In the second (and apparently final) season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s exceptional BBC series Fleabag, the titular character admits that she’s searching for surrender.
After a comical but terribly bleak sequence of fuckups in season one, Fleabag finally has her shit together: She’s stopped using sex with men to fill the void in her heart, her business is surprisingly successful, and she’s patching up old wounds with her family. But she’s still managed to wander her way into what is, perhaps, her most significant fuckup of all, by falling for the world’s least available sort of man: a Catholic priest.
The priest (a painfully charming Andrew Scott), who’s been recently ordained, breaks out whiskey in lieu of tea after mass and swears like a sailor, but has nonetheless fully placed his faith in an all-powerful God. He’s not necessarily a very good priest, but he is a priest. Fleabag insists she’s a die-hard atheist and has no interest in his promises of salvation — “Don’t make me an optimist; it’ll ruin my life” — but by Episode 4 he manages to con her into a confessional booth.
By breaking the fourth wall, we’ve seen Fleabag put her life into context in quippy asides; but now, for the first time, we see her truly reveal herself, and her darkest fears, not to an anonymous audience but to a fellow human being. Through the screen of the confessional, breaking down in tears, she tells the priest everything:
«I want someone to tell me what to wear in the morning. I want someone to tell me what to wear EVERY morning. I want someone to tell me what to eat. What to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what band to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what not to joke about. I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, who to love and how to tell them.
»I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong — and I know that’s why people want people like you in their lives, because you just tell them how to do it. You just tell them what to do and what they’ll get out at the end of it, and even though I don’t believe your bullshit, and I know that scientifically nothing I do makes any difference in the end anyway, I’m still scared. Why am I still scared? So just tell me what to do. Just fucking tell me what to do, Father.”
It’s a gutting, gorgeous moment, made all the more revelatory by its rareness: We’ve never seen Fleabag this vulnerable — so willing to cede ground to some sort of higher power who can just tell her exactly what steps she should take.
But the rawness of the moment almost immediately gives way to something more otherworldly; spiritual and charged. After a slew of episodes in which she’s flatly refused to take any of this guy’s advice — or anybody else’s — Fleabag actually does what the priest tells her to do:
The ominous church choir we’ve heard all season swells abruptly into song when the priest pulls back the curtain on Fleabag’s side of the confessional. He looks down on her; she looks up at him. Then he joins her on his own knees, takes her face in his hands, and kisses her.
It’s an extraordinarily heavy-handed scene in an already heavy-handed plotline. (She falls for a priest? Seriously, a priest?) But the show is self-aware enough of how extra all this is that, for me, the confessional makeout works extraordinarily well on multiple levels: It’s a pivotal moment for a main character who’s been too damaged to previously let anybody in. And it’s also really fucking hot.
Both lovers in Fleabag make fun of the Daddyesque connotations that come along with lusting after a man of the church. Before they hook up, when Fleabag startles the priest late at night in the chapel, she refers to him as “Father” with a bite of sarcasm in her voice, and he matches her step for step: “Oh, fuck you, calling me Father like it doesn’t turn you on just to say it.” She raises her eyebrows at him, he smiles at her, and they let the moment lie.
There’s a queer element to this otherwise hetero man–woman coupling: Besides the more obvious Father/Child of God thing, there’s the sheer forbidness of it all — the naughtiness, the perversity. You’re not supposed to want to fuck the priest; not even a young, hot one. Not even if he really sees you, especially during the moments you try to hide yourself away from the world. Not even if it seems like you clearly belong together.
Fleabag has a more explicitly queer dalliance earlier in the season, with Belinda, a beautiful 58-year-old businesswoman. We learn Fleabag leans queer herself — when Belinda (Kristin Scott Thomas) asks if Fleabag is a lesbian, she tells her “not strictly” — and that she’s seeking guidance from people who’ve lived through more shit than she has.
With a dead mother and a sort of useless father, the guidance Fleabag gets from Belinda is the kind she can’t get from actual parental figures in her life. Most importantly, Belinda tells her to knock it off with the misanthropy already. When Fleabag jokes that most people are shit, Belinda admonishes her: “People are all we’ve got. So grab the night by its nipples and go flirt with someone.” Fleabag follows her advice with a kiss, but Belinda declines her advances; she says it’s because Fleabag isn’t her type, but perhaps Belinda knows that an older, powerful mother figure might not actually be what Fleabag is looking for.
But what about a Father figure?
Sweet, bumbling Andrew Scott as the priest isn’t really a Daddy in the traditional sexual role-play sense; he’s around Fleabag’s age, and seems, in many ways, just as lost as she is. But in the confessional, the momentary power difference between the two of them is made breathtakingly explicit: Fleabag relinquishes all her autonomy in exchange for the euphoria of submission. She obeys. She kneels. When the priest pulled back the curtain to find her there on her knees, I literally gasped.
Completely relinquishing your power, if only for a moment — putting your whole self, body and soul, into someone else’s hands — can be so intoxicating in a world where we’re paradoxically stymied by infinite choices (as Fleabag says: what to wear, what to buy, what to believe) and made terrifyingly aware that our individual human choices don’t really matter in the end. The planet’s burning; we’re all gonna die. Why not, every once in a blue moon, let go and let God? Or: Let go and let God’s holy servant sexily boss you around for a little while?
What makes this scene so much more than cheap innuendo, however, is that the priest complicates a more straightforward dom/sub dynamic by getting on his own knees, joining Fleabag on the floor. Later, when Fleabag convinces him to actually get into bed with her despite his commitment to love just “one thing,” she’s the partner with the upper hand. Like all real, flesh-and-blood relationships, theirs is one in which power and control is not wielded and bestowed in equal measure; the priest and Fleabag wrestle with each other’s desires, but they’re equals in their doomed love, in their desperate want for meaning — for something more.
The priest nails Fleabag’s enigmatic heart when he accuses her of not wanting to be told exactly what to do after all. “If you wanted to be told what to do, you’d be wearing one of these,” he says, plucking at his robes, and harkening back to something similar Fleabag’s new therapist told her a few episodes back. “Women aren’t allowed—” she starts. “Oh, fuck off!” he yells. “I know!”
It’s one of the show’s many brilliant little jokes about gender, power, and desire. The priest gets to be designated as someone closer to God by virtue of his maleness; he has the privilege of believing in forever. But Fleabag — whom he loves, but whom he can’t choose in lieu of that forever — has the privilege of her freedom.
Their relationship, and the show overall, is about the inherent paradoxes in the human condition when it comes to sex, and love, and life itself. We all want to be taken care of; to be told we’re good little boys and girls; to be assured that, should we just follow the rules — listen, obey, trust, yield — then everything will be okay. We want surrender. We want blind faith.
But just as often, we want to be in control. We want to have power over our decisions; we want autonomy and independence; we want free will; we want to be the master of our own universes. We want freedom.
But what makes life so precious and so terrible all at once is the fact that we can’t have it all. Fleabag is both joyous and heartbreaking for the way it’s mined those truths. We know, in the end, that Fleabag, who’s finally allowed herself to love, is going to be okay — not great, probably, but okay. It’s all any of us can hope for. ●