If you’re looking for explosive interactions between characters in fiction, look no further than a dinner party; from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to Big Night to the Real Housewives, entertainment has always looked to shared meals as an opportunity to explore — and exploit — tension.
Consider The Office episode “Dinner Party,” where Michael invites his subordinates (and newly public couple) Jim and Pam to his condo for dinner with his increasingly unhinged girlfriend, Jan. Because of the mockumentary set-up of the show, we’re both there and not, free from the social hostage situation that these situations present and able to commiserate through the characters’ increasingly panicked glances to our proxy, the camera.
If The Office dinner party is the appetizer in the dinner party from hell, the dinner that opens Fleabag’s second season is the entree. That much is apparent from the very first scene, in which the eponymous protagonist (played by showrunner and creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge) washes her hands at a sink in an upscale restroom, her back to the camera, a jazzy croon (“You are the one / I want to be close to”) spilling gently from the speakers. Suddenly cut to: Fleabag’s reflection, a violent smear of blood coming from her nose and mouth. There’s a knock on the door, a man’s voice offering assistance; in customary Fleabag fashion, she declines, and proffers help herself to an equally bloodied woman sitting on the floor tiles next to her.
“This,” Fleabag states, making thrillingly familiar eye contact with the camera, “is a love story.”
Suffering and love; pain and pleasure. The promise of those feelings, two sides of the same coin, run throughout this dinner party, which takes place, as the title card informs us, 371 days, 19 hours, and 26 minutes from where we last left off. It’s been longer than that for us in the audience — Fleabag’s first season was released in the summer of 2016 — and we’ve missed our girl, in spite — nay, because — of her flaws. Seeing her again is like seeing an old friend, the one who texts you jokes under the table and communicates through wry glances, letting you know that yes, you’re on the same page and yes, this shit is bonkers.
Of course she’s a little older and wiser now than the last time we saw her. She’s healthy, or at least she’d have us think that, but our Fleabag is still there. And thank god she is, otherwise we might not make it through this family dinner alive. Sharing the table: her emotionally infantile father, her pretentious and self absorbed god- (soon to be step-) mother, her lecherous, drunk brother-in-law, and her sister, who is so emotionally repressed that she’d rather pretend that she’s fine while having an actual miscarriage at dinner. Fleabag is our only friend in this all-too-familiar and cringe-y scene, just as we are hers… at least for a moment.
Dinner party conversation, both real and fictional, can be painfully performative with social graces upstaging true connection or more volatile emotional undercurrents. “No one’s asked me a question in 45 minutes,” Fleabag says to the camera, noting her family’s inability to execute this basic social norm — only for a question to come, chasing her words closely: “So what do you do?” asks the priest, the sixth member of the party and the sole outsider. He is attractive, he is “cool,” he is “sweary”; he is the only one at the table to actively express curiosity and interest in Fleabag. By the end of her second smoke break, the spark of attraction has been lit: “Well, fuck you, then,” the priest says under his breath after Fleabag begins to walk away mid-question. She looks back over her shoulder, brow furrowed. Slowly, they exchange sexually-charged, but guarded smiles.
Even if you don’t relate to Fleabag’s exact situation (and for your sake, we hope you don’t), we can all find ourselves in the scene. We’ve all known the pain of interacting with a parent’s new — and maybe unlikable — spouse; of grief; of alienation even when surrounded by our own families. We’ve sat through dinner with the oafish people our siblings or friends have puzzlingly chosen to date or tried to suppress familial idiosyncrasies in front of someone we’re hoping to impress.
No one wants to be the one to step outside the norm and yell “For fuck’s sake!” the way Fleabag is ultimately driven to. But that’s what makes Fleabag such a remarkable character. Not only does she step outside the boundaries of social construct, she also takes us with her. Somewhat ironically, it’s her closeness to the viewer that keeps her from emotional intimacy with the people around her.