The truth was, for me and as for Fleabag, I wasn’t just looking for a good story to tell my friends. I was looking for something so much harder to grasp: a narrative.
trash person. . going through a hard time right now.
interesting you never said this wasn’t okay; we agreed not to be exclusive
that time when: That time when
He told me he wanted a full-time master-slave kink relationship, and also to control his partner's finances, But I figured, like, doesn't every guy in Brooklyn want to mooch off you and treat you like shit?
I would give everyone easy epithets—The Fiance Bro, The Mercurial Writer, The Poet, The Ex-Addict—so that you would never forgot who was who, or how they related to my grand narrative of spectacular self-abnegating ruin. I was often cruel about them. I was crueler about myself. That way, I could never be accused of loving myself too much. If I loved myself less, of course, I wouldn't have told these stories at all.
The first time I watched the pilot of the British television show Fleabag—the brainchild of writer-director-actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge—I felt the indulgent pull of recognition.
Our protagonist, Fleabag is—unapologetically—a trash person (it's all right there in the title). And Fleabag, too, likes to tell stories.
“You know,” she asks us, seconds into the pilot, smashing headlong into the fourth wall, “that feeling when a guy you like sends you a text at two o’clock on a Tuesday night and asks if he can ‘come and find you’ and you accidentally make it out like you’ve just got in yourself, so you have to get out of bed, drink half a bottle of wine, get in the shower, shave everything, put on some Agent Provocateur business, suspender belt, and wait by the door until the buzzer goes . . . And then you open the door to him like you’d almost forgotten he was coming over?”
It’s a perfectly-delivered that time when. Fleabag’s life—shared with a conspiratorial cocktail of a wink with us viewers—is a litany of them. Anotherone-night stand. Anotherlove interest reduced to epithet: Arsehole Guy.
But, over the course of Fleabag’s two, wrenching seasons, we learn something very important aboutFleabag. Not that she’s a bad person—we've clocked that from minute one—but that she doesn’t want to be. And—even more importantly—that she doesn’t have to be, either.
But then Fleabag changes. She deals with the lingering effects of her badness—including the affair with her best friend Boo’s boyfriend that precipitated Boo’s suicide. She has a lot of sex. She steals a highly valuable statue from her future stepmother. She gets into scrapes both hilarious and deeply tragic. And then she falls in love—in the second season’s central storyline—with a distractingly handsome Catholic priest.
It's a story that sounds like—that shouldbe—a that time when: that time Fleabag, who can’t go a day without sex, finds herself drawn to the one person who is never supposed to have any.
Instead, it’s a revelation.
Few shows deal as authentically with faith—with what it means not to merely look beyondthe world but to live authentically, and brokenly, withinit—as does Fleabag. And why should they? According to the latest raft of polling data, 23 percent of Americans don’t belong to any religion. That number goes up to 36 percent among millennials. The numbers in Waller-Bridge’s UK are even starker. On the surface, at least, we live in a thoroughly secular age.
To be a millennial—particularly the reasonably well-educated, upper-middle class, ostensibly-progressive millennial that probably watches Fleabag and reads personal essays on websites like this one—is often to live in a miasma of cultural, social, and rhetorical symbols that all point to the same fundamental truth: I’m a fleabag, a trash person; the world is trash; you’re probably a trash person, too. Oh well. Nothing really matters.
You can find people of my particular sort of badness everywhere, if you know where to look. The self-obsessed writer, scrounging for material in the trash-pile of her life choices, has been a staple of pop culture from Sex and the City’sCarrie Bradshaw to Girls’ Hannah Horvath. For all our claims to originality, we are an entirely ordinary breed.
Central to the appeal of this archetype is the idea that life is, fundamentally, meaningless. The only stories that matter are the ones we tell ourselves. Carrie and Hannah are appealing, despite the egregious nature of their selfishness, because in it we see reflected a basic and nihilistic truth: Everybody’s a trash person, kind of, and that’s somehow okay. We all deserve to be the butt of other people’s jokes. We all deserve to be the plot devices of other people’s stories. We are all nothing but plot devices: in our own and other people’s stories. There are no stories bigger, or more searching, or more grounding, than the ones we tell our friends over drinks.
Oh well, was the implicit punchline of all my jokes. It was the subtext of all of my stories. The eye of every narrative storm was a black hole. Like Fleabag,I sought solace in turning to my audience—real or imagined—and shrugging.
But the truth was, for me and as for Fleabag, I wasn’t just looking for a good story to tell my friends. I was looking for something so much harder to grasp: anarrative.
I didn’t just want a funny story. I wanted a meaningful one. I wanted a story I could tell myself not about a German prince or a heavily-alarmed rooftop, but about who I was, about my place in the world, about my responsibility to myself and to the people I did not know how to love. I wanted a story not just about how to live, but how to live well.
Between the madcap performances and the hastily-planned OKCupid dates, the already-hungover weekends with people who fascinated me but would hurt me, I was searching for something more vital than sexual or romantic fulfillment. I was searching for answers. Ironically—I was in graduate school studying for my third degree in theology—I had none of my own. Like most people I grew up with in New York, I was raised in a ramshackle conflation of anodyne Christmas-and-Easter Episcopalianism, cultural Judaism, and worldly-wise moral relativism. I didn’t know what I believed—about God, about life, about love, about anything. I didn’t know who I was.
I wanted to. God knows, I wanted to.
I wanted to know whether you owed it to your college boyfriend to stay with him when you cared for him, but didn’t want any of the same things; whether you owed it to people to lie in order never to hurt them; whether you owed the world something more than your own happiness. I wanted to know what it meant to be a good person, and whether it was even possible. I wanted to know whether marriage was a trap designed to oppress women into giving up their hard-won liberation or else the most beautiful thing in the world, whether giving up parts of yourself to be vulnerable to another person was anti-feminist or else part and parcel of love.
Other people seemed to have the answers. Maybe, if I just loved them enough, they would share them with me.
I once became obsessed with an antiquarian book dealer fourteen years my senior (when I retold that story, which was often, I usually rounded that up to “twice my age”). He was not a priest, but he was soft-spoken, and he was Episcopalian, and when I stalked him on Facebook I could see photographs of him in the white vestments of a Sunday lay server, and he’d been treated quite badly by his ex-wife in his divorce, and for all these inchoate reasons I became convinced that he was Good—really, truly, capital-G Good.
Over a series of months, I tried to convince him—over his increasingly befuddled objections—to date me. His insistence that he was too old, too depressed, too broken, too mired in student debt, to ever be able to date anyone, seemed to me like glorious self-sacrifice. He feared hurting me; I ached to be hurt.
We would be penniless, he warned me, after one of the overnight visits he would initiate and then regret. I liked that part—I could support him. He was often in physical pain—I could work with that. I could read to him, I thought, like John Milton’s daughters were supposed to have done with him (he was not blind, although he did wear glasses). He would be too depressed to socialize. I could stay in with him, I thought. I could close the shutters. We could go to church (I did not go to church). We could live a Good Life. My commitment to his unhappiness, at least, would be a commitment to something.
In the end, he texted me to say that he’d gotten serious with someone else.
I started going to church.
In the second season of Fleabag, our titular Fleabag starts out swearing off the things she’s convinced have led her down the path to perdition: booze, laziness, sex. But when she meets the handsome Priest who’s charged to officiate at her father and godmother’s wedding, she finds herself falling for him. Or is she falling for, well, Him? The narrative is ambiguous. Fleabag pines for the Priest, sure, but she also starts reading the Bible in the bath. She follows him to Sunday services and church picnics—and then finds herself going into the pews, alone, to pray. She’s as fascinated with the Priest’s collar—with the idea that he has chosen a “way to live”—as she is with what’s under it.
Finally, in a climactic monologue in the confessional, she tells the Priest everything.
“I want someone to tell me what to wear every morning,” she admits. “I want someone to tell me what to eat. What to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what band to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what to not joke about. I want someone to tell me what to believe in.”
Then the Priest kisses Fleabag, right there in the confessional. At first, it seems like Fleabag is gearing up to celebrate this as a feat of sexual liberation—glossing over the profoundly unethical way a spiritual leader is taking advantage of a lost parishioner at her most vulnerable moment. Then, a painting in the church falls—echoing a season-long motif that God is behind the movement of physical objects (“I love it when he does that,” the Priest says earlier, when another painting falls from the wall)—and the two separate.
The scene is heart-stoppingly, breath-catchingly erotic. Not just because of the admittedly heated tension between Fleabag and the Priest. But because Fleabag gets something that Renaissance artists and Baroque sculptors and Medieval mystic nuns have known for centuries: Sometimes the hunger for God, the hunger for a satisfying conclusion to our stories, and the hunger for the consummation of sex are indistinguishable from one another. We are, by nature, lonely; we are, by nature, lost and uncertain (in Christian terms: sinful), and we hunger with everything we have for a benediction from that loneliness. Erotic love—as so much of mine always was—is as much about that loneliness as it is anything else.
Erotic love—as so much of mine always was—is as much about that loneliness as it is anything else.
Is there a God, in Fleabag’s universe at least? The show is full of suggestions that Fleabag is suffused, if not with the presence of the Catholic God, then at least the possibility of a wider spiritual truth that transcends the shabby facts of Fleabag’s life. Paintings falling off walls at importune times. An inexplicable fox stalking the priest throughout the season. Two people sharing a metaphysical connection that opens them up to the possibility of redemption.
Because the Priest, for all his severe flaws, sees Fleabag. He notices that Fleabag is turning away from her real life, from intimacy and vulnerability, towards the camera that signifies her refusal to connect. He callsher on it. He asks her, “Where did you go?” He refuses to be just another character in her story. He recognizes her fourth-wall asides for what they truly are—for what mine were—a refusal to be vulnerable, to be in the world, to be subject to what it means to be alive, with all the pain and the confusion and the brokenness that entails.
It’s what the postmodern philosopher-theologian Martin Heiddegger calls Dasein, being-in-the-world. In calling Fleabag away from us, back to the “world” of the show, the Priest is reminding her of the very thing I hated most about my period of doubt: We cannot play God. We cannot escape the world. We cannot have all the answers. All we can do is live within what we have—and, despite this insufficiency, love.
For that is the decision Fleabag makes. After a one-night stand with Fleabag, the Priest chooses God—a decision the show treats with respect and sensitivity. And Fleabag responds not with jokes, nor with defensiveness, nor by turning to the camera and rolling her eyes with us at how funny this latest tragedy is, but by feeling—really feeling, for the first time in the show—what it means to be-in-the-world when you don’t know how to be at all.
“I fucking love you,” she says.
It’s a small moment. But it’s the moment the show has been building up to: the choice of one woman, however flawed, however broken, however bereft of answers, to love without expecting anything in return. Because that—that—is the right thing to do.
I did not have one single road-to-Damascus moment. Sudden conversions, like St. Paul’s, are more common in theory than in practice. In my own life, I became a worse and worse person until, one day, I realized, I did not want to be a bad person anymore. I went to therapy and tried to be Good and screwed it up, a few more times, and tried in vain to wed The Answers to my romantic relationships—I wrote a letter to the Antiquarian Book Dealer (he never responded)—and found that that didn’t work, either.
I went to church, and the first time I went I didn’t feel much of anything like enlightenment. But I kept searching, and kept trying, and I started caring more about being a good person than having an interesting story to tell, and although I am not sure I am not a good person, now, somewhere along the way I became a Christian. I returned to my childhood Episcopal Church. I said the creed. I got Confirmed. I did it not because I needed someone to tell me “what to like,” but because at some point I had to decide who I was, and what I believed in, and I realized I believed in this. I had to be-in-the-world in some way, and this was mine.
I do not know if Fleabagexperienced a road-to-Damascus moment, either. Her story isn’t necessarily a Christian one—nor does it need to be. But it is a story about doubt and faith. It’s a story about being afraid to be all-inin a world that seems beyond you, and about learning to embrace that presence alone, however much you might yearn for another person to give you the cheat codes. It’s a story about learning to be, if not yet a good person, then nevertheless a better person than you were yesterday.
Fleabag ends that episode—and the show—by leaving us behind. With one last wink, and one final smile, she heads down the street, away from the motionless camera, into a life we cannot follow her into. She’s decided to stop being the narrator of her story, and start existing fully in it. She doesn’t yet know what to eat, or like, or hate, or wear. But she knows that, before she does anything of those things, yet, she has to learn how to live.