This interview discusses a major, surprising plot point from the first episode of Fleabag. Read our review of the complete first season, sans spoilers, here.
The first episode of the thrillingly upsetting and witty British series Fleabag—which comes to Amazon today—ends with a revelation. Fleabag, the cheeky heroine played by series creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, explains to a cab driver that her best friend, Boo, who we had seen, sweet and happy in flashbacks, killed herself by stepping into a bicycle lane. Boo’s death was a gruesome accident—she only meant to hurt herself as a way to punish her boyfriend—but it completely changes our read on the fourth-wall-breaking protagonist. Fleabag is not simply a woman out looking to have a good time. Her caustic pleasure-seeking is instead a way to combat her deep sadness.
In real life, Waller-Bridge was giddy and not at all tortured when The A.V. Club met with her one morning in New York. As we chatted, she explained how her mind went to such depressing places.
The A.V. Club: This started out as a play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, right? Why did you write it first as a one-woman show?
Phoebe Waller-Bridge: I didn’t really know what I was doing at all. A friend had asked me to do a stand-up storytelling night, a 10-minute slot of something. It was something I had never done before. I had written short plays and occasionally performed them myself, but the idea of a stand-up-ish thing—even though it wasn’t strictly stand-up—I was like, “No way.” And then I thought, actually, ”I’m only saying that because I’m terrified, and I’ve got to do it.” I just decided to write the naughtiest, driest, silliest, fun-with-a-dark-twist 10 minutes that I could think of. [It was] particularly for a friend of mine who I knew was going to be there. I thought I’d direct it at her, because I was so mortified to be doing stand-up at all. Because I was so purist about making her laugh—she ended up directing the show—I was like, “I don’t know any of these people. I just know her. I’m going go say filth at her for 10 minutes.” Then as we were leaving, loads of people were like, “Oh, you should turn this into a full show and take it to Edinburgh.” I never thought about doing anything like that before. My producer got a slot in Edinburgh. So I was basically, suddenly, having had no plans to do this at all, like, “Right, okay, you’ve got to write a one-hour play based on this little 10 minutes that you did.” I took that idea of this sexually open and explicit young woman who’s actually really damaged, and I was like, “How can I stretch that?”
AVC: Had you been teasing around the character at all before you were asked to do these 10 minutes? Or did she just come to you?
PWB: She just came to me. I remember I was so stressed that I had been asked to do it and I’d said yes. I sat at home with this enormous pizza, just crying into the pizza box, and the bit opened with, “I’m at home eating this slutty pizza,” which was the first line of the play. I’ve written lots of really complicated, potentially unlikable female characters in my short plays, but nothing as hard or as dry as her.
AVC: When did the story about Boo start factoring into your idea of the character?
PWB: I was really shocked when that popped out. I did know that I wanted it to be about a friendship. I didn’t know that I wanted to kill her. It was awful, but it sort of made me laugh, how shocking it was when it came out. And I thought, I don’t know if that’s too dark. It was literally impulse, and then with reflection, I was like, “No, actually, this is at the heart of it.” And that came out so quickly, the idea of losing a friend, and being able to just joke about it, to me, is the story of a heartbroken person who can’t deal with what’s happening.
AVC: When Fleabag describes what happens to Boo, I wasn’t even sure you were telling the truth. Was that intentional?
PWB: A few people have said that. I think because the whole set-up for me was creating a potential unreliable narrator all the way through, that actually became a maybe happy—or unhappy—accident, really. You’re constantly like, “Is she playing with us? Or is she not?” But the intention is that it was meant to be true.
AVC: What did you want to explore about female friendships, and how did you want the death of Boo to color that?
PWB: I have a real aversion to sentimentality, but I also really want to write about love and friendship. How can I do the two at the same time without [writing] girls having a great time together? Actually, my worst nightmare is losing my best friend, as I imagine most people’s are. And obviously, my mother as well—and I’ve killed both of [Fleabag’s.] But I think [my goal] was really [to] talk about a friendship in a way that avoided the sentimentality of best girlfriends forever, and also to show how much we could take it for granted, and loss, the profound loss of somebody who knows you better than anyone else. That was one of the ideas—which I’m sure doesn’t read, and I hope it doesn’t because it sounds really pretentious—[behind why] she talks to the camera: She doesn’t have Boo anymore. She doesn’t have somebody who understands her and forgives and laughs and enjoys her darker wit and naughtiness. And so she’s had to find somebody else, and she found the audience to have that complicity with.
AVC: That’s really interesting.
PWB: I mean, it sounds—
AVC: It doesn’t sound pretentious at all. We have seen unruly, unlikable female characters, and here we have someone whose life and behavior we realize is so shaped by these tragedies. We know that she’s fun and naughty from the beginning, but we’re seeing her at this low point. Why was grief something that you wanted to explore through this lens?
PWB: Again, I’m really interested in the power of somebody’s front and what they’re hiding and the mask slipping. It’s the idea for me of imagining being at a party, and there being a hilarious person there who’s got the whole crowd laughing. They seem to be all-powerful and funny, and when they leave, somebody turns to you and says, “Oh, you realize their entire family just died yesterday?” That, to me, would be so gutting. So it was more that than actually a study of grief. It was more a way of portraying somebody who can’t express their own pain, so it comes out as this hard shell of “I’m fine.” It was the “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine” thing I wanted to play with, and grief seemed to be so horrendous; it worked. I thought it was the worst thing to use.
PWB: Not consciously at all, no. I feel like the comparisons also are made because they come from a similar place in the women that are writing them—they are just writing about women. I’m a huge fan of basically anything written about complicated, contradictory women. I’m drawn to them really quickly. So no, it wasn’t conscious. But I feel like it’s important that they keep coming. The thing that I did to her was I made the worst things happen to her. Which I think the other characters that were mentioned, those things haven’t happened to them yet. So I wanted to inject massive tragedy into this story of what otherwise had been seen before.
AVC: She and her sister, Claire [Sian Clifford], are bound by this grief over their mother. In writing Claire, did you want to portray the other side of “I’m fine?”
PWB: Yes, because she’s fine in a different way. She’s incredibly practical and industrious. The building of that character was really important to give Fleabag a different kind of foil. Because she is the only person that Fleabag can tease and be silly with, and you see the naughty side of her in real life rather than always at the camera. And the more I was writing Fleabag teasing her, the harder she got, which was useful, because I think Fleabag needs Claire to say, “I’m miserable. I’m grieving.” One of them needs to open up. And Claire refuses to, and so does Fleabag.
AVC: By the time you get through the series, Claire’s not the uptight bitch. She’s another ridiculously complicated woman. Did you want to populate the world full of these people?
PWB: Again, it was sort of semi-intentional. When I was talking to people about what I was writing, it would come out as, “Yes, that’s absolutely my intention,” but really, it’s just what I wanted, what I was enjoying writing most with this relationships between siblings and the hardness being them but also the innate love between them. But yeah, on some level, it’s very important to me to have written those complex female characters, but I wasn’t sitting there saying, “How can I make them more complex or more female?”
AVC: Do you have a sister?
PWB: Yeah, and a brother. So that relationship is kind of the mixture of the three of us. But my mom’s alive and well. So we’re fine.
AVC: And your best friend?
PWB: She’s very well, too. It’s fine. Everyone’s fine.
AVC: I do feel like you’re going to have to be telling people, “No, it’s fine.”
PWB: Someone texted my sister the other day saying, “Did you actually shit in a sink?” And she’s like, “No, obviously I didn’t! It’s a TV show!”