Culture

Television

Falling for ‘Fleabag’

By Kirsten Krauth and Kirsten Tranter
On the problematic hotness of Andrew Scott’s Hot Priest

Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Fleabag and Andrew Scott as The Priest in Fleabag. Photograph courtesy of Amazon Prime.

Warning: The following article will ruin everything for you if you haven’t yet seen Fleabag seasons 1 and 2: Spoilers ahead.

 

The second and final season of Fleabag just aired to almost universal superlative critical acclaim, admired for the deft blend of humour and drama that Phoebe Waller-Bridge brings as writer and star in this portrait of a searching, messed-up young woman. The first series showed her reeling in grief from the death of both her mother and her best friend, wracked with guilt and shame. In the second series, she seems to be learning tentatively to forgive herself for past transgressions, desperate to understand how to live her life in a way that is good to others and herself, and, for the first time, falling in love.

This is writing so original and emotionally confronting that it seems to do something entirely new with the medium of television, using Fleabag’s asides to the camera to create a complex, evolving, uniquely intimate relationship with the viewer.

Andrew Scott plays the man Fleabag falls for, the priest who has agreed to officiate the wedding of her father and her terrible stepmother (played with brilliant spite by Olivia Colman). Or, as he has become universally known on the internet, the Hot Priest. Not since Colin Firth as Mr Darcy stepped from a lake in a wet white shirt have women gone so totally crazy for a television love interest.

What is it about Fleabag that inspires such intense emotional reactions? Is The Priest a sympathetic, flawed soul or, as one columnist called him, an exploitative muppet? A worthy or unworthy love interest for our heroine? All of those things?

 

KIRSTEN TRANTER: When Phoebe Waller-Bridge started to become popular I felt something almost like resentment, a form of jealousy or dispossession: it was a bit like when you discover a really cool out-of-the-way cafe or bar whose style and mood is somehow a perfect fit with your own, and you have it to yourself until other people start to discover it too, and even though there are seats enough for everyone it just isn’t the same. You can’t believe they love it like you do.

Watching an interview with the show’s director, Harry Bradbeer, I heard him say, “I am Fleabag,” and I thought, how can you possibly say that? But of course he can, and of course the brilliance of the show lies in its full-on engagement with primal emotions: grief, loss, desire, loneliness, shame. We’ve all experienced those things. The show’s representation of Fleabag’s struggle with guilt and shame struck me the hardest, in the place it really hurt. When she was offered forgiveness at the end of the first season and began to imagine a future where she might forgive herself, it cut me to the core.

The love interests (safer to say sex interests, since emotional engagement was off the table) in season 1 were all comedic caricatures, impossible to take seriously. The Priest is something altogether different, something of a male counterpart to Fleabag herself. Foul mouthed, badly behaved, socially awkward, empathetic, whose idea of flirtation is to say “Fuck you, then,” with a smile. At the dinner party where they first meet, he declares that life as a priest has brought him peace, in a way that suggests he really needed it. He was a person in need of some kind of rescue; you can’t help suspecting that he probably still is, especially with the way he knocks back the alcohol while describing his own parents’ alcoholism.

A messed-up, good-looking, caring, unavailable, addiction-prone guy. With an Irish accent. Trouble.

KIRSTEN KRAUTH: There’s no aphrodisiac like loneliness, as the song goes. The Priest often returns to the lament – or is it a come-on? – that he reads a lot and has no friends. Fleabag’s only friend is dead but she refuses to admit it. I have such a strong desire to see them Fall, to see them cross into transgression. It’s about conversion, and here it goes both ways. The Priest may underline passages in a Bible but Fleabag challenges him from the moment they meet: “Are you a real priest?” He can’t talk to babies. He has nothing in common with his congregation. His favourite place is a Quaker meeting. This tension undercuts his priestly image: sleazy Martin (Fleabag’s brother-in-law) sidles up to Fleabag at the church fete and says, “Oh, you do love a challenge, don’t you.” Can she convert The Priest? Can she make him turn?

She’ll do her best. When Fleabag first rings the doorbell to the church at night, fancying “a drink (and a priest) and a chat”, The Priest lets her in to the full-volume soundtrack of the choral music that accompanies Fleabag whenever she sees him (a Kyrie composed by Waller-Bridge’s sister, Isobel), not soothing but rising to the ecstatic. Like the paintings of near-naked Jesus and his adoring disciples that catch Fleabag’s lingering attention during the service, the interior of the church is remade as Fleabag’s erotic space.

It’s not surprising then that The Priest takes her outside the church and into the garden, a place of more earthly delights; we all know where this leads. Half-awake, scruffy, befuddled, sucking on a can of G&T, the line drawn between faith and flirting is rubbed out, tripped over, redrawn. After an earlier catalogue – “arm touch”, “knuckle brush”, deep breath – every gesture is heightened here. Unlike Fleabag’s former lovers, The Priest acknowledges the undercurrent. “We’re not going to have sex.” But their intimate world turns on the careful placement of a word: many (how many lovers? how many times?) – a moment of challenge, seduction, understanding, a word to put fire or ice into the veins.

From now on, when he looks at her, I’m completely undone. By the actor or the character? That’s up for debate. Like everything else about The Priest, it appears ambiguous.

TRANTER: As the season unfolded I shared the general state of hysterical desire for the Hot Priest that possessed women viewers. I loved Andrew Scott as Moriarty in the series Sherlock, especially the volatility he projects, turning on a dime from cool to crazed. Here I found myself captivated by the representation of her desire for him, and equally captivated and troubled by the representation of his desire for her. I could see that he was struggling with his attraction to her, and that he wasn’t really bothering to hide that struggle, and this was very attractive.

Everything changes when The Priest does what no character has done before: he notices Fleabag’s coy aside to the camera, to her shock and discomfort, and to our surprise. “What was that?” he asks, smiling and frowning. (I sat up and shifted back in my seat.) “Where did you just go?”

There could be no more powerful way of expressing that The Priest “sees” her, in that deep, intimate way we associate with love. And it allies him with us, the viewer. He sees what we see. Surely this is evidence that they are soulmates? What will it take to make him realise they are meant to be together, we wonder?

A stray fox interrupts their conversation, inspiring comically exaggerated fear in The Priest, who jumps up and seems to use it an excuse to sit down a little closer to Fleabag. He’s convinced the foxes are after him. We’re having you! he imagines the fox saying to him. A man on the run from his animal self.

KRAUTH: When they go shopping for clerical robes, the change room is closed off by a curtain, a commercial confessional. Fleabag could wrench the curtain aside, but here she plays mother to an awkward teenager. He wants to be told what to do, what to wear – as she will later in another confession. This scene offers Fleabag the opportunity to objectify him. Behind the curtain there’s the possibility of him without clothes.

As Fleabag breaks his body down, I zero in on the separate parts of him. It’s unusual to be not just given licence to do this but to be steered firmly in that direction. “His arms,” she says to the camera, with longing. While The Priest wants to explore the profound – the deeper questions about weddings, funerals, the afterlife – all she wants is to obsess about his body. “His beautiful neck.” When she gets so caught up that she speaks her desires directly to him rather than to us, and he catches her at it, I’m caught out too. I’m not listening to him. I’m thinking about his body and what he plans to do with it. But I’m seduced not so much because of his body parts as by his awkwardness, the expressiveness of his mouth, the way he touches Fleabag in passing, his emotional state and the way his voice seems beyond his control, the sing-song accent, the modulation. Most of all, how he listens and how he homes in on her soft spots: he can see where she’s hiding.

Fleabag draws up the courage to pray alone in the church one night, and at the moment when she goes to kneel – watch this show and you’ll never hear the word kneel the same way again – is disrupted by a blare of hip-hop music. She finds The Priest dishevelled, noisy, restless, out of control. He reaches up not for God but to dislodge a bottle of spirits he’s hidden. His clerical collar is undone, he’s half-disrobed and completely unpredictable: “Fuck you, calling me Father, like it doesn’t turn you on just to say it.” This idea of taboo is not just acknowledged; he thrusts it into the space between them as they clink glasses: “Here’s to peace and those who get in the way of it.”

He leads her into the confessional, a murky world of heightened senses, secrets, revelation and wrested control. The word. Kneel. When it comes, it’s like being offered ecstasy. What does it signify? Is he going to pray with her? Is he going to unbutton and entice her to go down on him? Is she going to receive the Eucharist, the body of Christ? In that word, all the possibilities come alive, but still the sudden switch in point of view as he draws back the curtain along with the assault of the Kyrie – have mercy on me – is shocking. When he kneels too, it’s like all my prayers have been answered. Why do I want to submit? Why do I want to fall at his feet?

As always, Waller-Bridge inverts the traditional. The usual male fumbling with bra hooks and corsets becomes Fleabag’s frustration, the attempts at disrobing: “Is this a skirt and trousers?” The Priest is a figure of mystery. As I write this, I search for the details of what The Priest is wearing, and what she’s trying to take off. The cassock. Like Fleabag, I turn to Google: “What does a priest have on under his cassock?”

TRANTER: Fleabag confesses that she feels she has made a mess of her life, although crucially she does not talk about her betrayal of her dead best friend, which haunts her; the most shameful thing for her is that she wants someone to tell her what to do, how to live. He answers that by telling her what to do, just as she has asked; he tells her to kneel. This command at first horrified me, partly because I could see that it unsettled and disturbed her so much. It’s not like she finds some kind of joyful release in submitting to his imperative: it’s all so uncomfortable and awkward, she has to put her glass of whisky down clunkily and doesn’t have enough space, it’s comical as well as erotic and disturbing… She has so completely put herself into his hands that she goes along with it, becoming a sub to his dom. I honestly don’t know how to read the shifting power dynamics of this scene, not least because he is clearly a man not in command of himself, and so the way he wields power here feels not so much calculated as completely messy.

She obviously desires him. She’d kiss him whenever. But for some reason he has to force her into this position of abjection and tears in order to get himself to kiss her. The part of him that desires her is unleashed by her submission. This seems fucked up. It is a very uncomfortable form of sexy.

Just as they are undressing each other a painting of Jesus falls to the ground with a crash. We already know The Priest tends to take things like that as a sign from God, in this case JUDGEMENT. He’s just invited her to bare her soul, made her cry, been aroused enough by that to boss her around and kiss her, and now looks at her in horror as though she’s an evil strumpet. And he turns away from her pain, consumed with his own overwhelming, conflicting feelings, his own sense of shame.

It seems to me that she unfairly bears the cost of his struggle with his own desire.

Comparing this confession scene with the one that ends the first season, where Fleabag confessed her terrible secrets to the one man she doesn’t want to sleep with – her bank manager – I wondered about the absence of compassion here. I remember the bank manager’s lovely words to her, “People make mistakes,” and the way they opened the door to her forgiving herself. I try to offer the same kind of charitable understanding to The Priest.

KRAUTH: Do people make mistakes? In one of the most profound moments of the series, Fleabag goes to see a psychologist who tells her, “You already know what you’re going to do. Everybody does … You’ve already decided.”

When The Priest turns up at Fleabag’s doorstep the next evening, he is ostensibly clear headed, alert and on a mission from God that is to be continually thwarted. While most would let sleeping foxes lie, The Priest phones Fleabag’s sister for her address and turns up unannounced to tell Fleabag he can’t sleep with her. The power dynamic is no longer that of the confessional and its aftermath: every time he goes to justify his feelings or talk about his change of heart, the buzzer to the flat is pressed by Fleabag’s hilarious lawyer lover. “I’m back!”

All sense of reverence for The Priest’s religious calling is dismissed in wonderful comic timing where he is effectively muted; his arguments for celibacy are wiped out when he can’t resist asking, “I won’t ask… Nine times?” Fleabag is not the only one who can’t resist a challenge. At this point she understands what the psychologist was trying to point out. “Oh my god, we’re going to have sex!” she says in delight to us. “For fuck’s sake, stop that!” The Priest yells back, losing the fight. He has no choice: he has to submit; he knew it before he knocked on the door. “Okay.”

TRANTER: Do people make mistakes? Only all the time. Not because we’re sinners, as The Priest may believe; because we’re flawed, conflicted creatures who constantly question ourselves and act against our own better judgement. The Priest might in retrospect view his decision to sleep with her as a mistake; we never find out. The lines between action (to knowingly trespass) and submission (to the higher power of fate or desire) have blurred.

The Priest sees her as no one else sees her. But in the end his ability to see her does not stop him hurting her. He loses the struggle against his own animal desires – that fox that follows him wherever he goes, no matter how hard he runs from it. Then he meets her heartfelt declaration of love with the terrible platitude, “It will pass.”

I confess that I am a die-hard romantic. No matter how ill-suited two people are, or how much damage their affair does, I want lovers to end up together. I rage against unhappy love stories. I did not rage against this one.

Two relationships end at the end of the last episode. The break-up that really undid me was the one with the viewer. Until I saw it, I could not understand why critics were unanimously saying that the ending is final; there could be no more Fleabag after this. What kind of story is impossible to imagine continuing, except one where everyone dies?

This one. When Fleabag looks to the camera for the last time and shakes her head, telling us we are not invited to follow her any further, she relinquishes the mode of storytelling that has defined the series; she walks away from the narrative frame. This feels right, because it is the surest sign so far that she is becoming more integrated, more whole. And it is devastating because to share that intimacy with this broken, struggling person meant so much to me.

KRAUTH: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s talent is to make us want to integrate opposing forces, to carry contradictory impulses with tenderness. The Priest says one thing but does another. “I can’t be physical with you,” he says. “If I have sex with you, I’ll fall in love with you,” he says. “Is it God or is it me?” Fleabag says. Well, it’s both, actually. He’s already made the decision that it’s both, if only he could see that. But all is not lost. He could move to Denmark with Fleabag where priests are allowed to have lovers; he’d look good in their distinctive ruff collar, and he does have a fetish for outfits (for Danish priests, watch the brilliant TV series Ride Upon the Storm, which is on SBS On Demand).

When the going gets tough he reaches out to other faiths because he lacks the resources within his own: “It’ll pass.” But we all know it won’t – not for them, anyway. He walks but he doesn’t just leave. He turns back to tell her that he loves her. What’s appealing to me is that his reason often gets overridden. He’s muddled but he’s not manipulative; he’s not absent – he’s emotionally engaged. I’ve fallen completely, as you can tell. I like his impulsive nature. It would be just like him to turn up on her doorstep the next day. I don’t want it to end.

But if The Priest doesn’t show up tomorrow? I’m not worried about Fleabag. She handles the final scene with uncharacteristic grace and walks on too. She sends the fox on its way with a dash of irony, and she breaks up with her side glances at Boo and us, her need to hide. She’s not scared of forgetting people anymore. It won’t pass and she knows that.

TRANTER: I wonder: does the heartbreak of the ending of the love story make the finality of the ending less devastating for us poor viewers? Would it be just too unbearable if she rode off on the night bus with The Priest, breaking up with us but getting together with him, so we felt supplanted by an unworthy vessel? Am I revealing my own selfish, possessive tendencies?

This series got me to feel something for a character, for Fleabag, that overrode my deeply rooted desire for love to triumph over all. I think the ending satisfied me (in the most bittersweet way) because it fulfilled the potential optimism that was so tentatively offered at the end of season 1, when it seemed possible that she might want to live again, to feel worthy of living. It offers a glimpse of what that kind of absolution might feel like, and God has nothing to do with it. The episode does not end with a love song or a breakup song; it ends with a different kind of anthem, a track by Alabama Shakes. I’ve been having me a real hard time, Brittany Howard sings – but it’s so nice to know I’m gonna be all right.

Kirsten Krauth and Kirsten Tranter

Kirsten Tranter is an author and literary critic. Her most recent book is Hold (4th Estate). Kirsten Krauth is a writer and editor. Her second novel, Almost a Mirror, shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize, will be published by Transit Lounge in April 2020.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Fleabag and Andrew Scott as The Priest in Fleabag. Photograph courtesy of Amazon Prime.

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