Andrew Scott as The Priest (IMDB)
It’s been nearly a year since I watched season two of Phoebe Waller-Bridge‘s Fleabag (airing on BBC Three and Amazon) and I still find myself daydreaming about Andrew Scott’s portrayal of a hot priest. I’m not alone—to this day, a Twitter search for “hot priest” yields countless memes, professions of love, and the inevitable thirst tweets. There is a lot to commend about Fleabag, particularly its masterpiece of a second season. This season includes a heartwarming, dynamic exploration of a strained sisterhood and my favorite joke of all time: A successful businesswoman asks Fleabag what her favorite period film is. She responds, “Carrie”.
Fleabag struck a chord with many different audiences, but fans of the hot priest seem to make up the majority, or at least the loudest portion, of the Fleabag fanbase. In watching the hot priest storyline play out, I’m certain we all lived through an immortal piece of television history. But what is it about this particular hot priest that had so many ready to sin?
As someone with a complicated, at times traumatic Catholic upbringing, season two of Fleabag inspired a lot of personal reflection on the role my abandoned faith plays in my adult life. Needless to say, a priest who fucks left me with some thinking to do. In less capable hands, this storyline could have easily become gimmicky. However, Waller-Bridge takes a trope we’re all familiar with, the allure of forbidden romance, and expands upon it to create a deeply poignant, heartbreaking, ultimately optimistic portrayal of what it means to love and lose someone.
When Fleabag first meets Scott’s character at a nightmarish family dinner, she’s caught in a pattern of self-destruction and dissociation stemming from multiple tragedies she’s yet to meaningfully face. The Priest is the only character who sees through her clever, charming evasion tactics. In truly seeing her and not turning away, he becomes a source of intimacy unlike any other in Fleabag’s lonely life. His unattainability creates a challenge the intrepid Fleabag refuses to back away from. Her initial attraction towards an unattainable romance provides a sense of safety—since the Priest cannot be with Fleabag in the way she wants him to be, maybe he won’t be another disappointment. Maybe he’s someone she can harmlessly long for.
Fleabag interrupts the classic romantic comedy structure of presenting the object of the protagonist’s desire, planting obstacles in their way, and letting the characters work through each conflict until they finally requite each other’s love and live happily ever after. As anyone who lives outside of a Nancy Meyers film can attest, love in the real world is much more complicated. Fleabag’s feelings for the priest tap into one of my favorite aspects of romantic relationships: love as longing.
For a certain cynical, self-absorbed type — like Fleabag tends to present herself — longing tends to evolve into a personality trait. Fleabag sees parts of her life in opposition to herself, in being the more disappointing sister in the eyes of her family, in losing two of perhaps the only people she felt truly valued by. She’d never admit it to anyone (save for a very receptive and very hot priest), but Fleabag wants to feel loved and appreciated for who she is. She’s trapped in a web of melancholy stemming from repressed grief, and she’s not ready to find her way out at the start of the season. In the hot priest, she finds a complicated, hopeless fantasy to perpetuate this cycle of distraction and disappointment.
As Fleabag is forced to face a reality she finds disheartening, it’s more fulfilling to find solace in the perpetual daydream of a love she knows is unlikely to ever exist. In his book White Girls, Hilton Als describes a budding romance between Gary, a fawning, overly generous boy who wants nothing more than to give Fran the entire world. When his crush seems to move in the direction of a real relationship, Als demonstrates the role longing itself often ends up playing far beyond the realm of romance alone:
Fran closed her eyes and extended her arms toward Gary in a way he’d dreamed of seeing one day. Now that day had come. But if he reached for her — reached for it, whatever “it” she represented — would every dream be fulfilled? And if they were, what would he be then? A boy without longing? How could he recognize himself otherwise?
In Fleabag, the hot priest becomes a symbol of the chronic unavailability we find ourselves lusting after time and time again. By planting all her desire onto a man who has taken an oath before God to never have the type of physical romantic relationship Fleabag longs for so desperately, she can recognize herself. There is comfort and safety in maintaining the homeostasis of our character flaws.
During a rare moment of transparency, in what goes onto become one of the sexiest scenes in television history, Fleabag allows herself to be sincerely vulnerable in a confessional before the hot priest. After the trauma of losing her best friend and mother, Fleabag has grown increasingly disillusioned by a world that continues to break her heart.
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 scientifically nothing I do makes any difference in the end anyway, I’m still scared. Why am I scared?
In the face of such devastation, longing has become a safer option for Fleabag. She’s grown so accustomed to the hopelessness brought on in the wake of trauma that a happy ending rarely makes sense. In her book Make It Scream, Make it Burn, Leslie Jamison muses on the various meanings of the Portuguese word saudade, which is most commonly used to refer to a profound, nostalgic longing for something lost.
It was years before I discovered the second definition of the word saudade. In this meaning, saudade doesn’t describe longing for any particular object, but longing for that very state of yearning. As critic F.D. Santos writes, “It is no more the Loved One or the Return that is desired. Now, Desire desires Desire itself.” This kind of desire doesn’t know what to do with being met. It has trouble with the proximity of white rooms. It can’t see the ways in which elusive men sometimes show up. It has trouble fitting their presence into the frame.
Fleabag spends much of season 1 and the first half of season 2 longing for things to be different. She feels responsible for her best friend’s death and struggles to connect with her well-meaning but absent-minded father as he prepares to marry Fleabag’s petty, frequently cruel godmother. She adapts to going through life despite constant rejection and berating from all around her, leading her to grow suspicious of everyone.
The priest is the singular character who shows up for her from the start with no ulterior motives. He doesn’t fit into her frame of disappointment. He’s a surrogate for some ideal figure that can step into Fleabag’s life and prove that something good can work, with one small caveat—she can never have him. She can only pine for him from afar.
In a summary of Kafka’s “Conversation with the Supplicant”, Als describes a scene of “the unnamed male narrator attend[ing] a church where a woman he loves goes to worship. One gets the sense that the narrator is not particularly religious; the young woman is his religion, inaccessible and therefore deifiable.” Fleabag’s infatuation with the hot priest is a near-perfect reflection of this image, as she adamantly maintains her atheism throughout their affair. The priest’s inaccessibility turns him into a sort of god, powerful enough for Fleabag to suddenly find herself spending hours in church with no religious motivation.
Along with his glorious unattainability, the hot priest’s authoritative nature makes him all the more appealing. While many have posited on the roots of why so many fall in love with teacher/priest/leader figures, I’m choosing to ignore any (probably discredited) Freudian, misogynistic readings of this phenomenon. Like Fleabag says in the confessional scene, in a tumultuous period of life, she’s found herself desperate for someone to tell her what to do.
Young adulthood is defined by a seemingly endless series of weighty decisions, and reflecting on the consequences of each decision can be nauseating. Fleabag finds her days marred by uncertainty and regret, and the priest offers a sense of security from his societal pedestal as an authority figure. The confessional scene was mostly talked about for its astonishing sexiness, which means a lot to me personally, but I also found it to be a compelling, succinct rationale for the value of religion in so many lives.
Amidst the anxiety of never knowing if you’re making a decision you’ll eventually regret, catholicism offers a set of instructions with a clear endpoint. It’s an opportunity to do as you’re told and be rewarded. The hot priest symbolizes an opportunity to resolve the ambiguities that leave Fleabag fearful of making another wrong move that could lead to her losing someone else she loves.
As Als writes in White Girls, “Everyone looks for someone to tell them what to do. To resist or accept the perfection in that is one way to get through life.” When the free-spirited Fleabag finds herself craving authority after a series of devastating blows, she initially pushes back. Instead of succumbing to this innate urge, she isolates herself and detaches from the world around her. In her relationship with the Priest, we see Fleabag allowing the walls she’s so carefully constructed to come crashing down for the first time.
In the series’ heart-wrenching final scene, Fleabag admits her love for the Priest at a bus station after her father’s wedding. While we know the priest cares deeply about Fleabag and certainly loves her in some ethereal, intangible way, he recommits himself to the church with an unforgettable response, “It’ll pass.”
The thought of Fleabag’s all-consuming, life-affirming love for the priest dissipating with time feels impossible, but he’s right (as usual). Though Fleabag’s feelings will fade over time, the Priest showed her a new facet of love: wanting to be better for someone. In a sea of lovers she was passively interested in at best, she finally saw what it feels like to be truly seen, valued, and cared about by someone despite all her flaws and past mistakes. Even as her love passes by, Fleabag realizes she has a chance to carry on with the reassurance of knowing she isn’t a lost cause. There will always be a chance to be better, and there will be people in her life who will make it a little easier along the way.
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