On Screen: Fleabag’s Portrayal of Loneliness and Spirituality
When I spiral into an existential hole of thought, I find myself wishing I wasn’t an atheist. Maybe if I loved god or at least some sort of godlike being, life would be more optimistic. I don’t believe in anything. And I definitely don’t know how to cope with the idea of death, nor the feelings of isolation and loneliness associated with it. Are those of us who live in denial of the pearly white gates living without hope? I don’t expect to disentangle these plaguing anxieties about death and spirituality; however, it seems Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s second season of Fleabag may be an antidote for the time being.
Fleabag is a sardonic perspective on the dismal nature of coping mechanisms. Fleabag, played by the ever-sharp Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is a natural at suppressing her emptiness. The very first episode of Fleabag begins like any other of comedy television: quick humor, relatable laughs. As we begin to process Fleabag’s mocking nature, though, she reveals she is living in a wave of death, suffering after the loss of her mother and Boo, her best friend. I immediately connected with Fleabag’s dismissive state on the matter — instead of processing her emotions, she rinses herself of all negative feelings. It’s so easy to make sarcastic quip and move on, to never take things seriously, but Fleabag takes this to the extreme. Her fourth-wall breaking quips are so critical of the world around her — from comments about her sister’s cruel marriage to self-deprecating remarks about her libido — but it is important to understand why she says these things.
I have been in familial situations similar to those in Fleabag, exhausting affairs that seem to be endless, and for no purpose. I have suppressed the emptiness and longing that Fleabag also suppresses — it’s hard to find anyone who hasn’t. It is fun to imagine a world where judgemental glances and crude comments go unheard by the everyday spectator in these situations; it’s also somewhat reassuring to assume that someone above us is watching down and laughing with us, crying for us. Instead, we cope with one another, gossiping and retelling stories to relieve the pressures of day-to-day life. Fleabag has lost two of her closest allies, people she would normally approach in order to process the burning weight of the world. With no one else to turn to, she turns to the audience: an all-knowing, watchful eye. In watching Fleabag, we become godlike beings. Knowing this, her infatuation with a priest in season 2 should come as no surprise.
As if crafting a bible of her own, Phoebe Waller-Bridge adds a complex new layer to their relationship: the Priest can sense when Fleabag breaks the fourth wall. After a quick glance or jest to us, the Priest will plead for an explanation. There is so much to unpack here — what are Fleabag’s glances, exactly? If she is looking at us as a friendly figure, perhaps a replacement for Boo, the Priest is noticing her at her loneliest — he is the closest human she can connect with. Her glances could also be related to divinity, a language fit for a Priest. Either way — he is the closest to reaching Fleabag’s inner thoughts. This is an untouched layer of intimacy, further blurring the lines between their romance and the spiritual nature of it all.
It’s hard to distinguish between the two of these in real life, as well. Just as I question myself when it comes to faith in a religion, I also find it clear my head on the idea of love. Is there a difference between loving humans and loving god? Could it be so wrong to say that both are optimistic ways to cope with our demise? Both seem to provide a new sense of hope — but both are almost equally difficult to locate and understand. Naturally, Fleabag can’t resist her intense feelings for the Priest; this is the first time she has felt a connection since the passing of Boo. The Priest is a breath of fresh air for the ever-struggling Fleabag — but it’s hard to tell if it’s due to a real human connection, or the divinity and connection to God that Fleabag so desires.
I find it so hard to tackle the anxieties of longevity, when it comes to relationships. In the long run, I have always anticipated things will hurt more than they should, unless the feelings are rejected from the start. At first, Fleabag rejects the Priest’s notions of spirituality. She doesn’t want to be analyzed, she doesn’t want the Priest to know her, nor help her. She just wants to have sex with him. She has been hurt so many times before by relationships, by friends and family that have been ripped from her. At a therapy appointment, as Fleabag explains this predicament, her therapist probes her: “Do you actually want to a fuck a priest, or do you want to fuck god?” Back at the church, Fleabag finally opens up in raw, painful confessional — what she really wants someone to tell her what to do. She feels she’s been living life wrong. Someone should tell her how to live it right. After rejecting his “churchy” self-help, Fleabag finally begs for him to do his job. He does not — he finally acts on his romantic instincts. They are lost in feelings of love and spirituality.
Life would be so much easier with a divine figure telling us which way would lead us in the correct, happiest direction, as Fleabag suggests. But to the show, and to me, this won’t work out — even religion, which often attempts to provide a handbook for life, has its faults. Priests fall in love with humans. There is no answer to either Fleabag’s or my existential pleas — instead of showing us the light of god, the Priest breaks his own vow. This religious life is something he has admittedly worked so hard for, all to come tumbling down as the result of one threatening human connection. Human connection, on the other hand, is exactly what Fleabag has been trying so hard to find. When Fleabag claims she wants “someone to tell her how to live her life,” I’ve come to realize she’s not actually looking for divine intervention. She’s looking for affirmation. She’s looking for a lover, or at least, a friend — someone to talk to. Religion, and the idea of loving godlike figures, can often be a substitute for this; however, both she and I do not connect with strong ideas of spirituality.
Fleabag and the Priest argue about funerals: while the Priest believes they are a hopeful change, a passing from one life to the next, Fleabag thinks otherwise. Her character is so focused around humans that her perception of death is subsequently negative — death is the end of a human, and therefore, she will always view it in a pessimistic light. My own view of death is somewhat similar — I am never able to see the positive side, like that of the Priest. To me, death takes people away, it is terrifying and unknown. Fleabag’s strive for human connection in the wake of death makes it hurt all the more when the Priest cannot decide between her and his religion. She is so committed to pulling the priest out of his devotion to god to show him the light of personal intimacy — but it’s no use. He will always love god more that he loves her. After she finally tells him she loves him, he tells her it’ll pass. And it will. Letting love pass is easier than allowing it to burn. The Priest says it himself: “Love is awful,” he says in a wedding speech. “It’s painful. It’s frightening. It makes you doubt yourself, judge yourself, distance yourself from the other people in your life.”
Fleabag, ultimately, is a nuanced view on faith as a coping mechanism. Both Fleabag and the Priest work on overcoming their traumas in life to find a better purpose, and it’s disheartening that their beliefs are too contradictory to find a shared love for one another. So returns that feeling of optimism I crave — Fleabag shows that this desire is often one for companionship, and the purposeful nature of human connection. Fleabag leaves our gaze at the end of the season, walking away from the camera and into the night. I have found peace in my spirituality, or lack thereof. People are all we’ve got, when it comes to coping mechanisms.
Fletcher Peters, 20, is a writer working on her degree in Cinema Studies at New York University. She writes for Screen Queens and is currently an intern at Women Make Movies. In her career, she looks to focus on writing about film both critically and theoretically. Outside of film, she enjoys working at an underground Thai restaurant, reading poetry, and browsing through cat adoption sites.