Ever since I watched Fleabag Season Two (2019), written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. The more I think about Fleabag’s love story, the more I think about this one line from Greta Gerwig’s 2017 coming of age film, Lady Bird.
This artical was originally posted on Film Inquiry.
LOVE AND ATTENTION IN LADY BIRD AND FLEABAG
In this scene, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), and her teacher (Lois Smith), are meeting to discuss Lady Bird’s college application essay. Sister Sarah, after reading Lady Bird’s college application essay, notes that “You clearly love Sacramento”. Lady Bird, who has spent the movie talking about her dislike for California, and desire to move “to the East Coast, where culture is”, is confused by Sister Sarah’s observation: “I do?”.
Sister Sarah insists, “You write about Sacramento so affectionately, and with such care”. Lady Bird blushes. “I was just describing it”, she says dismissively, “I guess I pay attention”. To this Sister Sarah replies:
“Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing— love and attention?”
When I first saw Lady Bird in 2017, I didn’t really understand what Sister Sarah was trying to say. It wasn’t until I first saw Fleabag last year, that it all made sense to me.
Unless you live under a pop-culture rock, it is unlikely that you haven’t heard of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the writer, actress and brainchild behind Fleabag. Fleabag, is an Edinburgh Fringe Festival one-woman-show turned award winning television show, about the life of a messy, tragic and darkly hilarious antiheroine named Fleabag (played by Waller-Bridge).
“NO ONE’S ASKED ME A QUESTION IN 45 MINUTES”: THAT AWFUL DINNER SCENE
Fleabag Season Two opens with a masterpiece of a dinner party scene. The titular character Fleabag, (writer and star, Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is accompanied by her newly-engaged father, her awful godmother, her sister who hates her, and her sister’s asshole husband. The final guest is a stranger to Fleabag – an attractive priest (Andrew Scott) who has been chosen to officiate her father’s upcoming wedding. Like Fleabag, we never discover his real name, so he is universally known by his internet nickname “Hot Priest”.
The dinner scene is a predictably excruciating affair, with a healthy dose of passive aggression thinly veiled under polite mannerisms. Fleabag, who has struggled with family relationships especially since the death of her mother, who was most like her, is ignored for most of the dinner. She says as much in the direct camera address that the show is known for (these lines are a modern take on the Shakespearean aside, only much quicker and with way more references to masturbation). Fleabag looks to the camera with wry amusement and notes that “No one’s asked me a question in 45 minutes”. Except, she doesn’t get to finish her sentence because she is interrupted by Hot Priest asking her “So what do you do?”
Fleabag is visually shocked that anyone at the table would take an interest in her life and is taken aback for a moment at his attention and steady eye contact. Later in the episode the two part ways with him giving her his number: “If you ever need someone to talk to or… I’ll be there. I’m always there.”
This is the start of a slow-burn forbidden love story, told over six half-hour episodes. (Please be aware, spoilers ahead).
“THIS IS A LOVE STORY”: FLEABAG AND THE HOT PRIEST
Despite the priesthood’s celibacy policy, the two begin to slowly fall in love (platonically, at least at first). They bond over loneliness and bibles and religious debate. He is the first person she is truly vulnerable within the wake of her mother’s and best friend’s recent deaths. She is the first person he breaks his Priesthood celibacy oath to be with. Their love is, of course, doomed to fail.
Fleabag, with no friends and a tense relationship with family, has become accustomed to a lack of attention. The two closest people in her life, her mother and her best friend, have died, and she broke up with her on-again, off-again boyfriend in season one. As someone who is not yet ready to talk about her grief, and who uses casual sex to “deflect from the screaming void inside my empty heart”, she finds comfort in this emotionally distant, self-imposed isolation.
But then Hot Priest arrives, someone who is genuinely interested in her. Someone who asks her question after question. Someone who challenges her in ways that she hasn’t been challenged for a long time.
And Fleabag isn’t ready for this level of attention.
“WHERE DID YOU JUST GO?”: THE BREATHTAKING ROMANCE OF PAYING ATTENTION
In one of the best moments of the series, Hot Priest visits Fleabag’s guinea-pig café, which she started with her dead best friend Boo. He, clearly fascinated by her and unaware of her recent losses, enquires persistently about her mum, her best friend, and her café. She, clearly not ready to talk to him about her very recent grief, gets flustered, and tries to change the subject. The more flustered Fleabag gets, the more she looks to the camera looks to us.
The audience has always been a sort of friend to Fleabag, someone who is “always there”. Someone who shares the thoughts with that, since the death of her mum and best friend, she has no one else to confide to. In season two, episode two, Fleabag admits to her therapist (Fiona Shaw, Emmy nominated for this scene) that she uses the audience as her confidantes, a surrogate for actual friends.
When Hot Priest is pressing her to talk about her family, she gets nervous, retreats, and mutters to the camera “he’s a bit annoying actually”. Except he notices that just like he notices everything about her. “Where did you just go?” he probes, “It’s like you disappear. What are you not telling me?”. Fleabag panics under his attention and pushes him away, pretending not to know what he’s talking about. Hot Priest persists, “I’m just trying to get to know you”. “Well I don’t want that”, Fleabag shoots back defensively, before asking him to leave the café and avoiding all further discussion about it.
Caroline Framke wrote about the significance of this moment for Variety:
“With every passing episode, the Priest keeps clocking her attempts to retreat into herself and keep her distance…The defences she’s so carefully built since the deaths of Boo and her mother are coming apart in the face of his attention and care. And with that, Fleabag’s biggest fear is officially coming true: her walls, which strategically include that fourth wall, are crashing down.”
This entire relationship is about Fleabag and Hot Priest challenging one another. Hot Priest coaxes Fleabag out of her self-imposed isolation and gets her to actually talk about her feelings, even going so far as to get her, an insistent atheist, to make confession to him. Fleabag tests the lonely Hot Priest’s faith with temptations of love and sex and companionship, only for him to ultimately re-discover the importance of God in his life.
“Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing— love and attention?”
Those words echoed in my head during my latest re-watch of Fleabag, as I noted how, again and again, the priest is the only person to take an interest in Fleabag’s life, in her opinions, in her feelings. He clearly loves her, and she clearly loves him, they just show it in different ways:
She, an alleged atheist, turns up at his church, again and again, to attend mass, to volunteer, to pray, to chat, to kiss. He, a persistent observer, is the only person in the world who notices the way she retreats from reality and takes comfort in talking to the audience. They see each other, they pay attention to each other, and they love each other, deeply.
By Jo Bradley