Fleabag: On Being "Good Enough"
“It feels so nice, to know I’m gonna be alright,” Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Murphy sings as we have our last glimpse of Fleabag, walking away from us with a final glance, a final wave. And we believe it. Fleabag, having been through more than her fair share of tragedy, of guilt and of disappointment, is going to be alright. The series ends with an idea of hope: “When you find somebody that you love, it feels like hope”, says the Priest. For Fleabag, this hope comes from something as simple as knowing that indeed, “it will pass”. That even in the face of tragedy, we will continue, not in the hope that a grand finale awaits, but rather the hope that as each day passes, we can become a little bit better.
This feeling is tangible in the final shots of the show. More dramatic narrative conventions (specifically, running through the airport) have been handed over to Claire. It is a quiet ending to a series that hasn’t been afraid to make a scene, and which has, unsurprisingly given Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s background, often embraced the theatrical. The technique of Fleabag means that we experience the events of the show firmly through Fleabag’s point-of-view, her asides to the camera giving her a certain level of control over the narrative. It’s a striking, and original technique, but what it’s really doing is making visual something we all have – a coping mechanism. Fleabag, like all of us, copes with many things: death, guilt over the mistakes she’s made, romantic and financial disappointment, and all the small, every day struggles we recognise. Most of all, perhaps, we are coping with the fact that, even though we are the central characters in our own stories, we are living in a world that often feels indifferent to us, one in which we are not, as many of us have been lead to believe, special in any way. And, maybe this is an integral part of growing up, the realization that at the end of it all, we are just ordinary people living our lives. And this realization, disheartening as it may sound at first, is what gives the ending of Fleabag this necessary, yet gentle, sense of hope. For Fleabag, the realization of her own ordinariness is comforting. It is not about trying to have the best job, the most money, or the perfect love. It is simply about being good enough. A good enough person.
For me, this is where the hopefulness of Fleabag’s finale lies. Maggie Nelson writes about being “good enough” in the context of parenting, after D.W. Winnicott’s theory of the “good enough mother”, meaning simply that the best parents are not those who strive for perfection, rather those who meet their children’s needs with “ordinary devotion.” Back to the idea of the ordinary; Nelson writes that “Winnicott is a writer for whom ordinary words are enough.” Let me move this idea of “good enough”, of ordinariness away from the realm of parenting and instead into the space of adulthood, specifically that part of adulthood that stretches from one’s mid-twenties to thirties, in which there is so much painful, but necessary growth, away from the ideals of our childhood and our young adult years.
At the end of the first series, salvation comes in the form of something as ordinary as a bank loan. Though the tone of the show is, perhaps, anything but ordinary, the idea of and desire for ordinariness permeates both seasons. We see it in the bank manager who just wants an ordinary life back home:
“I want to hug my wife, protect my children, protect my daughter. I want to move on. I want to apologise, to everyone. Want to go to the theatre. I want to take clean cups out of the dishwasher and put them in the cupboard at home and the next morning, I want to watch my wife drink from them. And I want to make her feel good. I want to make her orgasm again. And again”.
In Fleabag’s Godmother: “To be fair, she’s not an evil stepmother. She’s just a cunt”. Martin, in the finale, saying that he’s not a bad person, he just has a “fucked” personality. And Fleabag’s father, marrying her Godmother, knowing that while she’s “not everyone’s cup of tea”, the life they have together is good enough for him. And the Priest, of course the Priest, who says that if him and Fleabag have sex “I won’t burst into flames, but my life will be fucked”. Perhaps at first these don’t seem like examples of being good enough people; let me explain.
To be good enough, rather than perfect, is to allow for mistakes. Being good enough removes drama, like the Godmother who is awful to Fleabag, but loves her father, or the Priest in his robes, who fucks up but continues on his chosen path anyway, integrating the “mistake” he made into his sense of self. These are ordinary people, but it is the narrative style of the show that elevates them; for example, the camera madly circling the dining table in the first episode of series two, or the heavy credits music. Fleabag’s sense of herself has become heightened, by loss, by guilt, by shame and grief, leading to an awareness of the narrative shape and pattern of her own life. But perhaps, by the time we leave her, gently this time, the Alabama Shakes song continuing over the credits, her vision of her life no longer needs to be heightened. She has learned that there is nothing is so dramatic that the everyday will not continue. No loss of love so painful that the everyday will not continue.
This is what the ending of Fleabag teaches us. It is about being a good enough person. It is not about the big office, the most perfect love story, the cleanest conscience. Our coping mechanisms are not there for us until everything is fixed; we will always need them. Being good enough is not about achieving perfection. It is not about “the end”. Being good enough is like having a loan. It’s about working, piece by piece, slowly becoming closer to the person you imagine yourself to be, closer to the life you want for yourself. Being good enough is about creating space for joy, for love, for pleasure, so that when things go wrong you are able to continue knowing that, one day, things will be okay. Being good enough is about being whole. Fleabag’s ending is not really an ending. Our time with her is up, but she will continue on. More of the same, as well as things that are new, things that are different and, hopefully, a little bit better each time.
Nelson, Maggie. The Argonauts. Graywolf Press. 2015.