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On Fleabag, frustration and resisting easy answers

On Fleabag, frustration and resisting easy answers

Series two of Fleabag has been met with critical acclaim. Amy Plender offers her reaction to the equally complex and compelling comedy. 10/04/2019

I drafted a blog a few weeks ago about the priest in the BBC comedy drama Fleabag – or rather, the “cool, sweary priest”. I wrote about how refreshingly normal the unnamed priest was, how at ease with himself and how he had the peculiar kind of fluidity you see in someone who has made peace with life being outside their control. I thought about self–awareness and self–acceptance, and a healthy balance between sexual freedom and boundaries, and how the Church, at its best, offers a stillness and release from striving, and how important that is, and how refreshing to see explored on prime time TV.

And then Episode 4 dropped, and the conversation about boundaries and safeguarding, and whether the relationship between The Priest and the eponymous Fleabag was hot, inappropriate, or abusive became more serious and more complex. And my draft blog read as awkwardly outdated. Many others have written on whether what happened constitutes abuse (see Dawn Foster, Hannah Malcolm, and Anna Leszkiewicz, for starters), and I certainly recognise the significance and importance of that discussion. But aside from the very valid frustration and hurt caused to those who see the relationship as abusive by a more simplistic reading of it as clandestine love in a confessional, I was saddened by what, in either sense, is yet another example of a (male) priest turning a moment of precious, even sanctified, vulnerability into something more sordid. It seemed that the show lacked the courage of its conviction that while there are often no easy answers to life’s dilemmas, it’s worth making space for and honouring the questions anyway – as in, for instance, the practice of confession – and sacrificed that for the cheap thrill of a sex scene and another story of seduction in the Church.

So then I thought about writing on fully human leadership – how we can address our concerns in an age of #Metoo and #ChurchToo, where an individual’s (or group’s) failings bleed into their ministry or job, and affect and infect others’ lives.  I wrestled with how we can hold justice and forgiveness in tension, and what it is about humanity which makes vulnerability simultaneously so attractive and so frightening. I thought about how chastity and singleness doesn’t have to feel like second best (indeed, Biblically, it’s portrayed as the better life–choice), and wondered again how to distil this down into one clear argument, as our noisy media environment demands of us.

And then I saw the final episode, the romantic relationship still (to me) ambiguous, some family relationships torn and some strengthened, and the bittersweet ending, and was struck by how true to life the series has been. Contrary to my mid–series frustration, there are few clichés and no generalisations in the series. There is no one clear argument. The variety of possible readings means the show acts as a mirror to the viewer and to our society, as the slew of articles published over the last six weeks show.

This tells us three things: 1) I need to work on writing quicker, 2) how deft is the writing that shifts the dynamic week by week, where, plot–wise, not very much actually happens, 3) how courageous is the writing that ends the series on such a complex note, where the relationship, and indeed the tone of the programme resists any binary categorisation.

The best writing (and viewing) withstands multiple interpretations, seeks to understand something about humanity and our shared experience, and resists the easy answers.

Fleabag puts its finger on the terrifying, overwhelming, beautiful complexity of life, and offers, in its own way, hope.


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Image Credit: BBC/Two Brothers/Luke Varley

Amy Plender

Amy Plender

Amy is the author of After Grenfell: The Faith Groups’ Response. Her research interests include theological responses to suffering and mental health, theology and the arts, liturgical practice, and interfaith dialogue.

Posted 10 April 2019

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