Fleabag: An Unexpected Theological Text

By George Tsakiridis

As some of you may know, I am currently writing a book for the Theology and Pop Culture Series entitled Theology and The Americans. Because of this, I’m binge watching the series (more than normal). After finishing the sixth season, I took a break from The Americans this week to catch up on some new releases on Amazon Prime. Amongst these was a British gem that is garnering steam, season 2 of Fleabag. Much of the recent attention seems to be surrounding Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s use of the fourth wall, which diverges from most television. It has been a while since the first season was released (2016), so I honestly didn’t remember as much as I would have liked, but it didn’t matter too much; I was watching purely for entertainment. I never dreamed a blog entry on Fleabag and theology might come out of it, but here I am.

Season 2 starts out with Fleabag and her family eating dinner out along with a new special guest, played by Andrew Scott, of Sherlock fame. Personally, after viewing his portrayal of Jim Moriarty, I’d watch him in almost anything. Scott does not disappoint as the not-so orthodox priest who Fleabag, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, falls in love with. He is set to perform the ceremony to marry Fleabag’s father and Godmother. Without spending time on the usual family interplay, I’d like to focus this piece on three major themes: Fleabag’s relationship with The Priest, her relationship with religion, and love. For the latter it might be best to look at it as three topics: eros, philia, and agape, as the show explores the complexity love in a way beyond what the English language allows.

We find that The Priest has come to the ministry later in life, and has clearly enjoyed some of the more carnal parts of the world. He likes to drink and curse and it’s intimated (well, stated in episode 3) that he’s enjoyed his fair share of sex. Fleabag describes him early on in Episode 1 as “Their cool, sweary priest.” She even asks him, “Are you a real priest?” She may in part be asking for the viewer, as he is so unexpected. What is clear is that he has a strong belief in God and that his commitment is to his vows with the Roman Catholic Church. The choice to make him a Catholic priest rather than an Anglican one is interesting to me, and points to the underlying conflict set up between organized religion (represented by the largest organized denomination in Christianity) and the atheism of Fleabag. There is clear chemistry between the two and the arc of the show is set up around whether he will give in to her and sleep with her, or if she will find some sort of deeper meaning through the desire to have something she cannot. Spoiler alert: both end up being true.

To bring things back to The Priest, we see a character who has finally figured out his life’s calling and found peace in a way that his previous carnal lifestyle did not. He fits the mold of true dedication, while deviating from what one would expect from a pious individual. He lets us know someone can be both devout in his or her faith and a bit unorthodox in the way he or she follows religion. He makes this clear when he sleeps with Fleabag, and admits he loves her. At the same time, in the finale he states, “It’ll pass” when she admits that she loves him, a life changing revelation for Fleabag. It’s also notable that when Fleabag does go to the fourth wall in front of The Priest, he will ask her about it. This happens several times. He can see something about her that no one else can. This is an important insight into both his bond with her and her relationship with the audience. The world she lives in is a foreign world to her, with the viewer and The Priest in her world. This is also is hinted at by the fact that many of the characters in the show do not have proper names, i.e. The Priest, Godmother, etc. The fact that he is somehow inside this world, or at least straddling it, gives us insight into their bond and both of their identities. Theologically, identity is a crucial concept, not just in relating to in-group and out-group dynamics of religion, but also in Christianity. To be identified with Christ is the basis of many soteriological systems. The Priest finds his identity with the Church, but she is challenging that identity. Her identity is found outside the narrative (to some degree), which is also being challenged.

Second, we see religion in general under the microscope. There are multiple portrayals of the Christian faith. The Priest brings her to a Quaker meeting where Fleabag is compelled to admit, “I sometimes worry that I wouldn’t be such a feminist if I had bigger t***” (Episode 4). This elicits a laugh from The Priest, both establishing their friendship and his unorthodox behavior. As she rises to speak, seemingly against her will, she speaks to us through the fourth wall, again establishing our close relationship to her. We also see traditional Catholicism in the painting of Christ that falls to get The Priest’s attention, most notably when he starts to get extremely amorous with Fleabag in the confessional. Additionally, we see the usual joke regarding celibacy (Episode 1), though it does set up the ultimate conflict of the season. Although the specifics are interesting, the broader challenge of how Fleabag struggles with the journey of faith (or non-faith) is more interesting. In fact, the first episode sets us up for what is to come in an unexpected way. Fleabag states, “Maybe happiness isn’t in what you believe, but who you believe.”

Episode 2 opens with Fleabag in church, an unexpected place for her. Her interaction with standard religious artifacts like Bibles (she smells one), and art (she stares awkwardly at it sometimes), helps to give the viewer an outsider’s view of church. Religion is treated in a way that gives us both an outsider view (Fleabag) and insider view (The Priest), but these aren’t polar opposites. They’re two sides of the same coin. In essence, they come from the same place, but have landed on very different paths. This is clear from their interaction at the end of Episode 3. This changes quickly as things reach a climax at the end of Episode 4, where she is in church, trying to pray and is disrupted by The Priest’s rap music. This ultimately culminates in confession and then an attempt at sex stopped by the painting (Time for me to break the fourth wall: that’s a sentence order you don’t typically see in theological discussion). Their exchange about confession gives a concise portrayal of both the skeptic’s and the Roman Catholic view of the confessional. Her reply, “Sounds dodgy” encapsulates the trepidation that many non-Catholics have in entering this sacrament (Fourth wall full disclosure: I am not Roman Catholic). In the confessional, she comes to admit her wish to be told what to do. She states, “I want someone to tell me what to believe in.” She shares her inner fears in a way that lays out her inner conflict. She ultimately does not find the answer in God, but she contemplates it. It is rare in television shows to see this raw struggle with religion.

There is also the seemingly odd imagery of the fox. The Priest states that foxes have been after him for years (Episode 3), but we don’t see one until the last scene, where one appears to Fleabag. Although it is a great comedic device, it also may be symbolic. When Fleabag brings up celibacy in Episode 3, he jumps up about a fox. It could be representing the temptation of Fleabag.

Third, there’s love. Fleabag tells us almost immediately in Episode 1 that “This is a love story.” Fleabag portrays love in a way that is raw and direct, one that is misunderstood in both culture and communities of faith. The priest is self-admitted “really f**king lonely,” despite his strong commitment to the Church (Episode 1). As I mentioned previously there are three levels to the love presented to us in this episode: Eros – the sexual desire that Fleabag and The Priest feel for each other, Philia – The friendship that bonds the two of them, and Agape – the true love they feel for one another in a way that must remain unfulfilled.

Eros is clearly the driving theme for Fleabag, at least initially, with her unexpectedly showing up at church in Episode 2. This is followed up with an internet search for terms beginning with “catholic priest sex,” resulting in celibacy results, and ending with “what happens when a priest has sex” with the results hidden from the viewer. Only a look from Fleabag gives us the answer. Fleabag uses sex to fill a void. She tells us as much in the therapist’s office in Episode 2, but also states that she doesn’t do it anymore. We see this struggle in her relationship with the priest. She is avoiding (or pretending to avoid) giving in to sexual desire, not realizing the depth that is soon to be established in the relationship. She, in fact, denies her love for the priest with a chuckle. The therapist poses the initial key question for Fleabag: “Do you really want to f**k the priest or do you want to f**k God?” It brings us right to the core of human struggle with faith. The move from eros (end of Episode 1) to philia (end of Episode 3) to agape (end of Episode 6) for Fleabag is clearly shown to us in the arc of the season. In a rewatch, it is almost impossible to miss. The Priest even gives us an exposition on the messiness of love in the final episode. He includes a description of where we should put love, bringing this arc to a climax shown a few minutes later in the final scene at the bus stop.

This essay ended up longer than I had anticipated with yet more to say. There are the repeated flashbacks to Fleabag’s mother’s funeral and Boo. These are a continual look back to her connection to self and relationship. There is the timing of the raised music throughout the series. In the end, many will find this show irreverent while others find it overly religious, but it is exactly the kind of comedic social commentary we need on religion in popular culture. It is not fair to write a piece on theology and popular culture for this show, because the show itself is theology and pop culture. It treats issues of love, self, and relationship in a way that is honest and introspective. Those who hold to theological ideals should embrace this kind of honesty, whether they agree with the implied conclusions or not. It isn’t for everyone, but Fleabag, season 2 is a piece of culture that will give us theological pause for many years to come.

*Additional Note: As a comedic side note, after all, this is a comedy, I love the line by Andrew Scott in Episode 4, “Sometimes I worry I’m only in it for the outfits.” It is reminiscent of George Costanza’s answer of “the hats” when asked what attracted him to Latvian Orthodoxy. There’s also the fact that The Priest’s brother is a pedophile, and he is “aware of the irony of that.” (Episode 1)

Dr. George Tsakiridis is a Lecturer of Philosophy and Religion at South Dakota State University. He is currently writing Theology and The Americans for the Theology and Pop Culture Book Series, and does research in religion in science in dialogue with early Christianity. George is also is involved with discussions on the ethics of technology and is co-host of the podcast Cheers Weekly, an episode-by-episode podcast on the TV show Cheers. He is also starting to rewatch Sherlock thanks to Andrew Scott’s appearance in Fleabag, Season 2.

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