One brief scene early in season two of Phoebe Waller-Bridge‘s popular TV series Fleabag packs a lot of important content about what can happen in someone’s first therapy session.
Whether you’ve seen the show or not, this is worth a watch.
Without a gift voucher from her father the Client, “Fleabag” (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), wouldn’t be there at all. How many people have started therapy this way? Probably not many. But how many have started therapy because someone somehow prodded them into it? Pretty many.
Right off the bat, we know that the use of humor is not appreciated by the seriously dry unnamed Therapist (Fiona Shaw). Too bad for our Client, who regularly employs it as a defense mechanism.
Fleabag, whose inner thoughts are frequently directed toward the viewers, fails to please Therapist with her jokiness. In one instance Client remarks to us, “Tough crowd!”
In response to Therapist’s questioning, Fleabag concisely and effectively states several life problems that probably made her dad think she needed counseling. She then proudly tells her viewers, “I’m good at this.” Glibly summarizing issues is easy enough; going deeper is usually considerably harder.
Therapist asks about closeness with family, friends. Client has had significant losses: both her mother and best friend have died. When asked probing questions, however, she laughs. A more comfortable alternative to crying and other expressions of vulnerability.
A pivotal point is when Fleabag hears Therapist reframe a couple of her main issues. Abby Robinson, Digital Spy:
…(I)t’s really the only time Fleabag has vocalised her misery and it’s incredibly powerful, a moment laden with painful truths.
‘Just a girl with no friends and an empty heart… by your own description,’ says the therapist and Fleabag is floored. She’s visibly devastated, because saying it aloud makes it real.
It almost takes your breath away, until you check yourself and remember that we’ve always known that her mental health is in tatters.
Fleabag insists to Therapist she has plenty of friends. Wink wink. (Because we the viewers are now her friends.)
Testily now, “I don’t need to be analyzed. I have a nice life.” Frankly, Fleabag just wants to exchange her voucher for money. Really? Why make an appointment just for that? Why submit to Therapist’s questions? Surely part of her knows she can benefit from professional help. But she’s afraid.
Therapist isn’t having it. Brief pouty silence before Client feels compelled to blurt out her secret desire. If you insist on me being here (Therapist doesn’t), I’ll have to open up.
As Allie Pape, Vulture, recaps the confession and ensuing exchange, “Fleabag insists she’s conflicted about her lust for The Priest, but the therapist knows better.”
Fleabag: “Can you just tell me what to do?” Then I can blame you when things don’t go well.
“…You already know what you’re going to do…” Therapist has decided this in an instant.
“So what’s the point in you?” Maybe to help you come to terms with your choices?
Therapist and Client argue about whether Fleabag already knows what she’s going to do.
Guess who turns out to be right?
Whether because Therapist was actually right or whether because Fleabag was influenced by Therapist’s confident proclamation, we’ll never know.
This is one of my favorite scenes in Fleabag because it demonstrates therapeutic counseling at its best, where a therapist is able to hold up a mirror to the other person’s life and show them what was already and always there. Thank you for one of the best deconstructive analyses I’ve read of what the Therapist character is doing here in her interactions with Fleabag. It really highlights the essence of the scene and therapy’s potential in enabling growth and possible change…even if this ends up just being one step in Fleabag’s journey towards wellness and healing. 🙂