MHAM: ‘Fleabag’ (2016-2019) and the Messy Reality of Mental Illness

Mental illness isn’t pretty. It can’t be nicely summed up with a blue-toned social graphic, an easily shareable tweet, or a catchy platode. It’s nasty, destructive and messy. One of the many problems in representation of mental illness (and there are a multitude of problems) is that creators often try to tidy up illness. In efforts to try and write an accurate portrayal, some writers consult literature that lists the symptoms of illnesses; in theory this is excellent practise and more writers should make an effort to consult experts on what they’re writing, especially with something as delicate as mental illness. However, the issue is that mental illness is variable and difficult to define. People don’t fit nicely into little tick boxes on some symptom checklist. Everyone is different – one person’s anxiety may express itself with uncontrollable ramblings where they gush exactly what they’re feeling at breakneck speed, another person with anxiety may internalise everything and clam up completely. They both live with the same disorder, just in very different ways. In a similar vein, people with some disorders may not experience every symptom on the list, but that doesn’t diminish their experience. Symptoms are messy: they ebb and flow and spill into different diagnoses, refusing to be defined for any period of time. To write as close to an accurate representation as you can for mental illness, you can’t just write a character with illness A, B, or C, you have to be willing to blur some restrictive lines. For this reason, I think the gloriously messy and chaotic story of Fleabag is a brilliant representation for people who just aren’t okay.

Fleabag doesn’t try to show a character that fits into a category of mental illness. Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) can’t be easily defined. She is layered, she is real, she is – in all honesty – a disaster. She is clearly unwell but it is not entirely clear how. Instead, Fleabag is presented as chaotic and self-destructive, which is a symptom of many disorders. 

Unfortunately, self-destructiveness is an under-addressed symptom for many people living with mental illness and it is one that is often disregarded as a selfish nuisance. This characteristic can present itself as recklessness – missing work deadlines, unwise financial decisions, or selfish and potentially dangerous sexual encounters. We see a lot of actions from Fleabag that can be described as reckless, especially in her relationship to sex. Not only does Fleabag betray her best friend by sleeping with their boyfriend (which indirectly triggers her friend’s death) but her sexual encounters following the loss of her best friend are equally reckless. There are a few interpretations for Fleabag’s use of sex as both a coping mechanism and an act of self harm. Perhaps sex is the only expression of intimacy and affection she allows herself, perhaps she uses the act as a distraction from her internal misery, or perhaps she simply does not care what happens to her body. We as an audience don’t need to know exactly what triggers her behaviour, even the character of Fleabag doesn’t. The refusal to define symptoms allows many viewers to relate to the character as they are relating to a person and their actions, rather than a diagnosis. 

An important component to Fleabag – and one which likely helped the show gain such a following – is the show’s presentation of Fleabag herself. Although self-destruction is a symptom of a much deeper issue, the show does not allow Fleabag to be fully exonerated from her actions. She is held accountable but not demonised for her actions, which is extremely important. She is a victim but also a perpetrator, and keeping this clear distinction is important for audiences who may relate to the character to understand that they must face their wrongdoings and critique their self-destructive behaviour.

The framing of Fleabag is interesting in that we are given the impression that we are seeing the real Fleabag however, because she is narrating to an audience, we actually still see a performance of wellbeing. Our view of Fleabag is more intimate than many others in her life are granted but we get an abridged version –  the funny or nonchalant version – the version she wishes to believe about herself.  The series shows that this denial can’t last. To the dismay of Fleabag, she can’t always control her perception and we see through the cracks. We see intense sadness leak through and we see her reaction to knowing she’s revealed too much of her emotions to us and herself. She is unable to trick us into thinking she’s perfectly okay, just as she is unable to trick herself. As an audience, we see that “keeping it together” is not possible. No one can successfully do so for long, no matter how blithe, clever, funny, cynical – our emotions will be released and demand to be perceived.

Season two of Fleabag shows one of the most important aspects of mental illness representation in media: it shows her efforts to work on herself. She strives for a more healthy lifestyle and mentality and though the series shows that occasionally eating salad is not an easy fix for all problems, we see that caring about herself is starting to work. Season two introduces a new concept for Fleabag, one that she had been denying herself: that of healthy relationships. She meets and quickly bonds with the Hot Priest (Andrew Scott) and though their relationship is classically complicated, torrid and doomed for failure (just as Fleabag likes it) she still uses this experience to allow herself emotional intimacy once more. The real love story of this season though is of course the mending of her relationship with her sister (Sian Clifford) as they end the show stronger than they ever were before. Season two allows the audience a chance to see the ups and downs of recovery and though Fleabag did not end with a fairytale happy ending, we end our journey knowing that she is healing and that she is ready to live with herself. When she turns to the camera for the last time and shakes her head with a bittersweet smile and waves goodbye to us, we know she’s fully accepting herself and no longer needs to perform for her perceived audience. As she walks away, an Alabama Shakes song sums up her arc throughout the show perfectly: “I’ve been having me a real hard time but it feels so nice to know I’m gonna be alright”. 

The character of Fleabag is as chaotic and undefined as the blast of discordant instruments that signal the show’s short title card theme. People can relate to a mess better than they can a 2D cut out from some mental illness awareness brochure. The inclusivity of chaos – in having absolutely no idea what’s going on and struggling to keep things together – results in Fleabag being as accurate a portrayal of mental illness as can be possible for a large audience. If season one shows how we are all messes, season two shows how we can work on ourselves, how we can open ourselves up and tame our self-destructive ways. Fleabag shows us that no matter how bad we may be right now, it’ll pass.