Fleabag is no more and, if you’re anything like me, you are completely bereft. Here’s my take on the BBC show that seemed to be about sex (but was about so much more) and what it can teach us about the messy business of attraction.
What a journey we’ve been on throughout two series of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s BBC 6-part comedy. From the very first episode, which opens with a long, performative anecdote about a night of casual sex and the surprising punchline, “Do I have a massive arsehole?”, all the way to that final, heartbreaking look to camera, Fleabag has subverted expectations, challenged the status quo and motivated a million thought-pieces on sex, sisterhood and sadness.
Fleabag was no simple story of a sex-addicted 30-something living in London. Oh, no. Yes, there may have been jokes about masturbation, anal sex and even a “sexhibition” by Fleabag’s stepmother (Olivia Colman), an artist with a particular interest in sex, nudity and bodies.
But as we’ve followed the titular character from intimate encounters that seem to leave her cold, (she tells us “I’m not obsessed with sex. I just can’t stop thinking about it. The performance of it. The awkwardness of it. The drama of it. The moment you realise someone wants your body. Not so much the feeling of it.”) it becomes clear that sex is a cover for her sadness and shame rather than something to enjoy.
Then, when season 2 hit our screens with a bang (or should that be a punch?) with an opening that tells us ‘this is a love story’, juxtaposed with Fleabag’s bloody nose, we fear the worst.
But no, Fleabag appears to have changed. She’s still making jokes to camera but is much quieter, more composed. We get the impression she is at least trying to be well-behaved in the midst of her excruciating family dynamics. And she’s stopped having sex. She goes to a counselling session when her dad buys her a voucher. “I spent most of my adult life using sex to deflect from the screaming void inside my empty heart,” she says to her therapist, summing up her struggle in the first season, before flicking her eyes to the camera proudly, “I’m good at this.”
What I’ve loved over the weeks Fleabag has been back on our screens is the conversations it has prompted. Particularly about whether Fleabag’s love interest in season 2, the Catholic priest (played with perfect puppy-eyes and cheeky charm by Andrew Scott) is sexy or manipulative (or both).
Talking about that scene in which Fleabag has a sexually charged encounter in a confessional, one friend admitted to me that, while she didn’t find the priest sexy, she had “thought about him saying ‘kneel’ a lot”. Another confessed that the same scene did nothing for her because maybe she’s “not submissive enough”.
Great storytelling like this prompts us to think about our own sexual proclivities and why we’re attracted to the people we are.
It makes sense that Fleabag would fall for a priest, someone who is supposed to be celibate. Of course, usually a priest would be some you could confess anything to, and their role is to hold your pain.
Confession is exactly what Fleabag needs.
“I always told myself the rule I had was that she only needed the camera there because she was constantly on the verge of needing to confess,” Waller-Bridge said of her character in an interview with IndieWire.
What becomes clear throughout season 2 is that Fleabag is really a story about a woman carrying a lot of shame and doing the best she can to navigate grief. We learned in the first season that she has lost not only her mother but her best friend, Boo (we are led to believe from an accidental suicide after discovering her boyfriend has cheated – with Fleabag).
As a woman in her thirties living in London (a place that some call ‘The Lonely City’ because everyone is so. damn. busy.) and going through grief alone, is it any wonder Fleabag is so drawn to the priest? He even describes himself in an early episode as “really f—— lonely” and as “a big reader with no friends”. He and Fleabag share an undeniable chemistry, (and a hot flirtation) with him noticing her in a way that nobody else has, even gloriously calling her out when she makes her secret asides to camera!
Never mind that their relationship is doomed to fail, Fleabag has found someone to be vulnerable with. In her final look to camera she is both smiling and crying, having gone through an experience that, yes, has left her heartbroken, but has also opened her up in a way she couldn’t previously.
What Fleabag shows us is that everyone comes into our lives for a reason. We are attracted to people who can help us heal a little part of ourselves. It can be uncomfortable and vulnerable and scary, but ultimately – if we allow ourselves to get curious about our attraction – a great healing experience. After all love, as Scott’s priest himself points out, love should feel like hope.