Repression, Depression and Obsessive Compulsion – Fleabag and Philosophy

“You know how to love better than all of us. That’s why you find it so painful.”

If you haven’t watched tragicomedy Fleabag yet, you’re in for a treat. Well, that’s if you like British humour anyway – because Fleabag is a stunning comedic example of everything that many of us love (and hate) about being from this ridiculous isle. We’re absolute masters when it comes to repression. We specialise in not opening up about our true feelings. And we insist on keeping our libido/raging sexual urges buried deep under our tea cosies – at least until Friday night, that is, when we all hit the sauce immediately after work. Seven pints later, inhibitions finally uncaged, we indulge in the kind of awkward carnal activity that would’ve made Caligula blush (not in an incestuous way – although, to be fair, I am from East Anglia…). It’s certainly not memorable – but we often don’t actually have the faculties available to remember the event anyway, so all good. See you at Spoons on Saturday, yeah?

The quote at the beginning of this post is an example of the deep, conflictual, raw and yet breath-taking humanity that underpins the comic shenanigans in Fleabag – created by the brilliant Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who both wrote and starred in the show. It began life as an Edinburgh Fringe act, before its televisual introduction on the exclusively online channel BBC Three in 2016 – and eventually earned a spot on BBC One as more and more people fell for its charms; it’s now available for US audiences on Amazon Video. Anyway, back to that quote – it is delivered by Fleabag’s father to her on his wedding day. He is getting remarried to an old family friend (a wicked stepmother-type played by Olivia Coleman who is despised by Fleabag and her highly strung older sister Claire).

Daddy issues

Fleabag has a rather awkward, sometimes troubled and generally disaffected relationship with her father – a reserved and vacant figure. He often refers to the fact that Fleabag was much closer to her mother, who died some time ago. He points to similarities in their vibrant, outgoing personalities and admits that he often cannot cope with Fleabag’s animalistic, self-destructive tendencies. Yet this quote – “You know how to love better than all of us. That’s why you find it so painful” – is a beautiful and rare illumination of his true feelings towards his distant daughter (distant mainly due to his own struggles as a father to bridge the emotional gap between them).

Fleabag’s father recognises the wellspring of love and passion (and turmoil) that radiates from within her. In the final episode, when he essentially admits he is resigned to marrying a woman that he, at best, is casually fond of and, at worst, also despises, that delightful quote also demonstrates his admiration and pride for a daughter who has the capacity to experience and engage with genuine love. The big problem is that all the joy that comes with a capacity for this terrifying and tormenting ‘big love’ also often entails the greatest potential for heartache and misery.

Perhaps this is an example of what Jacques Lacan meant when he spoke of Jouissance – something beyond pleasure. Not just eating one big Domino’s Pizza, but five of the fuckers until it’s so good it actually hurts. We all seek this big love, even when more often than not it ends up destroying us (as well as of course offering the promise of psychic reparation, too). Fleabag truly is a masterpiece on the human condition – all of our repression, depression and obsessions. The inseparable dualism of love and hate.

Two sides of the same coin

All of the main characters serve a telling purpose in maintaining a veneer of calm before the storm – there is a constant tension bubbling away under all the key relationships which keeps you on the edge of your seat. One of my favourite of those dyads is the relationship between Fleabag and her sister Claire. They’re your classic Yin and Yang/Jekyll and Hyde/Apollo and Dionysus sibling duo. Carl Jung saw our Self archetype as something akin to a coin with our own individual stamp of who and what we are. Well if that’s the case, the sisters in Fleabag very often represent two sides of the same coin – light and dark, rational and irrational, Persona and Shadow. Poles apart – yet inextricably linked. Inseparable.

Claire is highly successful yet highly strung, intensely repressed and proper – she actively goes out of her way to deny herself contentment (and pleasure generally). She is locked in a marriage with a man she hates – a funny yet aggressive and controlling figure, who operates without a social filter – in that he often says highly inappropriate things. The sort of things we often think but wouldn’t dream of verbalising. That is actually one of his ‘charms’, and his ability to allow those Shadowy elements of his psyche to overflow into consciousness is probably one of the things Claire likes about him – because she’s so repressed and so restricted by her own internal defences; her ego squashes all flickers of spontaneity and joy whenever any terrifying possibilities for actual happiness arise.

She has ambivalent feelings towards her sister’s behaviour – at times she’s repulsed, at others she’s deeply concerned and, on occasion, bitterly jealous. Because Fleabag is far more in touch with the Shadow side of her Jungian unconscious. She’s sexually liberated and explorative – she lets her hair down, says what he she thinks and generally goes with the flow. And so, at times, she’s also reckless and prone to repeating mistakes. Unfortunately, her wild and untamed nature leads to a fatal error – quite literally.

Fatal attraction

If you are planning to watch Fleabag and don’t wish to read any more spoilers, I suggest putting this blog to one side for now. If not, let’s continue – because there is a spectre that continually haunts the thoughts of our lead character throughout the series, and we are gradually given the pieces to a heartbreaking puzzle. Fleabag runs a struggling cafe which, we discover, she set up with her best friend Boo. We eventually find out that Boo killed herself by committing suicide. Her death weighs heavy on Fleabag – particularly at her lowest and loneliest moments. The implications of this lost friendship are severe; Fleabag suffers from a lack of direction in her life and we see various past occasions via flashbacks when Boo offered her solace, encouraged her to grow as a person or just supported her.

The real kicker comes at the end of series one though, when we discover that Fleabag actually played a significant part in her beloved friend’s demise. Fleabag has drunken sex with Boo’s boyfriend one night and the couple’s subsequent split, and heartache caused by the betrayal, leads to Boo walking out in front of a cyclist. And so we can add relentless, merciless guilt to the sadness Fleabag already feels over losing her mother as key elements of her pathological self-destructiveness. It’s almost a one-woman portrayal of Freud’s Thanatos Death Drive unfolding before our very eyes.

Persona and Shadow

I’ve already mentioned the Jungian terms Persona and Shadow in relation to the personality types demonstrated by Fleabag and her sister. And it’s certainly fair to say that we see Fleabag’s Dionysian spirit continually throughout the series – lots of sex, plenty of booze and a fair amount of chaos thus ensuing. Her Persona is quirky, sassy, sexy, funny and, ultimately, seemingly unhinged. Despite a string of meaningless sexual encounters, she does have a recurring boyfriend in series one. The problem is, he’s a soft, sensitive well-meaning type who she essentially exploits for familiarity, comfort and a good old ego boost; she treats him indifferently until she is in a moment of need and unfairly calls him back from psychic obscurity to temporarily quell her loneliness.

Fortunately, he eventually finds the strength to end the unhealthy repetitive cycle once and for all and has a baby with someone else. And Fleabag also ends up falling in love – this time for real with a man she has a genuine connection with. Her blossoming relationship with this character – a priest played by Andrew Scott – of course ends with the disappointing conclusion that had to befall a narrative with such a general air of sadness. But it also brings hope and potential for the future of our hero – because she discovers that she actually wants love, stability and ‘normality’. Or perhaps a better way to approach it, is to say that Fleabag wishes to have again what she once had with Boo – a meaningful friendship, a deep connection; real love. She remains open to the possibility of discovering a new and healthy love object.

Fleabag is a wonderfully graphic and full-blooded representation of the valve of unconscious pressure being released every once in a while – and when it does, all sorts of dark, Shadowy stuff seeps out. Jung wrote about masculine and feminine archetypes he termed Animus and Anima. Without going into any real detail, he believed that men who appeared particularly masculine on the outside were often more in touch with their inner feminine side (Anima) – and vice versa. It seems these days that there is a lot more to it than that – we’re complex beings comprised of multiple personalities, sentiments and orientations.

But there is still much of Jung’s work that resonates today – particularly the idea that the Anima/us is the “wrecker of marriages and careers”, according to Jungian expert Murray Stein. It is the archetypal script which has the image-making capacity to draw us to others – to that sexy person whose charms you just cannot resist. Fleabag is not only perennially misled by this part of her psyche, she also fires it in others she encounters; like a sort of awkward, British femme fatale.

She actually adopts quite a direct, bullish and, thus, masculine exterior with her approach to others and her overt sexuality – and this correlates with Jung’s ideas when we witness her quieter, more introspective moments; a softer, gentler, (and dare I say) weaker side; certainly more empathic. One of the key artistic devices Waller-Bridge uses in Fleabag is to continually talk to the camera – perhaps this an example of Fleabag using her Jungian active imagination? Maybe she is bridging the gap between her ego and her unconscious – those daydream-like states could be a medium by which she plays out her archetypal fantasies? Are we being given a glimpse into the imagoes that reside deep in her unconscious?

Meta is better

As for talking to the camera and all that, I just wanted to highlight the wonderful meta/fourth wall-busting qualities of Fleabag generally. From the unexpectedly short, sharp and chaotic jazz sequence that begins each episode to the £12 sandwiches she sells in her cafe when times are particularly tight, to Hugh Dennis’ retreat for weirdly sexually aggressive men, Fleabag has a strong oddball-ish undercurrent. But it’s certainly Waller-Bridge’s audience-only monologues which shine the most. Mainly because they’re so funny – and she’s so effervescent and likeable. But the philosophical implications are also really interesting. We’re served up this sort of voyeuristic element as a viewer – we’re thrown right into all of her sexual exploits; every awkward, sweaty, raw, ridiculous, embarrassing moment includes us.

Maybe this in an example of Fleabag’s ego-ideal at work? Perhaps she is imagining an idea of how she sees herself behaving – and is trying to meet the internalised standards set by her parental figures in infancy; social standards enforced by her superego? Guilt, and the consequences of poor choices, certainly does play a significant role in what happens throughout this programme. Or maybe she’s projecting some kind of futural visualisation to plot the steps in her life – like some of Heideggerian ecstasy of temporality at work? Are these just moments for us, the audience, to offer our judgment as a means to helping Fleabag on her journey to self-improvement/individuation/Wholeness? Are we actually experiencing real events – or are these intimate moments just Fleabag’s dreams; when does reality end and imaginary begin?

Personally, I like to imagine that we are experiencing some kind of split personality at work – it certainly seems to be valid that the psyche is made of many different layers. I see the talking-to-camera Fleabag as just one of those layers of her inner multiplicity. Right from the Kleinian paranoid-schizoid position onwards we all experience difficulties in integrating our loving and hateful feelings towards others (thanks good and bad breast!).

I like to see this aspect of Fleabag’s character as just one thread that only we, the viewer, are privy to. I say this, but of course, as anyone who has watched all of Fleabag will know, in series two, her audience monologues are suddenly, and unexpectedly, picked up by her new love interest. Why does the priest have access to this intimate quarter, which was reserved solely for us? Is she speaking to God? Or on a religious frequency? Does he just get her in a way no-one else does? Or does anyone actually pay her due attention? Maybe they don’t notice it because they’re never really living in the moment in the same way she is?

Bad religion

Speaking of religion – champion of stifling morality, slave ethics and anti-life values (Nietzsche would say, anyway) – it obviously has a prominent position in the narrative thread; particularly in series two when Fleabag meets the priest. There is a beautiful scene in Scott’s church where Fleabag is in a confession box getting ready to spill her darkest secret – but instead the pair end up locked in a passionate embrace. She lowers her guard at last – and this vulnerability and newfound openness makes her irresistible. To be completely honest is to trust – and trust is the gateway to the ultimate form of intimacy. This kind of classic Freudian symbolism is typical of Fleabag – the confession box promises some relief from the burden of one’s superego guilt, but once again those animalistic drives take over. The unconscious desires bubble up to the surface and they almost end up finally playing out the recurring sexual fantasy of their forbidden love.

It’s a show that deals with notions of femininity in a really interesting way, too – different female characters with very different personalities who all show weakness, love, empathy and strength in equal measure. It’s a fine example of how there isn’t just a set way of being a woman – feminine or not. People are people – we’re all flawed and we all make mistakes, but love, companionship and family can help us get through even the toughest times.

There is a recurring object which appears throughout Fleabag – a piece of art that Fleabag steals from her wicked stepmother (played by Coleman). The little bronze sculpture is a bust of a woman – and the symbolic value of the object is significant; at various points in the show it comes to represent sexuality, rage, achievement, forgiveness and acceptance. Coleman knows deep down that Fleabag took it – and they play a sort of psychological cat and mouse game over the artwork until it finds its way back to its rightful owner. This actually comes with the acceptance I just mentioned – a point where Fleabag and Coleman finally figure out a working relationship between one another that they’d previously struggled to achieve.

Constellating complexes

Fleabag is all about constellating complexes – those moments when you say or do the thing that you know is going to send your partner, friend (or whoever) over the edge. Sometimes we can’t help but push each other’s buttons to get a reaction. Fleabag, her sister Claire and Coleman’s wicked stepmother are constantly locked in tense battles where they’re often a misplaced phrase away from causing great pain or engaging in a slanging match. Due to her depression and obsessive compulsive behaviour, Fleabag has a number of triggers that constellate complexes – friendship issues, sex, mother issues, father issues, sibling rivalry, the wicked stepmother. Every so often the tension bubbling in the unconscious spills over, the complexes constellate and all hell breaks loose.

And that’s just one of the many things that makes Fleabag so compelling – it explores the dark underbelly of the psyche. It gets down and dirty with the unknown forces operating deep beneath the surface. Fleabag is passionate, emotional and, therefore, utterly human. The characters want what we all want – just to be happy; to love and be loved. And the way Fleabag demonstrates that is better than most comedies have managed in the past ten years. Love is painful. Life is painful. But Fleabag is a joy. Give it a go.

20 thoughts on “Repression, Depression and Obsessive Compulsion – Fleabag and Philosophy

  1. Joseph,
    This is deep.
    I saw the many awards the show collected. You will not believe it if I tell you that my household watched Fleabag, but told me that they know I would not love it. Because I love joy and happiness all around me? Maybe. Thank you for this. The details are captivating. I will go and see the first episode and will be back to tell you if I will continue with it. – with this perspective in mind. Let me try to confound and challenge my comfort zone. (I wanted to add a smiling emoji).

    Liked by 1 person

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