliably lets us in, casting glances and tossing off explanations to help us share her excitement. But Fleabag remains focused on Claire for much of the episode, eager to repair their relationship.

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Early on, the odds look good, as Fleabag receives a heartfelt thank-you from her sister. There’s clearly something else at work here, because even after Fleabag recovers the statue and Claire has basked in the glow of a job well done (not to mention the attention of a certain Finnish gentleman), Fleabag can tell something’s not right. Claire’s forced cheerfulness is back, which is how Fleabag knows she’s actually livid. It’s a devastating shift, especially after so much of “Episode 3” demonstrated just how well Fleabag knows her sister; she correctly interprets the hand-wringing early on as a sign of excitement, just as she realizes the brittle smile on Claire’s face at the end is hiding her fury. The revelation that Claire actually believes it was Martin who tried to kiss Fleabag offers no vindication, though, because Claire’s issues with her sister go deeper. They’re tied to the way Claire sees herself: as competent and smart, but never fun or witty, not when Fleabag is around, at least. And Claire isn’t used to coming up short, certainly not in comparison to her sister.

Andrew Scott and Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Screenshot: Fleabag

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Though there’s a sweet, exciting exchange with the Priest still to come, Sian Clifford owns this episode, deftly handling all of Claire’s hair-trigger emotions, from irrepressible lust to towering rage. Claire’s actions are confounding to Fleabag (and, as Fleabag’s confidantes, viewers as well), especially when she throws a new wall up, insisting they are just sisters and not friends. Clifford’s performance is a tightly contained maelstrom, full of Claire’s doubt, envy, and sense of propriety, so even though her reaction seems unjust, we also have a sense of what it costs her to say these things.

Still, it’s a tough pill for Fleabag to swallow, especially in light of her recent changes. If being on the straight and narrow still earns her Claire’s disdain, then what’s the point? As she knocks on the church door in the middle of the night, it looks like the old Fleabag is back, though she reassures us with a quick shake of the head that isn’t the case. What comes next wouldn’t be out of place in a romantic comedy, as the Priest and Fleabag have one of those great late-night talks about the meaning of life, religion, devotion, and the rewards of self-denial over some more canned G&Ts. The blocking this episode is such a tease, as every time the Priest jumps up in fear of a fox that probably isn’t there, he settles down in a spot closer to Fleabag. She’s far more composed than Claire was around Klare, that is, until the Priest reiterates just how much sex he had in his former life, at which point, our girl gulps while looking meaningfully at the camera.

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Blame Andrew Scott, because that “many” is just loaded with promise, which is always far more appealing than any reality. It’s quickly followed by a warning, because despite their obvious chemistry—which they both freely acknowledge—the Priest knows he’ll always be faced with temptation, and that turning away from it actually strengthens his relationship with God. Their conversation is of a piece with what Belinda Frears, this year’s Businesswoman Of The Year, tells Fleabag at the hotel bar. Both the Priest and Belinda remind Fleabag that pain is a part of life, and though their lessons do diverge a bit, they’re ultimately about remaining open to people despite the absence of any guarantees. Fleabag hits on Belinda and the Priest, and they respond by offering to be a part of her life in some other way: the former, as kind of a mentor (kiss notwithstanding), and the latter, well, that remains to be seen. But for now, he assures her that she isn’t really looking for sex, and even if she is, it’s not going to happen.

Fleabag pretends to take the response in stride, but she soon wiggles her brows at us and predicts their current arrangement will “last a week.” That’s when the most exciting development in the episode hits: the Priest notices Fleabag addressing the camera. He might not realize that’s what she’s doing, but he is aware her mind is elsewhere. Fleabag assures him nothing is wrong, but the worried look she gives at the end suggests the Priest has been more successful at tearing down walls than she has been. 

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Stray observations

  • The award did look like a sperm. And god, Claire’s office is huge.
  • The writing is just top-notch this episode. I enjoyed the fox stuff, as well as the initial conversation in the church when Fleabag and the Priest joked about the inconsistencies in the Bible and “negotiated” the number of kids they’d have. Belinda’s speech about women being born with pain is something I’m still mulling over, but I guffawed at the following exchange: “What’s your favorite period film?” “Carrie.”
  • “You’re good for me. You make me question my faith.” They’re both in such trouble, aren’t hey?
  • Equally Sexy Priests: Gabriel Byrne in Stigmata is Andrew Scott’s fellow hot man of the cloth (and Irish accent).

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