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The Unstoppable Rise of Phoebe Waller-Bridge

The creator of "Killing Eve" returns with a second (and final) season of "Fleabag," the series that made her an international star.

Steve Schofield/Amazon Prime Video

In a scene about halfway through the new season of Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who writes and stars in every episode, sits inside a confession booth in an old church. The fact that her character, Fleabag, is moved to confess to a priest is a kind of meta-joke for the audience. Because the show itself functions as one long confessional monologue, with the viewer as the protagonist’s personal sounding board as she strides around the streets of London, causing trouble. Waller-Bridge often turns directly to camera in the middle of a scene to add an aside or a nasty piece of commentary; she tells us everything she is about to do and everything she has done, no matter how depraved or desperate. Her eyes plead with the camera not to pan away.

Over the first season, which aired in 2016, we learn that her misdeeds—sleeping around, drinking too much, stealing objects of priceless art from her father’s house—are meant to mask her sadness. She is grieving the loss of the two women closest to her: her mother, who died of breast cancer, and her best friend, Boo, with whom she co-owned a guinea pig–themed café in London, and who killed herself by walking into traffic. If Fleabag were played by a more conventional actress, her spiral might feel cloying or gimmicky. But Waller-Bridge’s delivery is dry and detached, more elegant than enervating. Although she’s a millennial woman carving her way through an alienating urban environment, Fleabag has little in common with other recent characters in this mode, from Girls’ mopey Hannah Horvath to the street-smart pratfallers of Broad City. With her coltish humor, Waller-Bridge is better placed in a lineage of chic and cutting wits—more Noël Coward than Lena Dunham.

The program quickly made her a star and one of the most in-demand (and prolific) screenwriters and showrunners in the business. In 2018, she had a second hit with Killing Eve, a series that she created but did not act in; a blistering cat-and-mouse thriller for BBC America starring two women, a detective and an assassin, who chase each other around Europe. Her next project is the series Run for HBO, starring Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson as friends who abandon their lives and disappear together. Daniel Craig asked her to polish the new James Bond script, to bring a sense of play and a shot of world-weary humor to a staid, hyper-masculine franchise. If you want to inject instant charisma into a hoary property, Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the person you call.

The second season of Fleabag reaches beyond debonair spikiness to something more complex and searching. Waller-Bridge takes the big questions her character struggles with—Am I good enough? Can I ever forgive myself? Will anyone ever love me?—and does something so unexpected with them that it is almost sublime. She brings in a priest, and by extension the subject of faith. Fleabag’s wandering takes on a spiritual dimension. She’s not just a messy woman who can’t get her life together. She is a lost lamb, seeking divine redemption.

Although Fleabag might have looked like an overnight success, Waller-Bridge had in fact been working on the project for at least three years before it aired in America. It began as a one-woman show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013, written when, as a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, she was getting by on bit parts in British dramas like Doctors. Her hour-long show was a promising blueprint for her cacophonous, frenetic style: Revived in New York earlier this year, it swings wildly from comedy to tragedy, always testing the viewer. About halfway through, there is a five-minute segment in which she attempts to mime taking a picture of her vagina with her phone, raising her leg at an awkward 90-degree angle. Waller-Bridge revels in these moments, when the audience directly in front of her in the theater can’t look away. It is brilliant physical comedy, which she translates to television with a kind of gangly, Buster Keaton-esque energy.

After Edinburgh, she found herself creating two shows at once: Crashing and the Fleabag adaptation. Waller-Bridge acted in both projects, carrying them forward with her own mesmerizing screen presence. But she had bigger goals in mind. She wanted to create a wider range of roles for other actresses. Many of the roles she’d found herself reading for were “two-dimensional”; she wanted her characters to do things that were “genuinely shocking.” Killing Eve, adapted from a series of e-books by Luke Jennings, follows Eve (Sandra Oh), an ambitious MI6 agent, and Villanelle (Jodie Comer), the feline female assassin she pursues around the globe. It’s a detective story infused with feminine jealousy and desire. The two women become mutually obsessed, trying to kill each other at the same time as they develop an erotic infatuation. When, in the finale of the first season, Eve stabs Villanelle in the stomach, Villanelle chooses to view it as an act of love.

The show, now in its second season, has become BBC America’s splashiest success. (Its star, Sandra Oh, co-hosted this year’s Golden Globes.) Driven by the wicked dialogue that is Waller-Bridge’s trademark, the series’ complex appeal draws on the traditions of spy novels and noir cinema, while foregrounding fascinating and twisted female antiheroes. Waller-Bridge allowed women to be violent, terrifying sociopaths, but she also made them undeniably feminine. Men exist on only the periphery of the story. Perhaps more important, with Killing Eve Waller-Bridge avoided the trap that so many women creators find themselves in—of being pigeonholed by their first-person work as confessional artists who don’t want to stray past their own experience. It proved she could write a world-spanning, big-budget thriller full of murder and intrigue.

When she leapt back into Fleabag, Waller-Bridge had a more expansive vision. The show’s second season is about reckoning and consequences. When we meet Fleabag in the second season, she is still acting out. She kicks off the season by punching her sister’s husband at a dinner where her father and “stepmonster” announce that they are planning a fancy wedding. She is also looking for ways to make sense out of tragedies that seem senseless. At the same dinner, she meets a young priest with a scruffy, hangdog affect (Andrew Scott, best known for playing the villain Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock) who is new to her father’s parish and has agreed to perform the wedding ceremony. She is drawn to him, both because he is a man she cannot have and because she sees him as a chance to fill her chaotic days with meaning and structure.

The season unfolds more like a romantic comedy than anything else. The supporting characters are still around, and they have their moments (a particularly funny scene happens when Fleabag’s sister, Claire [Sian Clifford], asks her to cater a posh corporate event, and Fleabag accidentally shatters a priceless award), but the real meat of the show is the tango between Fleabag and The Priest. The two dance around each other all season, growing closer even as they know that they can never be together. Fleabag takes a sudden interest in the Holy Bible, reading it in the bathtub. The Priest asks her to help him pick out his satin robes for her father’s wedding. But mostly, they spend a lot of time walking and talking. It is refreshing to see Fleabag make a friend; you can imagine how buoyant she must have been before her mother and Boo died. But even as Fleabag opens up to The Priest, she still cannot stop talking directly to the camera, her safety blanket.

The Priest notices this behavior and comments on it. We start to see that Fleabag addressing the audience is not a clever exposition device, but something she is doing in the real world to disassociate from reality. “Where did you just go? You went somewhere,” the Priest says to her during a conversation when she pauses to clarify a fact for the viewer. The camera had been a crutch for Fleabag, her way of disconnecting from her surroundings. The Priest cares enough to ask why she keeps drifting, a question that comes across as incredibly romantic in context.

As the sexual tension builds, The Priest suggests one night over whiskey that perhaps Fleabag might want to confess her sins. She’s been hiding a lot from him—how Boo died, why she can’t stop punishing herself—but she does not admit any of that. Instead, she recites a litany of her desires, a striking monologue that is pure Waller-Bridge, skating the fine line between weakness and danger. “I want someone to tell me what to wear every morning,” she says. “I want someone to tell me what to eat, what to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what band to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what to not joke about. I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, who to love, and how to tell them. I want someone to tell me how to live my life, because so far, I think I’ve been getting it wrong.”

By the end of her confession, Fleabag is in tears, but The Priest doesn’t offer her comfort. He later succumbs to Fleabag’s charms and breaks his sacred vows to spend a night with her. The two keep flip-flopping, in a constant exchange of control and dominance, until they need to make a final decision whether to walk away or stay together. He doesn’t want to abandon his faith for her, but he also doesn’t want to lose her. She wants to open herself up to love, but she also knows that he is cosmically unavailable. I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that it’s about letting go. In the final episode, Fleabag turns to the camera, and she asks it not to follow her. Wherever she is off to next, we cannot come along.