A Girl in Need of a Tourniquet

‘Fleabag’
Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Andrew Scott in season two of ‘Fleabag’ (BBC)

In the second season of Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s black comedy about modern urban life, the titular character strikes up a friendship—really, a barely sublimated sexual interest—with a Catholic priest. One evening, she visits his church to pray, but stumbles instead across the (somewhat intoxicated) priest. He takes her into a confessional, where she begins to name her sins (premarital sex, sodomy, and so on) and then segues into confessing something she’s genuinely ashamed of:

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, and who to love, and how to tell them. I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life.… And I know that's why people want people like you in their lives. Because you just tell them how to do it.

The priest commands her to kneel; she does. He then comes to her side of the confessional, and kisses her.

The dominant reaction to this scene is that it’s “really, really hot,” so hot that the priest himself (who is known only as The Priest) is known on the internet as The Hot Priest. Power, control, submission, ritual, and costumes are all hot, at least on a screen. Fleabag embodies, in this moment and in others, what Kierkegaard describes as “feminine despair”—the desire to lose oneself through devotion to another person, or, failing this, through suicide. And who has not felt the desire to dissolve into another human being?

For an audience seeking a morally ambiguous relationship that they can still enjoy—a rarity in an era of sexual ugliness being dragged into the light—Fleabag and The Priest hit the spot. He’s violating his vows, sure, but who really believes in them these days anyway? And how often do we now get to enjoy the drama of a well-suited couple renouncing each other for a higher purpose? You can only rewatch Brief Encounter so many times.

Yet I couldn’t view this scene without thinking of a few things. One, there is in fact quite a long history of the confessional being sexualized in just this way (in real life, one imagines, it is less hot—for one thing, confessionals are not very accommodating spaces). Two, there are many, many cases in which sexual violence is still carried out in the confessional or other spiritual contexts. Nuns are raped when they confess their sins. A priest rapes a woman at a private Mass intended to celebrate their “mystical marriage.” The Pennsylvania Grand Jury report includes the following story (not the only one that involves the confessional):

Flohr’s final act of sexual abuse against the victim occurred in November 1969, when Flohr allegedly took the victim into the confessional of the Immaculate Conception church and began kissing him and tied him up with rope into a “praying position.” The victim began to scream, so Flohr tried to silence him by forcing his penis into his mouth. “When the [victim] refused the priest allegedly became angry and sodomized the [victim] with a crucifix approximately 7"x 5"x 1" in size.” Flohr then stated that the victim was a “bad boy” and let him go. Following this incident, the victim deliberately set the church carpet on fire.

Is it fair to bring all of this context to Fleabag? Perhaps not, but I don’t see how it can be avoided. The show nods to the sex-abuse scandal at least once. The Priest certainly fits in with, and I think is meant to suggest, stories about Catholic priests (like, for instance, The Power and the Glory) who are, in one way or another, trainwrecks. But I’ll admit that while I’ve always drawn a certain degree of comfort from the literary figure of the broken priest, my relationship to it has also become much more fraught—and not only because of the sex-abuse crisis. There is no way to discuss sexually active priests without considering the ways in which the priestly role can attract not only people who are abusive, but also people who might think that being a priest can contain them in ways that prove inadequate.

There’s a real question of what this priest is doing here. If he represents a fantasy, it isn’t only a sexual one.

Fleabag, of course, did not invent the idea that confession could be an erotic experience, or at least have erotic dimensions. It is also a show about confession in the secular sense, made distinctive by Fleabag’s many asides to the camera about what is happening in the show. (They are asides which, significantly, The Priest is able to see.) The broad outlines of Fleabag’s plotline with The Priest—you’ve met the perfect man, but you can’t be with him—don’t require him to be a priest. He could have been married, dying, on his way out of the country, physically unable to have sex, simply not into her—any number of things.

But he is a priest. He didn’t need to be. But since he is, there’s a real question of what this priest is doing here. If he represents a fantasy, it isn’t only a sexual one. The Priest’s actual religious commitments are pretty thinly sketched, but his identity as a priest is the only thing that really matters about him. So what, precisely, is happening in this scene, or in the response to this relationship?

Fleabag is a show, in its first season, primarily about guilt and the way guilt steadily leaks into everything. Painful memories are repressed only to intrude. Everything in life is colored by what you’ve done and can’t undo. Fleabag slept with her close friend Boo’s boyfriend and thus caused Boo to try to hurt herself; this attempt ended up—accidentally—killing her. This story is told to us circuitously through what people say and what they don’t, with Fleabag never quite putting her culpability into words.

In the show’s second season, however, time has passed. Fleabag is still haunted by memories of her dead friend. But the new season shifts the focus, and the tone, a little. Maybe you did something unimaginable, but you didn’t die. You’ve decided to go on living your life. Now what? The end result is something that is a bit less nasty and out-and-out funny than the first season, but, as a piece of storytelling, more coherent and ambitious. There’s a lot of loneliness, because guilt is isolating, but also because Fleabag has learned from experience that when she gets close to people she begins to harm them. So she isolates herself; she eats healthy food, pours herself into her business, and refrains from sex—not because these are “good choices,” but because they are ways to avoid thinking about her life.

As Fleabag tells The Priest in the confessional, she’s seeking someone to control her and tell her what to do. Good habits can serve as a way to contain herself, but they are ultimately not an external authority she can submit to and disappear in. Her wish to be controlled, to be given a framework for herself, echoes not only what many people expect (possibly mistakenly) from religion, but her own previous relationship to sex: which exists for her as a way of being valued and exercising power, but which is almost completely divorced from something like actual desire (she admits, for instance, that she doesn’t really get much out of sex itself).

That The Priest is simultaneously available and unavailable to her is part of why he can be appealed to as the person she needs to control her. There is no risk that she will really need to change her life or yield control. He could fix her if only he could give her what she wanted; but he can’t, so he won’t. Even when they do eventually sleep together, days after the scene in the confessional, the impossibility that suffuses their relationship makes him a safe person to pin these hopes of being saved on; a safe person to love, for instance, or to hear “I love you” from.

These are not particularly explosive insights. It’s Fleabag’s show—her internal life is pretty well spread out for all to see. And let’s be clear: Fleabag is not an adult victim of sexual abuse. Her disposition toward The Priest is that of a peer to a peer. She likes him because he’s like her. Both of them are troubled people with unstable senses of self and a tendency to seek permission for whatever they’ve already decided to do in alcohol. The priest has a commitment (to God) she doesn’t really understand, and perhaps slightly envies, but otherwise it’s a bit like sleeping with a psychiatrist who casually diagnoses you in conversation but isn’t your psychiatrist. That he can diagnose you is not incidental to the attraction, but neither is that he isn’t really your doctor.

It’s hard to believe that there isn’t a way to win at life, a rule book someone along the way forgot to give us.

Fleabag wants a man who can fix her, and she is willing to entertain the idea that he might be a Man In The Sky or at least his earthly representative. But she’s seeking a kind of lover-father, the man who can put her in her place both in how she lives her life and sexually, and this man doesn’t really exist. Neither does the invisible audience to whom she turns to try to define her experiences and offer commentary on them, which is its own attempt at control: Dad tells you what to do, the crowd goes wild. Validation is everywhere.

But for The Priest, it’s a very different matter. The confessional means nothing to Fleabag, but it means something to him. Initiating their sexual relationship while acting as a priest—taking her into the confessional, telling her to kneel—may not be maliciously premeditated. But it is also not an accident. Much like Fleabag, he’s looking for someone to save him. But he’s already sought this salvation in becoming a savior—in acting in persona Christi, as a priest. Confronted with a person whom he desires and who desires him, his savior-wish and his own wishes run together in a way that is, ultimately, about rationalizing what he wants.

That people who want to save others often want to be saved is one of those truisms that is also, well, true. In 1972, Henri Nouwen published a book called The Wounded Healer, a book concerned primarily with loneliness. Nouwen believes that it is important for spiritual leaders to own their own woundedness, but is aware that this can lead to a showy exhibitionism. His remedy is to encourage people to embrace their own loneliness:

When we are impatient, when we want to give up our loneliness and try to overcome the separation and incompleteness we feel, too soon, we easily relate to our human world with devastating expectations. We ignore what we already know with a deep-seated, intuitive knowledge—that no love or friendship, no intimate embrace or tender kiss, no community, commune or collective, no man or woman, will ever be able to satisfy our desire to be released from our lonely condition.…  Thus we keep hoping that one day we will find the man who really understands our experiences, the woman who will bring peace to our restless life, the job where we can fulfill our potentials, the book which will explain everything, and the place where we can feel at home.

Nouwen makes a few key points in his advice to wounded healers, but one is to understand that while their woundedness is a gift, “woundedness” can easily be a method of abusing other people’s vulnerability by rushing to it hoping to find a solution for your own. Life is full of real comforts and real loves, but the kind of brokenness that underlies life doesn’t go away. There’s a limit to what we can do for each other on our own. The promise of The Priest’s beliefs isn’t really that there exists something to tell us what to do but that there is another way of loving and helping one another that isn’t limited. Prayer, and God’s love, can transcend not only our own abilities, but time itself. Fleabag comes to the church not because it can fix her loneliness, but because it honors it. She does not need to know this for it to be true. If submitting to a higher power was all it took to cure your problems, The Priest wouldn’t have any.

But this is a hard thing to believe. It’s hard to believe that there isn’t a way to win at life, a rule book someone along the way forgot to give us. The Priest says at one point that celibacy is simpler than romance, but the arc of their relationship suggests instead that the celibate relationship becomes sexual in search of an easy solution. And it’s hard to accept that we can’t save people by giving them the kind of love we both want, since it seems so simple that a kiss could be the way to do this.

At the end of the show, Fleabag and The Priest part ways. He bans her from his church, a move that makes me think it won’t be long before he starts to slip again. Fleabag walks home and bids her phantom audience goodbye. She’s lonely, but it’s all right. People can love each other, deeply, in ways that can transcend not only their circumstances, but life itself. But they can’t save each other. If Fleabag’s encounter with The Priest taught her that another person can’t save you from your loneliness, that’s enough. A better priest would have understood that saving her would mean pointing away from himself: I can’t save you, but somebody else can. But perhaps she can figure that much out on her own.

B. D. McClay is senior editor of the Hedgehog Review, and a contributing writer to Commonweal. She lives in New York. 

Also by this author
‘This Suffering Business’

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