Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers from the second season of Fleabag.
The emotional apex of Fleabag's masterpiece of a second season comes during its fourth episode, which begins with Fleabag (played by the show’s creator and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge) spending the day with Priest (Andrew Scott). The scene is intercut with painful memories of her mother’s funeral, and it ends with Fleabag showing up at The Priest’s church to deliver a heartbreaking confession, where she discloses her long-buried feelings of being scared and lonely. Fleabag and The Priest nearly consummate their relationship before most likely God Himself intervenes and knocks a portrait off the wall, killing the mood and making The Priest question his decision to disobey the cloth. It’s a phenomenal episode that hones in all off the season's themes; one that makes it clear that not only is Fleabag arguably the best TV show of the year, but als0 one of TVs' most full-bodied explorations of religion, family, sex, and grief ever.
For those unfamiliar with the series, the first season of Fleabag presented a young woman living in London who uses reckless behaviors, particularly sex, as a way of dealing with her grief over her mother’s death, her best friend’s suicide, and the guilt over her particular role in the latter (she slept with said best friend's boyfriend). Fleabag often breaks the fourth wall to share her feelings on whatever is going on in her life, whether it’s through a throwaway line or a sly glance. Season 2 picks up with Fleabag doing better but still on fragile ground; she’s eating healthy, fleeing opportunities for random sex, and trying to re-establish communication with her family. But the flash-forward opening shot of Fleabag cleaning her bloody nose in a restaurant bathroom to Frank Sinatra crooning “Strangers in the Night” (it’s been changed in the US release to a more generic old-timey tune, most likely due to licensing issues) lets us know that this new version of Fleabag won't last for very long. In fact, it doesn’t last any longer than the painfully awkward family dinner she attends to celebrate the upcoming nuptials of Dad (Bill Paterson) and Godmother (Oscar winner Olivia Colman, a phrase I will never tire of writing). By the end of the episode, Fleabag has faked a miscarriage, gotten accidentally punched in the face, and become infatuated with the priest who will be performing the wedding.
The show only becomes more devastating (and hilarious) as the second season continues, somehow managing to improve upon the show's already remarkable first season. There are so many reasons for the creative success of Season 2 of Fleabag, including Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s caustic yet tender performance and new additions to the cast that include Fiona Shaw, Kristin Scott Thomas, and most importantly, the aforementioned Andrew Scott. But it's Waller-Bridge’s decision to center the season around Fleabag’s brush with religion that allows the show to reach some truly unimaginable new heights.
As Fleabag and The Priest start to spend time together, he begins to notice that she sometimes looks off to the side or says things out loud that have no place in their conversation. He’s caught Fleabag in the act of breaking the fourth wall, in the act of trying to connect with her audience, or rather, the witnesses to her life. In a startling moment, he turns around and looks directly into the camera himself, directly at us. Why is The Priest the only person to see Fleabag breaking the fourth wall? Is it because he's the only person to truly “see” her? Or maybe he is God come to Earth in the form of a chain-smoking, profane British clergyman. Fleabag asks us to consider if love and God are interchangeable concepts without ever feeling cloying or melodramatic. The religious dimensions of the season may even put into focus some of the show's character name choices. Characters such as Dad, Godmother, and The Priest are only referred to by their titles. It makes Fleabag feel like less of a television comedy and more of a parable about a lost woman trying to get back to herself.
Watching Fleabag Season 2, I couldn’t help but think of other television shows that have tackled religion in such a capable way. The Leftovers an obvious example, and shows like Transparent and Louie in its heyday have also delivered some of their best episodes when centering on their characters relationship (or lack thereof) with a higher power. But the show that sprang to mind most insistently was The Sopranos. David Chase’s mafia epic and Fleabag may not seem to be the most analogous shows on the surface, but at their very core, the two shows feel to me like they’re (pardon the pun) cut from the same cloth.
First, Fleabag and Tony Soprano are both clear anti-heroes. They both make poor decisions with regard to their personal lives and use a variety of vices (sex, in particular) to deal with their nagging guilt and longing. Both shows share a type of gallows humor that not many other shows can pull off. Fleabag and Tony both seem to find chaos wherever they go (the previously mentioned image of Fleabag standing in the mirror bloodied over Sinatra feels like something we could have seen of Tony or Christopher after committing some kind of heinous crime). Fleabag’s relationship with The Priest feels very comparable to many of Tony’s season-long flings with his various mistresses. As compelling as those characters were, they were there to serve Tony's character and bring him closer to dealing with issues in his personal life and help him figure out his troubled psyche. The Priest is really divine intervention for Fleabag, but he comes to her in a language that she can understand. Both shows use animals as symbols for things their characters can’t express. Tony Soprano famously grew attached to a family of ducks living in his backyard that represented his love for his family and dreamed of a bird flying away with his penis, an image of his increasingly fragile masculinity. The Priest has a fear of foxes and, in the show’s final scene, a fox appears as Fleabag and The Priest part ways, perhaps a symbol of the worst of what Fleabag used to be, showing up to look at her in the face.
Of course, The Sopranos had its own very significant relationship between a main character and a man of the cloth. Carmela Soprano and her priest Father Phil Intintola shared a deeply passionate relationship that almost crossed the line itself. You can almost hear some of Carmela and Phil’s flirty banter in Fleabag and The Priest’s, but that’s where these characters differ. Fleabag has a self-awareness that the characters on The Sopranos spent years chasing or ignoring. She’s more forthcoming about her bad habits and shortcomings in one nod to the camera than Tony, Carmela, or anyone else in their destructive orbit could be if they spent another decade sitting in Dr. Melfi’s office.
None of this is meant to take anything away from Phoebe Waller-Bridge's extraordinary and singular vision that is Fleabag, but rather to point out the unlikely similarities between two of the most psychologically probing shows to offer depictions of religion and guilt on television. Fleabag's link to the Sopranos clan stops there. They all went searching for something deeper and mostly came up short. Fleabag goes searching for something divine, and comes out on the other side... having found herself.
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