Fleabag Offers Hope for Those of Us Who Seem to Get Everything Wrong
Fleabag, if you haven’t seen it, is a show about a woman living in London—known only as Fleabag—estranged from her family and navigating her grief over her best friend’s accidental death. In Season 2, she falls for the attractive Priest—known only as the Priest—officiating at her father’s marriage to an intolerable godmother. It’s a grim show.
It’s also a show about hope.
Not hope, in the kind of kumbaya sense, which ignores the harsh realities of the world, which insists that because this world is not our home, it’s not worth trying to make it better. No, Fleabag is about hope that acknowledges life is messy and painful and yet resolves to make it better anyway.Through love, we weather the worst of our decisions and become more human.
The show’s lead, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is Fleabag, whose own story is certainly messy enough to match her name. In her mid-30s, her mother and friend dead, her family distant, Fleabag feels keenly the loneliness and grief of life. Worse still, as Fleabag herself acknowledges, much of the messiness is her own fault: though her friend’s death was an accident, it was an accident in which Fleabag herself played a role. She realizes, as the first season ends, that redemption is possible—“human beings make mistakes. It’s why pencils have erasers.”—but it’s not something Fleabag is ready for.
Redemption, however, is waiting for Fleabag.
In Season 2, Fleabag comes to church three times. The first time is to ogle the Hot Priest; she interrupts his sermon with an inappropriately timed joke, then shares a canned gin-and-tonic from Marks and Spencer with him after the service. The second time, she volunteers at a charity festival—but she does it as a favor to the Priest, and she finds opportunity to admire his arms.
But the third time Fleabag comes to church, late in the evening after a difficult day, she comes to pray.
Fleabag had started that day on a high note, having fun helping the Priest select brightly colored vestments to officiate at her father’s upcoming wedding. But the outing quickly turns sour when the Priest probes too deeply into Fleabag’s painful backstory, resulting in an argument. After the Priest leaves, the fight is still fresh, prompting Fleabag to confront painful memories of her mother’s death and, more recently, her friend’s. So, haunted by these memories, Fleabag goes to church to pray.
She expects to find quiet and prayer. What she finds is the Priest. Seeing she is upset, he makes light banter for a while—he does not repeat the mistake of asking probing questions—and then invites Fleabag into the confessional to unburden herself.
Alone in the confessional, Fleabag shares, one by one, her deepest secrets with the Priest. She has lied (even to him). She has had a lot of sex outside of marriage. Warming to her subject, she confesses, almost blithely, to “much masturbation, a bit of violence, a spot of sodomy, and of course the endless f*cking blasphemy.”
But as Fleabag confesses, she remembers her friend Boo: her best friend, the one she opened her cafe with and the one who helped her through her mother’s death—and the one for whose death Fleabag knows herself to be partially responsible.
She pauses. The Priest asks her to continue.
And then, her voice breaking, Fleabag finds that she is no longer joking:
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 f*cking tell me what to do, Father.
It’s a powerful scene. Viewers, unlike Fleabag, are not likely to feel responsible for their best friend’s death. Yet Fleabag puts words to a very common, very human feeling: the feeling that we are “getting it wrong” in life, that we are ruining things not only for ourselves but also for the people we love.
Francis Spufford calls this experience the “human propensity to f*ck things up,” to make choices which may seem innocuous but which in fact “get things wrong.” Such choices accumulate as detritus across the surface of our lives. Any of us who have lived long enough know this feeling of being unable to sweep away the weight of prior choices. Alone in the confessional, Fleabag too realizes that in her choices, important choices about whether she believes in God, whether she loves her friends and family and how she tells them, she has been getting things wrong.
And the thought frightens Fleabag. Out of that fear she wishes for “somebody to tell me how to live my life,” somebody to ensure that she will never again make decisions that hurt herself or others. Fleabag’s wish is all-encompassing. She wants somebody to tell her “what to wear” and “what to eat,” “what band to like” and “what jokes to tell”—effectively, she wants to surrender her own agency, becoming less human out of the desire to be a better person. Torn between frustration that she, as a rational person who knows that “nothing I do makes any difference in the end,” and her own overwhelming grief at how her choices have ruined herself and others, Fleabag seems overwhelmingly weary of the process of being human. She wants somebody to step in, even if it is a facade, and clean up the mess she’s made.
The irony of all this is that whatever Fleabag says, she doesn’t really want somebody to “tell her how to live her life.” Headstrong, Fleabag visits a counselor early in the show for advice on how to handle her growing crush on the Priest, only to be told (repeatedly!), “You already know what you’re going to do.” Much later, after Fleabag has confessed, the Priest calls her out, gesturing at his collar: “If you really wanted somebody to tell you what to do, you’d be wearing one of these.”
So when Fleabag says she wants “someone to tell her what to do,” she does not mean (even though she does not realize it) that she wants somebody to direct her musical tastes. Nor does she want somebody to enforce a moral code upon her life. No, what Fleabag is really saying is that she is at last scared of the power of her own choices. Headstrong all her life, having made the wrong choices again and again, she knows how often her choices lead to disastrous consequences and wants somebody to step in and save her from herself. She wants assurance that the choice she is making will turn out right in the end.
This, Fleabag assumes, is what religion does. Belief, as she defines it, may make her inhuman, but it will at least ensure that she cannot, ever again, get things wrong.
True belief does no such thing, of course. In the show, belief is not the safety net Fleabag imagines it to be. Even the Priest, the character with the strongest commitment to faith, gets things wrong: immediately after Fleabag’s confession, he leans in to kiss her. While they are interrupted moments later when a painting crashes noisily to the floor, his choice indicates that he, too, is human, with all the human propensities.
Fleabag does not get her answer to the problem of human choice until the last episode of the season, at her father’s wedding. There, the Priest, who is officiating, reminds her that we humans do not get somebody to “tell us what to do.” Rather, we get Love, and leaning into Love, we find the hope needed to navigate our choices.
The Priest, facing a hard choice of his own, starts this wedding speech by announcing that he’s “had a go” at saying something original about love. Then he launches into a speech that indeed says something original about love:
Love is awful. It’s awful. It’s painful. It’s frightening. It makes you doubt yourself, judge yourself, distance yourself from the other people in your life. It makes you selfish. It 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, 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. And love isn’t something that weak people do.
Being a romantic takes a hell of a lot of hope. I think what they mean is, when you find somebody that you love, it feels like hope.
Be strong, and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.
In love stories, people’s choices turn out right. This is the defining characteristic of love stories. Rocky as the start of the story may be, by the end the characters realize their love for each other. They get their happily ever after.
Starting with the bald assertion “love is awful,” the Priest’s wedding speech unravels the tidy promises of the love story genre. There is no moral code we can follow to a guaranteed happily ever after, no way we can surrender our human agency, our innate desire to love, in exchange for the promise that things will turn out right in the end. Indeed, if Fleabag were able to surrender her human agency, to have somebody else choose “who to love and how to tell them,” she would in effect surrender her own power to love.
This, however, is exactly what she must not do, for love is a source of hope.
This is not to say that love is easy, one weird trick to fix the wreckage of our lives. Love is something much harder, as the Priest explains. He tells the audience that “life is about choosing the right place to put” love: the word choosing indicates that love is deliberate, intentional, ongoing. Love is something we do—well or poorly—over the whole course of our lives.
Indeed, as the word right implies, love has an ethical dimension. The act of loving requires us to consider where we put our loves, and what kinds of loves we nourish. The act of loving also calls us to enthusiastic, wholehearted engagement; done right, love is not a halfhearted endeavour. Love is hard work. It takes strength.
Ironically, this is work which cannot be done for us, by a cool outside observer who merely tells us how to love and what we’ll get out of it in the end. The whole point of love is that we no longer care whether we get anything out of it at all; love is an act of hope.
Yet as the Priest explains, love also “feels like hope.” In other words, if love requires hope, it also nourishes hope. The work of choosing which loves to pursue and how to pursue them is one we make through love. The more we love, the more clearly we see how to nourish our loves, the more willing we are to participate in love. This is the source of hope, not that we find somebody to do the work of being human for us but that the more we love, the more we find ourselves freed from the bent loves and detritus of our life. Through love, we weather the worst of our decisions and become more human.
This is why Fleabag’s own relationship with the Priest works to transform her. Fleabag does not convince the Priest, who loves God, to leave the Church for her. But in loving the Priest and being loved by him, Fleabag heals and finds the strength needed to love more, and better.
In the end, the “love story” at the heart of Fleabag is not a love story about her and the Priest. Rather, it is a story about love. Fleabag asserts that whatever wreckage we have accumulated in life, love offers us a way out. As we love with intentionality and purpose, as we love more, not less, love frees us from our past errors and heals us. Love gives us hope.