Fleabag Series 2, Ep 4: who is the lamb?
Be warned: this article contains spoilers.
I got a little adrenaline rush just typing that out. The final moments of Fleabag series two, episode four was breathtaking television — actually, physically breathtaking. For four masterful episodes, the sexual tension between Fleabag and her new quarry, the inordinately sexy priest who’s marrying her emotionally strangled father and his Dolores Umbridgean fiancé simmers expectantly. It’s classic Waller-Bridge: subversive, horny and, best of all, funny. What could be more Fleabag than seducing a man of the church? With each ‘oop…knuckel-brush’, each predatory glance at his beautiful neck, her appetite for matters of the flesh grows and, with it, our does too. ‘Do you really want to fuck the priest?’ her counsellor asks her in episode two. ‘Yes, we absolutely want to fuck the priest,’ we answer greedily, before Fleabag can say a word. We figure her as the famished wolf, him the sacrificial lamb, and it’s fun to watch her play with her food.
In a lesser writer’s hands, what might seem like an all-too-obvious plot contrivance — sex-obsessed woman falls for celibate priest — feels natural in the hands of writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge and actor Andrew Scott. My humblest apologies for this despicably on-the-nose pun, but Scott, best known for his portrayal of cartoonish villains (first Moriarty in Sherlock, then Max Denbigh in Spectre) is nothing short of revelatory. He transforms a sweary priest into a study of innocence and experience; all wide-eyed, scatty, ‘it’s a fucking fox!’ boyishness one moment, knowing restraint the next.
It is this, of course, that makes him so blazingly hot. Despite their clear differences, The Priest, like Fleabag, doesn’t quite fit in. They build a reciprocal relationship out of a mutual need for a friend — ‘I’m really fucking lonely!’ The Priest shouts in the first episode, while Fleabag struggles to convince her counsellor that she has anyone in her life who cares about her. They both hide behind humour (and alcohol); the first scene of episode one, which sees The Priest tell Fleabag’s entire family that both his parents are alcoholics and that his brother’s a paedophile is as comedically off-hand as Fleabag’s confessions to the same counsellor regarding her mother’s death, her father’s distance, and her unhealthy relationship with sex. When he gives her a Bible and then takes her to a Quaker meeting, it feels less like he’s evangelising than that he’s sharing his interests with a new friend; immediately after they exit the meeting, he enthusiastically asks to see her café.
After having wanted so desperately for Fleabag to fuck the priest, by episode three I’d begun to change my mind. There was too much at stake. He might be what she wants, but he also represents so much that she needs. Her sister has rejected her as a friend; he offers to be one. She’s trying to reconfigure her attitude to sex; he’s celibate. She’s grieving for her mother and her best friend; he has faith in the afterlife. When he tells her calmly, deliberately, that they’re not going to have sex, it’s a bit relieving. Perhaps what Fleabag needs isn’t sex, it’s to talk. She needs to tell someone what she did to Boo, and The Priest could be the one to absolve her.
In fact, while she’s been furiously flirting, he’s been trying to create a space safe enough for her to confess. Time and time again, he tells Fleabag he’s there to chat, that he wants to know her story. That this moment finally comes in a confessional is significant; in the café, when she perceives his questions have become too like those of a priest, not enough like those of a friend, she pushes him away. But by the end of episode four, it’s not a fuck she comes to the church for, it’s faith.
In this moment, the Priest is not the lamb. Fleabag is. When she enters the confessional, she does so — albeit reticently — as part of his flock. She speaks, he listens, and then he tells her to kneel, as if to pray. She does it trustingly, and he betrays that trust by subverting her faith in him as a friend. It seems to be what she wants — and maybe it is — but I can’t find the hunger that flashes in his eyes as he opens the curtains sexy. Fleabag says we’re her friends; a friend would tell her to run.
If I have faith in anything though, it’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge. We don’t have long to wait to see how this plays out, and I have no doubt that she has no intention of making this a case of good and evil, but will continue — as always — to exist in the murky hinterland between the two.