Fleabag's Dinner Table Episode Is a Bloody Masterpiece
Season two of Phoebe Waller-Bridge's sharp Amazon Prime Video series interrogates fraught family dynamics at the table.
Season two of Fleabag, the hilarious and devastating Amazon Prime series from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, begins at a restaurant. For a show that so deftly interrogates family dynamics and the grudges that reinforce them, the mise-en-scène of meal time matters. Waller-Bridge's character, the titular Fleabag, is attending a dinner to celebrate her father's engagement to her cloying artist godmother (played brilliantly, with excruciating nuance, by Olivia Coleman), who swooped in after the death of her mother three years prior. This is the first time she's seeing her sister, Claire, after six months of not speaking, and her slimy brother-in-law, Martin, who tried to kiss her at his wife's birthday party. The gang is joined by an outsider, only helping to magnify the unspoken resentments that threaten the table's tenuous détente: a cool, swear-y priest who'll be officiating the wedding. It's a party, characters keep confirming, as if saying it makes it so. Everyone observes the requisite tableside manner, exchanging pleasantries about job promotions and plans to visit Venice, until they don't, and the dread that bubbles under family niceties can no longer be contained, and there are people who are bleeding.
The entire first episode of the second season transpires at this "celebration" dinner, and it's a masterpiece. Not only are the 26 minutes possibly the strongest of the series, but the episode joins the ranks of television's most iconic dinner table scenes, if not obscuring them all: the Game of Thrones Red Wedding, the Broad City birthday dinner, The Office dinner party, the final scene of The Sopranos, every Bob's Burgers Thanksgiving episode.
The restaurant dinner table is the stage where the public and the private converge to at times dramatic effect, thrusting families into exposure they can't always withstand. As a rule, the overeager waitress will pop in to ask if anyone would like more wine at the exact moment someone (Hot Priest) reveals his brother is a pedophile. As another rule, there will be disparities in drunkenness, or at the very least weirdness around drinking. Martin, who claims that he and Claire have been sober for months as they try for a baby, sneaks away periodically to order tequila from the waitress and shoot it on the spot. By the end of the episode, both Claire and Martin are agressively drinking wine. It's a party!
There is no hiding at the restaurant dinner table, only sneaking away to shoot tequila or smoke or pee, and those are the moments when intimacy is possible – asking your sister in the bathroom stall if she's all right; offering a cigarette to your father who declines but hands you a counseling coupon as a birthday gift – and when the central dramas of Fleabag flourish.
While the dinner creeps towards a gut-punching climax where noses get punched, too, the episode's genius is tucked away in small moments: Coleman's character refusing wine on behalf of her fiancé, who's in the middle of accepting the waitress's offer for more. The Priest instinctively refilling Fleabag's wine glass, establishing a wordless intimacy that matures throughout the season. The agonizing 15 seconds of silence as the table waits for the Priest to return to his seat so they can eat. "This sauce is disgusting," Claire says. A beat passes; the waitress peeks her head and asks if everything is okay. "I love this sauce!" Claire says.
The most moving moments of the episode are those shared between Fleabag and Claire, who—despite not having spoken for half a year—converse fluently in glances. When Fleabag goes to the bathroom to check on Claire, sensing that she'd been gone from the table too long, her sister tells her she just had a miscarriage. It is here where the most breathtaking romance of the show—that between sisters (sorry, attractive clergyman)—is revived, at the site of suffering and loss. In a restaurant bathroom where they are, if for a moment, protected, free from the expectations that strain their relationship.
The actress who plays Claire, Sian Clifford, told Vulture that filming the first episode (at a restaurant in London's Covent Garden neighborhood) was emotional. "It was really, really intense to film those scenes — the repression of that family really catches up with you," she said.
And that's what Waller-Bridge tackles better than anyone else: repression and its physics. Her portrayal of a fraught family dinner is exacting, disturbing, and hard to watch. It's also hilarious.
"Can I get anyone ice?" the needy waitress asks cheerfully, during the scene's most awkward pause. It turns out they'll need it later.