Fleabag is a BBC Three series (later picked up by Amazon Studios) starring the English actress and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Based on Waller-Bridge’s eponymous one-woman play, which won a major award at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Fleabag was initially hailed for its edgy sexuality and unconventional storytelling. The point, it was assumed, was to capture the vicissitudes of life for a modish, independent young woman in present-day London — a kind of British companion to Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls (2012-17). Played by Waller-Bridge herself, who brilliantly showcases a combination of endearing wit and pert wantonness, Fleabag‘s protagonist is never named in the show, as if to underscore the cool urban anonymity that cloaks her otherwise messy (“fleabag-ish”) existence.
But then Season 2 came out. Airing in March 2019, after a hiatus of roughly two-and-a-half years, the first episode revealed a new love interest for “Fleabag” (as she has come to be known), namely, a Roman Catholic priest (Andrew Scott). Indeed, the priest has agreed to officiate a family wedding, and Fleabag is immediately attracted to his droll humor and emotional honesty, not to mention his good looks. Normally, she’d think nothing of seducing such a man, but, after a couple of conversations, she realizes that this situation is different. The priest is unlike anyone else she knows, precisely because his life is oriented toward something bigger than his own individual desires. Such an existential posture both attracts and vexes Fleabag, who shows up at church functions and, in one comical yet profanely raw scene, even seeks professional guidance:
Fleabag and the priest grow increasingly intimate until, at last, they become lovers — a plot twist that has sparked controversy. Given the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, not to mention the fact that priest’s behavior contravenes both his sacramental vows and ideal pastoral practice, such criticism is understandable. At the same time, however, the show never treats the romance between Fleabag and the priest casually; they don’t just “jump in bed” but, instead, grow closer over several episodes, talking about their deepest fears and hopes, about who they are and about who they want to be.
Moreover, as the season (and, apparently, the show altogether) wraps up, the priest ultimately returns to his religious vocation, strengthened in his commitment. He loves Fleabag, but his passion is for God. It is even arguable that the priest’s homily on love, which comes toward the end of the final episode, is not about his relationship with Fleabag — but about a divine beloved.
Love is awful! It’s awful. It’s painful. It’s frightening. Makes you doubt yourself, judge yourself. Distance yourself from the other people in your life. Make you selfish. Makes you creepy! Makes you obsessed with your hair. Makes you cruel! Makes you say and do things you never thought you would do! It’s all any of us want and it’s hell when we get there! So, no wonder it’s something we don’t want to do on our own. I was taught if we’re born with love, then life is about choosing the right place to put it. People talk about that a lot. It “feeling right”. When it feels right it’s easy. But I’m not sure that’s true. It takes strength to know what’s right.
That these words also resonate with Fleabag herself indicates the degree to which both she and the priest have matured over the course of their relationship. Doubtless they have made mistakes — some quite significant — but they now each have a deeper sense of self-understanding and, with it, a desire to live better lives. If the priest is now more certain of his calling, Fleabag is now more certain she has an inherent dignity that must be nurtured. Not only is she capable of love, but she has come to realize that she is worthy of being loved.
So, what is Fleabag trying to say about religion? A complete answer would have to be multifaceted (and thus lengthier), but it seems to boil down to this: religious life in general and Christianity in particular require that one be drawn out of one’s individual cares and concerns — an ecstatic disposition that, as studies continue to demonstrate, is increasingly foreign to young people today. Hence, if the first season of Fleabag explores the protagonist’s unfettered individualism, the second season puts it in conversation with a different and, one might say, other-centered religious worldview. The friction between the two is palpable, far more so than a “normal” romantic relationship would be, and herein lies the profound “dramedic” tension that recently propelled Fleabag to multiple awards at the Emmys.
Is Fleabag, then, an example of post-secular entertainment, gently suggesting that Christianity is still needed in Western culture? Well, not exactly. After all, Fleabag herself consistently questions, even mocks, the metaphysical basis of Christianity, and it seems clear that her flirtation with religion is inseparable from her flirtation with the priest. On the other hand, it is telling that Waller-Bridge, in wanting Fleabag “to meet her match” on the show, felt compelled to develop the character of the priest. Only in someone whose life was claimed by “ultimate concern” could she produce the leverage required to liberate Fleabag…from herself.