Something unexpected has just happened in secular Britain: A wildly popular, hugely acclaimed, multi-award-winning TV show about the Catholic Church. True, Fleabag isn’t only about Catholicism. It’s about a 33-year-old woman, the title character, dealing with bereavement—her mother and best friend have recently died—estrangement from her family, and guilt over her past. But what turned the second season into a major hit was the introduction of the Church, in the person of a priest whom Fleabag falls in love with. That may make the show sound terrible, and in several important respects it is. At the same time, it is brilliantly-crafted, inventive, and witty, and it occasionally stumbles on a genuine theological insight.
In the opening moments of episode one, Fleabag stands at a bathroom mirror, wincing as she mops blood off her face. She hands a towel to another woman kneeling on the floor in a similar state, then turns to us with a surprisingly gleeful look for someone recovering from a punch in the nose. “This,” she confides, “is a love story.” That line echoes through the season, gathering new meanings as we ask ourselves whether she’s talking about romantic love, self-love, family love, or the love of God. And the images with which the season begins—the mirror, the blood, the kneeling figure—foreshadow much of what will unfold.
Fleabag exploits every line and image for maximum impact. A trivial aside or a minor prop will turn out, three episodes later, to have possessed a hidden and momentous significance. Even the pauses feel saturated with meaning. This is why the second season—six 25-minute episodes of what is essentially a sitcom—has prompted thinkpiece after thinkpiece, and why many viewers reported that at the end of the final episode they sat in grief-stricken silence, unable to cope with the evaporation of so complete an imaginative world.
There have been some dissenting voices, and they’ve made some good points: that Fleabag is too posh to be truly universal; that its self-conscious edginess is characteristic of Britain’s “self-worshipping upper-middle classes”; that the relationship between Fleabag and the priest looks uncomfortably close to abuse. Surprisingly few Catholics have protested that the script contains a fair amount of obscenity (apparently season one is even worse) and irreverence toward the sacred. But then, so does a lot of pop culture, and Catholics are now wearily familiar with the question of when to tune in, when to cover your eyes, and when to switch off. Personally, I felt less shocked than irritated.
Irritated, above all, by the priest, who is on a mission to reduce the most beautiful realities to banal therapy-speak. Prayer, the opening of the mind and heart to God, he describes as “connecting with yourself.” Confession, the closest possible encounter with divine mercy, becomes an offer of non-judgmental listening. Celibacy—well, the show’s approach to celibacy is complicated. When the priest visits Fleabag to tell her why they can’t be together, he finds himself saying instead: “We’re going to have sex, aren’t we?” It’s as though sex is an irresistible force, an authority whose commands cannot be gainsaid. It’s how people talk in Greek tragedies when their flocks are ravaged by a madman or their city is burnt to the ground: That’s just what the gods are like, isn’t it?
And there’s a truth there: When misused, sex can become a kind of malevolent god, demanding ever more sacrifices. At some level, Fleabag knows this. “Sex didn’t bring anything good” is her rueful verdict on her past. In one “Confession” scene she names her sins, from masturbation and premarital sex to stealing and blasphemy, before breaking down and telling the priest: “I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong.”
The scene is theologically bizarre for too many reasons to count, but two things happen that you don’t see every day on TV: Sins are actually described as sins, and a young person, burnt out by an illusory freedom, turns instead toward the Church. It’s pretty effective, if more or less accidental, Catholic propaganda.
So, up to a point, is the priest’s trajectory. In the final episode (spoiler alert) he is delivering a typically lame wedding sermon about Love when he suddenly seems to recall his vocation. Soon he and Fleabag are breaking off their relationship, almost in silence. “It’s God, isn’t it?” she asks, and he nods. Some viewers were bewildered that the priest would choose celibacy over Fleabag. But his reason is plain. This is a love story.
Of course, the love of God is a relatively popular aspect of Christianity compared to, say, the fear of God. Yet Fleabag goes there, too.
FLEABAG: I’m a pretty normal person.
PRIEST: A normal person? What makes you a normal person?
FLEABAG: Well, I don’t believe in God—
[A painting crashes to the floor. Fleabag looks disturbed.]
PRIEST: I love it when He does that.
It would be just a dumb joke, if anything in Fleabag was just a dumb joke. Later, when the two characters kiss for the first time, the same thing happens—a painting falls to the ground with a crash. They break apart, sensing they’ve done something wrong. If there is a God, the scene seems to say, he sees us and judges us.
For years, Britain’s Christian leaders have gone around making earnest—and generally true—statements about social justice and environmental sustainability and the need for respectful dialogue in the public square, and everyone yawns and changes the channel. Then a show comes out that broods over sin, Confession, and the misery of life without a definite moral code, and in which a mysterious God crashes into people’s lives to demand that they give up everything out of love for him, and what’s the result? Four Emmys, two Golden Globes, a $60 million Amazon deal, and the Guardian critic calls it “the most electrifying, devastating TV in years.” Fleabag is not a nice Catholic show. In many ways it’s grotesque. But one privilege of well-made art is the ability to tell the truth by mistake.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor at The Catholic Herald.