Amazon's Fleabag is a show about desire. Licit, illicit, satisfied, disappointing, unquenchable—all these name a distinct aspect of the human longing that pulls the series throughout its two seasons. Whatever its many accolades—and they are many, with a recent Golden Globe and with more prizes pending—Fleabag’s chief virtue, to my mind, consists in its unveiling of the depths of desire in its characters, and especially the titular one. I do not mean just sexual desire—although, as will become clear, there is no desire that is “just sexual” in Fleabag’s world. More fundamental than the sex that takes up so much of the show’s thematic space is the longing for love undergirding it, as well as that most abyssal of longings: for transcendence, for God. God, it is true, never makes an explicit appearance in this show. Yet, God can be felt there even if only from below, in the restless rumbling of desire; otherwise “God” is known most regularly as an object of speculation serving to exacerbate the inner conflicts of Fleabag’s lost souls.
The search for love, Fleabag suggests, is the search for God. That love—true, vulnerable, self-exposing and met with radical acceptance—proves nigh impossible to achieve, particularity for the protagonist situated in the matrix of her disturbed family relations. The erotic, religious, and familial form the vexed knot she attempts to untangle throughout the course of the show, a point no better illustrated than when the priest character suggests Fleabag likes to call him “Father” because it turns her on. But that is to get ahead of ourselves. For now, suffice it to say that in Fleabag, as in life, to find yourself reflected in a parent’s gaze is often the precondition for discovering that you can be held, and beheld, in the eyes of a lover. Even more so is it required in order to learn to hold oneself and thereby to orient desire’s compass toward its first and last home, a love more incomprehensible than even the profoundest of human intimacies.
These peculiarities of the show make it profitable to employ lenses both psychoanalytic and theological to analyze the motifs, symbols, and dialogue constellating desire in Fleabag.
“You’re not being naughty anymore”
Both seasons of Fleabag are extraordinary, but one episode kept calling me back. It is not the smashing finale of season one, which manages to be simultaneously funny, punishing, and graceful. Nor is it the explosive fourth episode of season 2, with its much-remarked confessional scene. I instead have in mind the first episode of season 2, the family dinner, for it is here that the sadness at the heart of Fleabag articulates itself by turns subtle and pronounced.
The episode’s pacing leaves scarce time for catching your breath, what with the camera hopping from person to person around the dinner table. The center of attention, as usual, is Fleabag and her private dialogue with us, the viewers. The dramatic tension of the episode bubbles up from the relationship-redefining events of the Season 1 finale and the audience’s curiosity about the fallout from that fiasco. The upcoming marriage between Fleabag’s Dad and the deliciously hateful Godmother may structure the meal’s conversation, but what we want to know is what has become of Fleabag’s life. After we learn that things have actually improved for her in the months since we last saw her, we must know why and how.
A new diet and exercise regime aside, the most important change Fleabag confesses to us is her unexpected renunciation of sex. If much of the first season concerned Fleabag’s sexual (mis)adventures, this season promises something different, namely what every instance of fasting delivers: a clearer view of the often hidden engines driving our carnal habits and their occasional frenzies. We already have some idea of what moves Fleabag—after all, we spent the first season uncovering it, in the aftermath of her best friend Boo’s accidental death and in the revelation that it was Fleabag’s sexual addiction that set the tragedy in motion. But Fleabag’s moment of weakness with Boo’s lover was itself a symptom of the deeper problem this episode discloses in one startling interaction.
To contextualize this moment, let us recall a few important details from Season 2. It is worth noting that Fleabag’s newfound sexual restraint narratively prepares her for encountering the celibacy of Priest, the man who will occupy her attention, and desire, for the rest of the season. Celibacy, however, is “said in many ways,” with no two renunciations completely identical in their cause and intention. The season-long process of discerning the harmony and dissonance between the sexual abstentions of Fleabag and Priest proves, paradoxically, to be just what makes their relationship so sexually tense. Each is—on the surface—quite sure of what he or she ultimately desires, yet the progression of their relationship raises unsettling questions about the reliability of their self-knowledge in this arena. That such subversion of self-assurance will be a major theme of the season is made most clear in one comical but poignant exchange between Fleabag and her therapist in Season 2, Episode 2. When Fleabag explains that she has given up sex because it is “never the right person,” her therapist asks whether Fleabag’s newfound celibacy might be erotically oriented towards a particular person nonetheless. It is a Catholic priest, in fact, that Fleabag is “not having sex with.” But is she sure that it is the priest she desires? “Do you really want to fuck the priest, or do you want to fuck God?” the therapist asks. The “right person,” it seems, proves difficult to name, and the revelation that her desire might possibly possess a source and object transcending the carnally immediate visibly shocks our heroine.
Which brings me to that shattering scene from Season 2, Episode 1. Midway through the frenetic dinner celebrating the engagement of Fleabag’s father to Godmother, our protagonist leaves for her second smoke break. The first such break earlier in the episode saw Fleabag alone, against the brick wall, with a spotlight marking the space for disclosures as interlocutors emerge from the enveloping darkness. Priest arrived first, followed later by Dad in the second break—already suggesting the overlap between these two fathers. Viewers who remember the clash between Fleabag and her Dad in the Season 1 finale expect the interaction to be tense, and so it is. But when her father takes a stab at an apology for how he has treated her, a surprised observation surfaces instead: “I just want to check that you . . . that you and I are . . . well, you’re being very . . . well you’re not being naughty.” A chuckle and a nod of the head express Fleabag’s agreement with her father’s assessment. But it is when Dad asks why she is not being naughty that we receive this cryptic, dense, and utterly resigned pearl from Fleabag’s lips: “Because it doesn’t matter.”
Fleabag may elsewhere consciously describe her sexual addiction as a response to the gnawing void in her heart, but that void is not formless. Its shape is fatherhood, and it is this presence, which Fleabag seeks constantly, desperately, in her “naughty” sexual liaisons and public outbursts. The first extended glimpse of her paternal abandonment we get comes in Season 1, Episode 1, when Fleabag arrives at her father’s doorstep, drunk, at 2:00 a.m. in order to confess to him her bottomless sense of worthlessness. A man profoundly distant from his own pain, Dad offers no absolution or solace; he can reply only with a cruel joke comparing Fleabag’s reckless behavior to her mother’s. When he immediately calls Fleabag a cab and asks her not to go upstairs, in her own childhood home, we learn that his preferred method for dealing with his daughter—who reminds him the wife whose loss he cannot bear—is to eliminate her from view and to occupy himself with a sexual distraction of his own in the form of “Godmother.” If most of the women in Fleabag’s life haunt her by their absence (her dead best friend “Boo,” her mother), the men make themselves their presence felt by ignoring her.
That is why Fleabag’s answer, “It doesn’t matter,” lands with such force. That is why Dad soon leaves, departing into the darkness after that one, painful instant when he recognizes himself as the source and end of his daughter’s “naughtiness.” But her naughtiness never achieved its desired effect: Dad still will not speak of Mom to his children, and he will marry their cruel godmother despite the latter’s casual cruelty towards his daughters. None of Fleabag’s acting out mattered—so she quit.
What makes this scene more than a well-written and delicately acted instance of textbook Freudianism is what follows it in the rest of the season. In Priest, Fleabag will at last find the father she has been looking for. He will give her that unfocused attention she desires, he will pursue her and seek to know her in a way no man has before. He will listen to, and accept, her confession. And when their relationship collapses, Fleabag—and we the viewers—are left with the therapist’s question which reverberates backwards and forwards throughout the entire series: can you correctly name your desire? Do you know where to put it, where it goes, where it naturally leads? Earthly fathers point to the father above (Eph. 3:15); grace builds on nature, they say. But that presumes a nature intact for the building. One imagines that if her earthly father had given her the love she deserved, Fleabag would have had an easier time answering desire’s question and passing over its beguiling simulacra.
“I thought you were a fox!”
Priest is afraid of foxes. They are always after him, he says. And this is no illusion: a fox’s appearance is implied off-screen at the end of Season 2, Episode 3, and we actually see one in the Season 2 finale, after the Priest and Fleabag split for good. So what is the deal with the fox? We get a clue in the first instance where foxes are mentioned, in the garden outside the rectory where Priest and Fleabag have their initial nighttime and, arguably, romantic encounter. Romance, gardens, and foxes—all these hearken to one memorable passage in the Song of Songs: “Catch us the little foxes that destroy the vines; for our vineyard hath flourished” (2:15).
In this biblical romance between the soul and God, the threat of ruined bliss skulks in the form of the sneaking fox. And so it is fitting that the theme of foxes arises in conversation precisely after Priest tells Fleabag that although she as an atheist friend is “good for him,” he has “never felt closer to God.” Her response—a belly-laughed “Fuck you!”—coincides with Priest flying off the bench to begin scouting the area for foxes. “Foxes have been after me for years!” he explains. They track him down not only in the secular spaces of moving trains but even in the still, sacred seclusion of the monastery. And when he recounts that at the monastery a fox’s stare spoke to him in the language of the piercing eye, “We’re watching you, we’re having you,” Fleabag replies by denominating the only safe haven Priest could apparently find: “Lucky God got there first . . . you could be a fox-boy by now.” The pattern being played out should at this point be clear, but it is repeated again within seconds, when Fleabag utters the word “celibacy” and Priest instantaneously jumps up again, panicking at a rustle of the bushes nearby. Whatever else it might signify, “fox” means at least “sex.” Priest claims he does not know what the foxes want from him, but this obsessive fear makes us wonder whether it is not he who might want something with them.
Celibacy is simpler than sex: that is Priest’s answer to Fleabag’s incredulity at the sacrifice the priestly life demands. Multiple sexual encounters have taught him that physical intimacy does not ultimately fulfill what it promises—and his encounters have indeed been many. “What if you meet someone you love?” Fleabag asks. To this Priest can only answer that he and Fleabag will not have sex, while adding that Fleabag’s desire for it with him is ultimately confused and misguided. This unwitting echo of the therapist’s words spoken earlier in the episode, that Fleabag’s genuine desire might not be for the priest at all, suggests some level of wisdom in Priest. But this would be to mistake him. For as we learn in the course of the season, Priest is a man lamentably untutored in his own desires, and so his gnomic utterances about the desires of others we should receive with less assurance than the therapist’s. But even if he is correct in his assessment of Fleabag, perhaps he too is mistaken in thinking he does not want sex but only friendship from Fleabag.
In any case, if you are reading this, you probably already know how the story unfolds. The garden is indeed infiltrated, though the gate was unlocked from the inside more than once. The vineyards of Priest’s privileged sanctuary with God are spoiled—but he wants them to be. If he did not, he would not have invested so much time cultivating intimacy with Fleabag, with their late-night encounters and extended day outings. Yet, curiously, even after they have sexually consummated their relationship, Priest remains on alert for foxy attacks: when rehearsing his homily for Dad and Godmother’s wedding (episode 6), he lurches in surprise when Fleabag suddenly appears within the—rather verdantly—fenced enclosure where Priest had retired to practice his speech. “I thought you were a fox!” he exclaims. The anxiety the “fox” represents cannot be reduced merely to sex, it seems. Confusion once again displaces the clarity this private, priestly get-away had afforded him. In this their penultimate encounter, Priest displays pained bewilderment at his heart’s elation after stealing a kiss from his lover. Fleabag asks, in a joking but obviously troubled tone, “Is it God or is it me?” Later, in their break-up, she will name the answer herself: “It’s God, isn’t it?”
Likely not. At least, we have little reason to think so given Priest’s behavior and his juvenile judgment that celibacy is “a lot less complicated” than a romantic relationship. If Fleabag’s temporary celibacy in Season 2 was the result of wisdom gained, Priest’s bears all the marks of escapist fantasy. This suggests to me that the feeling Priest could not name after his furtive, final kiss with Fleabag was perhaps the thrill of transgression, of the break-in, of being “forced” out of his sanctum by the persistent advances of “foxes” with their “pact” to get him. What Priest returns to, again and again, is precisely the torture, the confusion, the guilt. He can toast with Fleabag to “peace, and those who get in the way of it” because that interference is exactly what he finds most tantalizing: the intimacy of coming right up to the line but never crossing it. As we have seen, the line is not sex. Rather, the real boundary is the emotional complication of a sexually committed relationship, of the intimacy born of mutuality and equality of vulnerability—so different than the intimacy found inside the surveying confessional and the power differential inherent to it. Priest needs that distance to remain intact; he needs Fleabag to play her role as “lost, atheist” so he can play his. As he tells her when she owns up to visiting the church at night in order to pray, prayer is “his thing,” not hers. And God forbid that Fleabag actually become Catholic. What Priest needs is someone who “challenges him,” someone outside the fold for whom he can play God in this most erotic of games.
Not that Priest consciously knows any of this. B.D. McClay notes in her incisive essay, “A Girl in Need of a Tourniquet” that Priest is likely to continue his pattern of reluctant and ineluctably predatory relationships with emotionally vulnerable women. Fleabag was probably not his first, and she will hardly be the last, if the actual fox of the series finale—already chasing after the priest once more—is any indication. This is because “God” cannot serve as a check on Priest’s desire, since it is precisely the idea of “God” together with that of the “forbidden” that keep desire’s dynamic in motion for him. And this dynamic is the conflict between an idealized self—celibate, beyond the sexual confusions and demands of youth, and now a spiritual authority to those around him—with the real self which breaks in, like the foxes, the moment he lets his guard down. That self longs for intimacy but finds it impossible, on some level, to survive it. This is evidenced in his past myriad sexual partners and his own confession that, if he had sex with Fleabag, he would fall in love with her and his life would be “fucked.” But—and what is most dangerous for the religious neurotic—Priest has ready to hand quite plausible theological explanations (“God is calling me to something higher,” “I’ve discovered what sexual desire is really about: God, and so I am done with it”) in order to keep self-deception afloat in this arena.
Priest is pitiable. If he is a villain (and he is), this is not maliciously so; as Herbert Fingarette writes in his classic text, Self-Deception, serious projects in self-deception are pursued only by those who long for integrity of spirit but discover in themselves, to their horror, significant contrary inclinations. This is not to deny the real damage Priest has done, both to the sanctity of sacraments of which he is a custodian as well as to the flock entrusted to him. It is only to say that he appears to be in the grip of a repetition compulsion—the unconscious repeating of a past event or trauma of which he is not fully aware. Its origins are never revealed to us, but until he uncovers its source and recognizes the deeper fears and desires motivating his recurrent and illicit romantic dramas, he will go on inviting foxes to spoil his vineyard. Theological rhapsodies on the beauty of celibacy and the deeper meaning of sex will not resolve the problem; neither will confession or penance alone.
A more critical interrogation of his desire is what is needed. Though Priest continually seeks to be the positive influence in Fleabag’s life, she has one up on him where it counts, in the realm of desire, for she at least can be honest about what she wants. The ultimate object of her desire might remain obscure to her, as her therapist suggests. But this is a different sort of confusion than Priest’s, and one perhaps more easily remedied.
In the bevy of colorful characters populating Fleabag’s fictional world, it is easy to overlook Claire, Fleabag’s more restrained and responsible sister. That is, unless you are Jake, her creepy stepson who constantly obsesses over her and whose major recurring line is the somehow never-not-funny “Where’s Claire?” For all his creepiness, however, Jake can see Claire in a way few others in her life can. He perceives, in particular, her distress and anguish occasioned by the collapse of her marriage and by the cruelty of her husband. The depth of his insight becomes clear in Episode 2 of Season 2, when he discreetly asks Fleabag to incite Claire to leave his father, Martin. Martin too, like the show itself, treats Jake like a joke, especially with respect to the boy’s choice to play the bassoon, a pastime that Martin considers an obvious “cry for help.” But the placement of this quip from Martin—in the final episode of Season 2, minutes before Jake’s bassoon recital for the wedding at the climax of the season—encourages us to listen more carefully to the message of Jake’s last song (it is called, of course, “Where’s Claire?”) Significantly, it is performed right before Claire leaves Martin for good, quite literally departing the wedding to go find her new love, a Finnish man with the curious name of “Klare.”
Fleabag and her Priest are undeniably the A-plot of Season 2, but Claire’s equally interesting story, her season-long attempt to answer the question “Where’s Claire?,” functions as narrative double for Priest’s own question: whether his heart is more truly with God or with Fleabag. Consider, for example, that both their “searches” conclude at the same moment, as it is Priest’s wedding homily on love (spoken, in fact, about his felt love for God and not Fleabag) that occasions Claire’s final decision to pursue Klare before his plane departs for Finland. But there is another link between the two. The richness of Fleabag’s symbolism has already been intimated with our discussion of Priest’s relationship with foxes, but this season also dwells on the symbolic power of clothing and appearance. It is not simply a matter of what any particular clothing or hairstyle might symbolize on its surface; more significant are the relational ramifications of these choices, and it is here that the doubling of Priest and Claire is most visible.
The symbol comes into its own with Claire’s radical French “pencil” haircut, first seen in Episode 5 of Season 2. What Claire initially and mournfully presents as the willful caprice of her hairstylist Anthony is soon revealed to be exactly the haircut Claire had asked for. So why does she protest it so vehemently? We never get a straight answer, but Anthony’s final parting shot at Claire and her sister gives some idea of what Claire was attempting in her avant-garde cut: “If you want to change your life, change your life. It’s not gonna happen in here.” The haircut represents, then, what Claire wants but what she cannot admit to herself. It is the external that reflects the internal decision she has made to leave her husband. Note that while she vacillates on whether to actually execute the decision, her new haircut is covered up. But when at the wedding she actually, physically leaves her husband, she simultaneously removes her faux extensions and assumes the pencil cut in pride. At this moment we are reminded of the words of other Klare who, upon encountering the new haircut, expressed genuine appreciation for it. In finding Klare and his acceptance, Claire has at last found herself.
The situation is somewhat different for Priest. Even more than Claire, it is he who is most fixated on physical appearances in Fleabag. The man is simply obsessed with his dresses. In the opening moments of Episode 4, when Priest and Fleabag are out on one of their unacknowledged dates, it is at a clergy apparel store that we find them, with Fleabag giving the “yea” or “nay” to resolve Priest’s sartorial indecisions. Later in the episode, he shows to her the first chasuble he ever purchased (proper plum, from Italy), a full two years before his ordination, just because he found it so beautiful. “Sometimes I worry I’m only in it for the outfits,” he confesses. It is unclear whether this is meant to be a joke.
If Claire’s changed externals indicate an inward decision in process of full self-articulation, Priest’s vestiary vices point in the opposite direction: he dresses enthusiastically in clerical garb in order to distract from his ambivalence about clerical celibacy. Fleabag pronounces this judgment on Priest early on, when she tells her therapist that the man she sexually craves is already taken, in a “bad relationship” where one person (God) tells the other (Priest) what to wear. This link—between clothing and power over another’s life—is heard once again in the famed confessional scene. Here Fleabag divulges her desire to be told what to wear, to be told what to do in every aspect of her life; only in this way can she be liberated from the debilitating pressure of radical freedom provoked by life’s meaningless in the teeth of an inevitable death. We understand her: faced with such a hopeless situation, the least someone could do is tell us how to dress. No wonder, then, that when the priest commands Fleabag to kneel, she obeys.
Fleabag’s confession, however, should not too quickly be taken at face value. Her problem, as we noted above, is confusing the object of her desire, not ignorance or repression of desire itself. Of all the characters in the show, Fleabag, at least by Season 2, is clear with herself about what she wants. Not Claire, and certainly not Priest, know what just what it is they desire until the end of this season (and likely not even then, in Priest’s case). But Fleabag does. Priest in fact recognizes this when, pointing at his clerical collar, he tells Fleabag: “If you really wanted to be told what to do, you’d be wearing one of these” (Episode 5). Is it merely coincidental that at that very moment Fleabag sports nothing beneath her coat besides her intimate wear? Unlike Priest, with his layers of clerical obfuscation, she can exist in her nakedness, the nakedness of desire. Fleabag may be existentially lost, but it is such as these who enter into the Kingdom before the religiously assured and self-deceived.
Conclusion: Exposing Desire
We started with the premise that Fleabag is a show about desire; it is this theme that draws together the panels of this textual triptych into one unified picture. This reflection on the series is obviously not intended as a blanket approval of every individual desire we experience, especially in the sexual realm. Nor is it a critique of clerical celibacy in se. Rather, it is an invitation to consider, with the aid of this series, how honest we can be with ourselves about those desires, as well as the consequences of ignoring them or dressing them up in handy theological maxims. Fleabag, in fact, is rather a show about avoiding desire—misunderstanding it, masking it, manipulating it. The characters who find some semblance of peace by the end are those who can acknowledge their desire, interrogate it, and act in accordance with what they learn of themselves. This requires the difficult work of confession—to loved ones, but perhaps with even more difficulty, to oneself. It demands, most fundamentally, exposure. For it is only to the real self that God gives grace (Luke 5:31).
This brings me to the final symbol we will discuss here, one particular to Fleabag herself. It was a flash of brilliance in the series finale when the feminine golden bust, cast by Godmother and serving as a running gag throughout Fleabag’s two seasons, was revealed to be modeled on none other than Fleabag’s own mother. Fleabag understood her theft of the statue simply as a means to spite the wicked godmother whom her father had thrust upon her. But in this final disclosure we learn that Fleabag’s persistent attraction to the object has been motivated by something else beneath the threshold of consciousness. In this naked bust of a woman’s torso we see reflected Fleabag’s own emotional nakedness, the source of much of her relational difficulties as well as the golden core of what makes her character so beloved by many. As her father tells Fleabag in their final conversation, “I love you, but I’m not sure I like all the time.” We the audience feel the same way. But it is precisely those bits which make Fleabag difficult that her father credit to her mother, whose absence, we now learn, Fleabag has unknowingly carried with her—quite literally—in the weight of that statuette.
The last time we see this golden effigy is at the very end of the series, after Fleabag has bared her heart to Priest and professed her love. It is the only time in the show that she says those words to a man with whom she has been physically intimate, and she hallows the utterance, not allowing Priest to spoil it by a reflexive and perhaps guilt-ridden reciprocal response. What is more, this declaration narratively reverses Fleabag’s own initial scoffing at her therapist’s question of whether she loved the man she “merely” sexually desired. Fleabag can now be honest about her love, even in her sorrow over losing it. And so when Fleabag reveals to the audience that the statue in still in her possession after this denouement (stolen by her, for the third time), we know that, though she still carries the symbol with her, she no longer does so unconsciously. So integrated is she now with her soul’s nakedness, in fact, that she can even bid us, the audience, farewell, no longer needing us as a surrogate for that maternal presence, ever watchful and approving, always laughing and offering assurances that she is not alone. Now Fleabag knows, feels that presence within as the best her mother had left behind. With the episode ending, Fleabag, fully-clothed, walks away. It is the most naked we have seen her.
 “Fuck you, calling me Father, like it doesn’t turn you on just to say it!” Season 2, Episode 4.
 Season 2, Episode 4. This episode stands out in contemporary television history for being one of the few to allude to Origen of Alexandria and the purported extreme measures he himself took to avoid sexual temptation.
. “The particular features of the [idealized] image vary and are determined by the structure of the personality: beauty may be held to be outstanding, or power, intelligence, genius, saintliness, honesty, or what you will. Precisely to the extent that the image is unrealistic, it tends to make the person arrogant, in the original meaning of the word; for arrogance, though used synonymously with superciliousness, means to arrogate to oneself qualities that one does not have, or that one has potentially but not factually.” Karen Horney, Our Inner Conflicts (New York: Norton, 1992) 96-97.
 “Having paid due attention to the element of spiritual cowardice and inner warfare in the movement into self-deception, we must also appreciate that this cowardice and this warfare presuppose a person with a certain integrity. Not infrequently what is threatened is some aspect of integrity rooted in moral concern. The less integrity, the less is there motive to enter into self-deception. The greater the integrity of the person and the more powerful the contrary individual inclinations, the greater is the temptation to self-deception (the nearer to saintliness, the more a powerful personality suffers)” Self-Deception (New York: Routledge, 1969) 139-140.
 Freud’s classic and original formulation in “Remembering Repeating, and Working-Through.” is: “We may say that the patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, but acts it out. He reproduces it not as a memory but as an action; he repeats it, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating it. For instance, the patient does not say that he remembers that he used to be defiant and critical towards his parents’ authority; instead, he behaves in that way towards the doctor.”
 In episode 5, he begins to tell Fleabag some story from his childhood, connected to his refusal of a relationship with her, but this is soon interrupted.
 It makes great sense that Fleabag, who has longed for some imposition of “law” from her father, largely in the form of censure—is drawn to the priestly-father who takes great pleasure in telling her what to do.