JULY 30, 2019
This essay contains spoilers from both seasons of Fleabag.
The story of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, extending over two standard British series (two seasons of six episodes each) begins and ends with the titular character, played by Waller-Bridge, tempting a man away from his commitments. In the first case, it’s a man’s commitment to her best friend; in the second, it’s a priest’s commitment to God. In both cases a life is risked. But the consequences of the two temptations are diametrically opposed. The first temptation ends in her best friend’s death. In the second temptation, the priest’s life and vocation are both spared — he chooses God — but at the protagonist’s expense.
Certainly, while “nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” unhappiness just by itself is not usually all that funny. On the basis of this description alone, it would be hard to guess that Fleabag is in fact a comedy, perhaps even a romantic one. Indeed, the bawdiness and wit are cranked so high that they can easily distract a viewer from the disturbing undercurrents of shame and guilt that give the narrative its energy and stakes. Fleabag is at once a very funny story about unhappiness as well as an unhappy story about what resists being staged for laughs. Perhaps it is less a work of comedy than of confession.
The very first confessor already knew that shame can be sought for shame’s sake. In Book Two of his Confessions, Augustine tells the story of how he and his childhood friends stole pears from a neighbor’s garden. They stole the fruit not because they intended to eat it (they toss it away) but simply for the pleasure of doing what they should not. They were, Augustine, writes, being “gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to the evil but the evil itself, … seeking nothing from the shameful deed but the shame itself… we were ashamed not to be shameless.” The desire motivating them in their transgression is the desire for the feeling of shame, itself. Theft is but the means.
Fleabag is a show that puts at its center a woman who performs shame and self-abasement to a camera, all to someone’s — usually our — delight. While the show features an exquisitely crafted and ingeniously cast panorama of characters — an anal retentive sister (Sian Clifford) who has “two degrees, a husband and a Burberry coat” and responds to “Nice haircut,” with “It’s better”; a vulgar, spiteful, middle-aged American dirtbag brother-in-law (Brett Gelman); a pitiful on-again off-again boyfriend (Hugh Skinner) who scrubs her apartment clean every time they break up; an emotionally shut-in, stuttering father (Bill Paterson) and a stepmother (Olivia Colman) who is a case study of English, “bohemian,” upper-middle class passive aggression — the main source of comedy and center of gravity is the titular character herself. She is the butt of most jokes. From the very first scene of the first series, in which she narrates her anal penetration by a vapid date who thanks her in the morning by saying, “It was particularly special because I’ve never managed to actually up the bum with anyone before” leaving her to wonder all day whether she has “a massive arsehole,” it is clear that Fleabag revels in public humiliation. She’s caught masturbating to an Obama speech on YouTube and caught by her sister stealing her sweater. She accidentally exposes herself at the bank and publicly admits she would trade five years of her life “for the so-called perfect body” — and this is all in the first episode. Fleabag is so committed to shame she seems to be courting it. This is almost literally true: in the second episode of the first season Fleabag walks down the street absolutely convinced she looks so good she might just “make a sex offender out of the poor guy” who is walking towards her. Passing her by, the man in question coughs “walk of shame” with disdain. She can neither escape shame nor escape her desire for it.
And yet, at the same time, the show itself can be seen as one long tease. For all her confessions of indiscretions, Fleabag never confesses, to herself or anyone else, the original sin that launches the show: her responsibility for her best friend Boo’s death. As we learn in the first episode, Boo, distraught by her boyfriend’s infidelity, walks into a bicycle lane hoping to get injured and make the man feel guilty. Things do not go as planned, and three people die, Boo among them. What Boo never knew — and what we as viewers only find out at the end of season one — is that the boyfriend had cheated with Fleabag.
Throughout the series, Fleabag obscures her own involvement when she speaks of Boo to friends and strangers and refuses the memory of the events even in her own flashbacks, where her involvement is obscured. That we have had no direct indication that it was she, all along, who seduced Boo’s boyfriend is all the more remarkable because the central formal structuring device of the show is fourth-wall breaking asides. From the very first scene Fleabag is constantly turning to the camera to indicate what it is she’s “actually thinking” as events develop before her. But even when she is in a pseudo-confessional mode, facing the camera — which is to say us — she refuses to admit what she actually did. We know the friend dies, we know why, but we never hear Fleabag admit she was the woman responsible. We learn of Fleabag’s role in the events leading up to it only in the very last episode of the first season, when her sister throws it in her face with an oblique reference. In an earlier episode she tells her sister Clare, that her husband had tried to kiss Fleabag at Clare’s birthday party. But Clare shows up with her husband to their stepmother’s gallery opening and confronts Fleabag:
Clare: How can I believe you?
Fleabag: Because I’m your sister.
Clare: After what you did to Boo?
At this moment, a flashback connects the disparate threads we’ve seen in previous ones, and Fleabag is physically confronted, cornered, accused by the very camera she’d turned to as confessor. For a brief instant, she is forced to face the memory — and only then do we, the viewers, find out what really happened. In retrospect we finally understand the ambivalent attitudes people display towards her throughout the series — a mix of worry, pity and aversion. We can finally appreciate her own quasi-confessional plea at her father’s doorstep in the very first episode: “I have a horrible feeling that I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman, who can’t even call herself a feminist.” She was not, we realize, just indulging in hyperbole.
Fleabag’s betrayal, Boo’s death and Fleabag’s refusal to admit to what she did form the background to the show’s second transgression, Fleabag’s relationship with a Catholic priest — also a case of successfully tempting a man to betray his commitments — which frames the main narrative arc of the second season.
The most talked about aspect of the show so far has been the illicit affair between Fleabag’s titular character and the so-called “hot priest” (Andrew Scott). From the start, the affair has aroused as much suspicion as it did nervous excitement. “How You Feel About Fleabag And The Hot Priest Says A Lot About You” warned Hayley Maitland in Vogue UK when the second season’s first episode aired. As the affair developed, emotions intensified: across the British Isles women speculated with increased fervor about the priest’s irresistible allure. Simultaneously, the concern for Fleabag’s well-being evolved into dismay over the priest’s intentions and practices. “Sorry for dampening everyone’s priest-love,” Hadley Freeman wrote for the Guardian, “That is not, contrary to claims on social media, ‘hot’; that is abusive and exploitative.” “Is the Sexy Priest Actually Sexy?” Jazmin Kopotsha wondered in Refinery 29. “I fear I may be about to burst the bubble” she warned, but the priest is guilty of “abuse of power.”
Never mind the futility of admonishing people for representations of romance they do or don’t find attractive. Never mind, too, that the so-called “power dynamic” is lost on neither character: on the contrary, they are both conscious of it, and for both this seems to be a key feature of the attraction (Fleabag: You okay, Father? Priest: Ah, fuck you calling me “Father” like it doesn’t turn you on just to say it.) Never mind all that because the real problem with worrying too much about the priest’s behavior is that it makes it too easy to forget that it is not his sins the show is about. Indeed, for all the sexual charge, by the time the priest orders Fleabag to kneel, the audience watching the confession scene craves another climax altogether. As much as we want them to fuck, we also want her to do what one does in a confessional box, and what she has refused to do for the show’s entire run, unburden herself and confess her actual sin.
Obviously tormented over the two years spanning the series, Fleabag never recounts the events, never claims responsibility, never speaks of guilt or remorse. Not to her family, not to the therapist she sees once — redeeming a single visit voucher, a birthday gift from her father — not to the audience to which she continues to turn in her asides, and not even to her hot priest. Finally, in the confessional box, nearing the show’s end, it seems as though she is about to confess and take responsibility. But what seems like it will be a scene of absolution becomes instead the scene of a new sin, of first consummation, where she and the priest first touch, instead.
In the box, the priest, as priests do, asks Fleabag to tell him her sins. Addressing him through the wall and facing the camera, that is, addressing him and us at one and the same time, she admits a series of indiscretions: petty theft, masturbation, extramarital sex, blasphemy, “a spot of sodomy.” Then she wavers.
Fleabag: And I, I can’t—
Priest: It’s okay, go on.
Priest: Of what?
At this point, the viewer can have little doubt as to what Fleabag must have in mind: the one and only sin. Confess! Unburden yourself! But she does not. Instead of sharing with him her real sin, she claims the one thing she wants is to be told what to do.
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 fucking tell me what to do, Father!
The moment Fleabag appears to come closest to finally assuming responsibility turns, instead, into an expression of the wish to be rid of it altogether. In this scene Fleabag is so poignant, so touching in her demand to be told what to do, so nakedly lost, that the priest’s choice to use this occasion to pursue his desire is certainly startling. That the one thing she wants is to be told what to do, i.e., to give agency over her actions to someone else, suggests almost explicitly that she is in no position to exercise agency at all. And, ironically, of course, she has been told exactly what to do and refused: to confess.
The scene appears to depict utter failure; Fleabag refuses to confess her guilt and asks to be relieved of the responsibility for her own actions in perpetuity. The priest pounces. But then, it doesn’t feel like much of a failure, does it? How come?
J.M. Coetzee, reflecting on a series of authors of confession — Rousseau, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy — writes of the young Augustine and his stealing of the pears that,
his heart is not shamed (chastened) by the knowledge that it seeks to know shame: on the contrary, the knowledge of its own desire as a shameful one both satisfies the desire for the experience of shame and fuels a sense of shame. And this sense of shame is both experienced with satisfaction and recognized, if it is recognized, by self-conscious searching, as a further source of shame; and so on endlessly.
This, Coetzee goes on to say, is the paradoxical heart of confession — unlike ordinary misdeeds that may or may not be motivated by a desire for shame itself — confession cannot escape it. Confession always makes public a sin, and therefore always courts shame. One always confesses to someone and there is always a motive, one which no one can guarantee is a pure one: the fear of punishment, the desire for absolution, the pleasures of self-abasement or even pride, but above all, always, shame. Confession is, as Dostoevsky’s Totsky says in The Idiot, after all, only “a special form of bragging.”
Whether Coetzee, following Totsky’s lead, is right, and shame is always courted in confession, Fleabag makes clear enough the ways in which confession is always implicated in self-presentation and self-performance. Perhaps then, after all, it is not simply a failure on Fleabag’s part that as far as her one true sin is concerned, she doesn’t confess. For all her admission and performance of failure to our delight, for all the remarkable honesty and nakedness of the show, and precisely because of them, it is fitting that at its heart is a refusal to hand her guilt over. Perhaps this refusal to confess marks not a failure to assume responsibility but the only genuine form of doing so.
Actual moral failing, one’s responsibility for irrevocable pain and loss, is not another indiscretion to be transformed into a punch line. Fleabag does not fail Boo by refusing to confess her wrongdoing, for to confess it now would inevitably make it part of her affair with the priest, that is to say, a part of her show. For all of Fleabag’s alleged openness and relatability, the show erects a barrier to our identification with the titular character; on the other side of the barrier is one burden she must carry on her own. As a work of art, Fleabag thus displays to us guilt in its elusive fullness, and ineliminable privacy. For all the tribunals and public disapproval, absolution can never come fully from someone else, if at all.
And yet, her refusal to share her guilt does not imply isolation. Even the priest’s choice of God over her does little to abate the sense that we have never seen the character appear happier. The reclamation of her own sin enables her to reclaim other things, as well. This is why, toward the end of the second season, Fleabag begins to turn away the camera. First, she does it when she’s having sex with the priest, a man she is falling in love with. Then, in the final scene, Fleabag again asks the camera to stay behind while she walks away. She has exposed herself enough, she has paid what she could, she no longer needs to perform her shame for our pleasure. She is, perhaps, free — free to live a life of which neither a camera, nor we, are a part. The comedy ends at the same time as the confession.