On Bearings Online, we are running a series on the portrayal of clergy in popular media. We are interested in how faith leaders are represented in culture (movies, TV, books, plays, etc.) and how that reflects our current era and understanding of religion. Check back every Thursday in August for a new essay in this series. The following essay by Chris Karnadi explores the priest character in the Amazon original series Fleabag.
In the Amazon original series Fleabag’s second season, the title character, named only as Fleabag and played by the show’s creator and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, fixes her hair in a restaurant’s bathroom mirror, turns directly to camera and says, “This is a love story.”
At least part of the love story is between Fleabag and a Catholic priest, but even moreso, the love story is between Fleabag and herself.
The show’s second season was nominated for 11 Emmy Awards and has caused a stir of conversation on religion, gender, and much more with its punchy writing. Waller-Bridge breaks the fourth wall throughout both seasons with her character’s relatable, reckless, but ever on-point monologue to camera. The device is perhaps the most interesting part of the show originally based on Waller-Bridge’s stage drama.
Waller-Bridge breaks the fourth wall throughout both seasons with her character’s relatable, reckless, but ever on-point monologue to camera.
The device takes another turn as Fleabag’s asides are noticed by a priest. The “hot priest,” as he is known on the internet, played by Andrew Scott of Moriarty/Sherlock fame, keeps asking Fleabag where she goes when she speaks to camera. The fourth wall turns in on itself and becomes part of the narrative itself.
Waller-Bridge has called the device a “relationship with the camera” akin to “confession.” The relationship develops as richly as Fleabag’s other relationships, and its development is perhaps the most overarching and important plot of the entire show.
Throughout the first season, the confession was a confession of guilt. Fleabag slowly reveals over the course of the season that having sex with her best friend Boo’s boyfriend led to Boo’s tragic death. When the viewer sees what she has done for the first time in the climax of the first season, Fleabag flees from the camera for the first time, fully seen and fully ashamed, and doesn’t talk to the camera for the last five minutes of the finale.
Fleabag flees from the camera for the first time, fully seen and fully ashamed.
In the closing moments, she says of her shame to a bank manager who denied her a loan for her dying café: “Everyone feels like this a little bit and they are just not talking about it … or else I am completely f-ing alone, which isn’t f-ing funny.”
“Everyone makes mistakes,” the manager responds before reconsidering her application and saving her café.
Waller-Bridge closed the first season there, where we find out what Fleabag was hiding from the camera, and she was reticent to renew the show for a second season, until she came up with a reason for her to speak to the camera again: the priest seeing that she looks to the camera.
Whereas Fleabag turns to worthless men throughout the first season, the priest is a different type of man. The hot priest swears, drinks, and admits his own doubts about faith and religion with ease, maybe a shock to the general populace but familiar to those of us who know pastors. By his own words, the priest wants to help Fleabag, giving her a Bible with highlighted verses and opening his doors to her if she wants to talk about anything.
The hot priest swears, drinks, and admits his own doubts about faith and religion with ease, maybe a shock to the general populace but familiar to those of us who know pastors.
But more importantly, the priest pays attention to self-proclaimed atheist Fleabag. When no one else can see Fleabag when she turns to camera, he does.
“Where’d you just go?” the priest asks as they sit on a bench outside the church drinking gin and tonic and discussing celibacy and why he won’t have sex with her. Fleabag denies his insight into her asides with utter confusion because no one in the series has noticed her talking to camera before.
Her need for confession is seen by the man who professionally takes people’s confessions. And later, he encourages her into the confession booth with him on the other side. Fleabag finally breaks, trusting the priest with her confession.
“I want someone to tell me what to wear every morning,” she says as she launches into a litany of desires for dependence. “I think I just want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong.”
In her grief, Fleabag wants to be told what to do because she doesn’t trust her own actions will be good.
Her need for confession is seen by the man who professionally takes people’s confessions.
The priest tells her to kneel, then opens the confession stall, and makes out with Fleabag.
Regardless of if Fleabag has wanted to have sex with the priest since she met him or how many find the confession scene hot, it is an abuse of power. The priest has encouraged Fleabag’s vulnerability, gained her confidence, and then abuses his position. He compromises his vocation not by his swearing or drinking but by the fact that he sees how vulnerable Fleabag is and her need for confession and then turns her attention to himself. Maybe a hot priest, but certainly not a good priest.
A few days later, they eventually have sex in a scene charged with the priest’s struggle and embrace of what is unlawful according to his vows.
Sitting at a bus stop the next day, the priest tells Fleabag that he chooses his vocation and role as priest and tells her never to come to his church again, even as (or because) he also confesses that he loves her as she loves him. After the priest leaves her, she walks away from the camera, motioning for it to stop following her. She smiles to herself and waves goodbye to its witness, a witness that she once leaned upon but no longer needs.
After the priest leaves her, she walks away from the camera, motioning for it to stop following her.
In the first season, Fleabag needed the camera to confess to, as she didn’t know where to place her guilt, but at the close of the second season, she doesn’t need the camera anymore.
Fleabag’s confession in the first season was one of guilt about her friend’s death; the second season’s confession is one of her desire for dependence and doubt in her ability to be good to anyone around her.
The priest has truly seen her and loved her, however problematically, but Fleabag no longer needs the priest to tell her what to do. She doesn’t need him to absolve her sin but she did need to experience his confidence that she will be just fine without him.
Her need for confession is over, she has what she needs: love for herself.