By Zac Koons
Hot priest summer may be over, the sale of canned G&T’s may have returned to regular rates, and the meme cycle may have run its course, but I’m not done talking about Fleabag — history’s first perfect television show (produced by the BBC and available in the US on Amazon Prime). Let me offer you two reasons to consider reading yet one more thing about the genius of Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Number one, *looks at camera* I myself am a priest — not a hot one, but one who, contrary to some of my clerical colleagues, absolutely loved this show.
Second, though there are a thousand things to love about it, no one is yet talking about what, to me, is the show’s single most miraculous accomplishment: that under the surface of a raunchy, mainstream, award-winning comedy it makes a shockingly articulate and compelling case for choosing God in the 21st century. It’s a subtle argument, and it teeters on the edge of going the other way up until the last scene of the last episode, but it’s there nonetheless, underneath a love story between a sex-obsessed, psychologically unstable, cuttingly hilarious girl, and a boy who, despite being very hot, is a very bad priest.
Their romance begins amidst a whirlwind of surrounding crises. Loved ones have died. Marriages are failing. And people are getting punched in the face. The coping mechanisms of the supporting cast range from the typical to the hilarious. Fleabag’s distractions of choice have been sex, humor, guinea pigs, and us, her imaginary(?) beyond the fourth wall “friends.” But having successfully tumbled to rock bottom at season one’s finale, she is, at the opening of season two, open to change and in search of some kind of new solution. And to start, she’s given up sex.
She’s self-aware, saying to her therapist: “I’ve spent most of my adult life using sex to deflect from the screaming void inside my empty heart.” Lines like this display the show’s perceptive genius. Fleabag, while suffering a variety of presenting difficulties on the surface, suffers from something deeper that actually all the characters in the show — including those of us beyond the fourth wall — share in common: an inability to make meaning out of those circumstances. This is the characteristic existential anxiety of the late modern age. In the disenchanted, choose-your-own-truth-adventure age that we live in, every person’s journey is inevitably haunted by a cosmic kind of loneliness. We are constantly propelled beyond ourselves to search for solutions to our loneliness, but just as constantly haunted by the likelihood that all those solutions will, in the end, disappoint.
And in this show, most of them do. The show refuses to allow “love” to be existential loneliness’s simplistic solution. Instead, in Fleabag’s universe, love in all its typical manifestations, is doomed across the board, either tragically via death (Fleabag’s parents) or alcoholism (Claire and Martin); or comically via hilariously bad chemistry (Claire and Clare), clinical narcissism (father and godmother), or a definitionally incompatible match (Fleabag and priest) — all of which culminate in the single most memorable opening line in wedding homily history: “Love is awful.”
Enter hot priest. As I said, the hot priest is not a good priest. He’s a heavy drinker with poor boundaries who more than once outright abuses his spiritual authority. But vitally, he is not a caricature. He may not be good. But he is not simplistically bad. He’s just a complex mess like everyone else on the show. He has his own restlessness that he’s trying to sort out. The difference he represents is that he has chosen a different solution than has heretofore been considered by any other character on the show: God.
But Fleabag and the hot priest fall in love. And this makes his having chosen God and her having chosen not sex complicated. They are, on one level, just two people attracted to one another for any of the measurable or immeasurable reasons any of us are attracted to anybody — sense of humor, physical characteristics, conversational rapport, etc. And on screen, the chemistry between Andrew Scott and Phoebe Waller-Bridge is gripping. But precisely why every scene between them is so utterly electric comes down to more than just the acting. It’s that inside their titillating will-they-or-won’t-they flirtations, there is an epic philosophical and theological showdown on display.
And it’s a tale as old as time. It’s Augustine vs. Freud. Is sexual desire a sublimated desire for God? Or is desire for God a sublimated desire for sex? And the brilliance in the writing of the show is that though these characters begin on opposite teams, the priest with Augustine, and Fleabag with Freud, they’re moving toward one another, unwittingly arguing for the opposing team, and for every inch that they come closer to one another, they are each those same inches closer to switching teams completely. It’s a train wreck you can’t take your eyes away from.
Fleabag, back in the therapist’s chair, finally blurts out, “I want to f— a priest!” Augustine, who was really the original hot priest when you think about it, had his own version: “Lord, give me chastity but not yet.” The therapist responds, “Do you want to f— a priest or do you want to f— God?” It sounds absurd, and lands flat in the scene, but it is essentially the choice that haunts Fleabag the entire season. Why is she attracted to the priest? Is he hot? Yes. But so is the sexual-harassment defense lawyer (called “Hot Misogynist” in the credits) — who is also “very good at it.” She knows she wants more than sex. She wants a relationship. But with the priest, really? Or is it with whatever “higher power” the priest already has a relationship with? To what extent is she attracted to the priest himself, and to what extent is she attracted to the peace he appears to experience relative to her chaos, that apparently, he gets from God?
It’s impossible to disentangle the two. Augustine’s words are Fleabag’s again: “I cannot see the difference between love’s serenity and lust’s darkness. Confusion of the two boils inside me.” The truth is, sexual desire and desire for God, whichever is ultimate, exist close to one another in the human heart. The path towards one, at least for part of the journey, is the same as the path to the other, so in the beginning, the closer she gets to the priest, the more she becomes open to the possibility of God.
She starts with attending church, then begins volunteering, then reading her Bible — all with the ulterior motive of getting close to the priest, sure, but these things, along with being exposed to the priest’s genuine faith along the way, lead her ultimately, one night in a state of utter desperation, to sneak into the church, not in hopes of a tryst, but really and finally to pray for the first time in her life. As she kneels to pray we’re treated to flashbacks of her mother’s funeral as she heartbreakingly says to her best friend: “I don’t know what to do with all the love I have for her. It has to go somewhere.” Augustine again: “God, you made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Meanwhile for the priest, Fleabag’s pursuit destabilizes his commitment to celibacy and thereby his commitment to God. Even God, it turns out, is not allowed to be a simplistic solution to one’s existential loneliness in this show. He quivers constantly on the edge of giving it up. He is suffering too. He accepts the invitation to dinner in the first episode, he says, only because of loneliness. “Do you have doubts?” asks Fleabag. “All the time!” he says, “That’s part of it.” Or later in another scene, “Sometimes I worry I’m only in it for the outfits.” It is not at all clear that he’s going to last very long in this job.
Though he teases that he’s “never been closer to God” than since she’s been around, Fleabag’s flirtatious entrees bring him to the edge of uncertainty. And tantalizingly vague allusions to his “many times” in the past that leave us wondering if he’s particularly susceptible to these types of temptations. This, I think, is what the fox is all about. Foxes, which the priest explains “have been after me for many years,” stand for the passions, likely lust. “Lucky God got there first, or else you could be a fox boy by now,” she laughs. Later, apropos of nothing, the priest tells Fleabag about a man who wanted to be a saint so badly he castrated himself — which is rather the inverse of “give me chastity but not yet.”
In the confessional booth, their independent but intertwined journeys, one moving from sex to God the other from God to sex, meet in the middle and then each momentarily crosses over to the other’s side. Fleabag is there brought to her first moment of genuine self-reflection and existential honesty with herself, on the verge, it would seem, of calling out to God by name, literally kneeling, when her revelation is cut short by the curtain opened to reveal a priest possessed by a fox. Kyrie Eleison plays in the background. “Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom,” reads Song of Solomon 2:15. Their bodies are still hot for one another but their souls miss one another completely here. She’s on the verge of a transcendent breakthrough, and he’s given up transcendence for immediate, immanent pleasure. And she’ll allow it. She puts God and honesty to the side and takes up instead the residual sexual tension in the room for an abbreviated make-out session, but which is then interrupted by God. Even when they do finally have sex, it is bizarrely unromantic. It’s not the roller coaster rush of momentarily losing oneself in an emotional blur. The lead up is calm, calculated, and literally cold.
“We’re going to have sex, aren’t we?”
Freud cackles in the background.
Just before a wedding, Fleabag comes around the corner and scares him while he’s practicing his homily. He jumps, “I thought you were a fox.” They kiss. “I don’t know what this feeling is,” he says. “Is it God or is it me?” she asks. “I don’t know,” he says, thus sowing the seed for the soul-crushing, perfect final scene.
“It’s God, isn’t it?” she says.
“You know the worst part? . . . I …love you.”
“It’ll pass.” he says. … “I love you too.”
Defying every incentive of Hollywood romance, countering every ounce of narrative momentum, and resisting what I presumed to be the irresistible charm of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the priest chooses God. And walks away.
In his “love is awful” wedding homily, the priest goes on to say “I was taught that 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. Love isn’t something that weak people do.” Him choosing God in the end does not feel right. It’s crushing to them both. What the priest feels is that he loves her too. What he feels is that he wants to run away with her. But what one feels — this is what the entire show has been about — is not a trustworthy barometer in determining what to do with your own restlessness.
Life is more complicated than simply “finding the right place to put it.” It’s a journey that requires strength. Strength, in this case, means turning a once-upon-a-time choice into a habit. It means continuing to choose what you once chose — which applies to marriage too, and is why it’s hard and why many fail. “How interesting it is, the notion of a calling,” says the godmother in the first episode. “Oh, well, marriage is a calling too,” he says. Those married must continue to choose the one to whom they’re married. The priest will have to continue to choose God, even after the show’s credits. The fox follows him.
And though Fleabag is left heart-broken, we leave unable to help thinking that this ending is what’s best for her too. Was a relationship with a defrocked priest really going to solve her problems? Probably not. Plus, her heartbreak leads her to another breakthrough: she leaves us behind. She strips off yet one more crutch of distraction. She chooses strength. She is, despite not getting the priest, one step closer to finding rest. Here is the inverse of the confessional booth: Their passions and bodies, though aligned, miss one another, while their souls each get precisely what they need.
The interesting question the show leaves us with is: what path is left for her to take? And by extension, what path is left to take for those of us she’s now abandoned behind the fourth wall, because in truth, most of us walked away with Fleabag and not the priest in the end. We may flirt with God from time to time, but in the end for whatever reason we can’t bring ourselves to make any genuine leap of faith: it’s too culturally laughable, it’s assumed to be intellectually embarrassing, it’s the opiate of the masses, whatever. But the argument the show makes for God is not even really about belief. It’s about utility. All the other typical solutions — marriage, sex, love, drugs, romance — have at this point been skewered and parodied to death by the show. And we’re very much left with the impression that, whether God is real or not, the priest ends as the show’s most content character. He is the one who has found a genuinely compelling solution to modernity’s existential loneliness. It’s Pascal’s wager on Amazon Prime.
In the end, Fleabag paints a nuanced portrait of the soul’s condition in the secular age. We may live out the majority of our day-to-day lives in a murky malaise of distraction, but we are existentially fragile. There is a restlessness bubbling always under the surface. Those who claim any kind of faith are haunted by doubt. And those who don’t claim a faith of any kind are haunted by God. And the truly astonishing thing about this show is that the God who haunts its characters—who haunts us—genuinely feels like hope.
The Rev. Zac Koons is rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas.