I Don’t Know What To Do With All This Love – A Fleabag Reflection

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag is one of those shows where I wonder how I lived without it.  My first time through the series (I watch it often), I watched all of Season One in a day and Season Two the following day.  My pause between them was only to allow myself time to try and process all the feelings the first season left me with.  The show is hysterical while also being one of the most moving shows I’ve ever seen.  It’s wildly intelligent and the emotional journey it takes you on is unforgettable.  Returning to this was one of the first things I did when quarantine hit – it’s a thoughtful comfort show, making me laugh, think, and feel in equally strong waves.  As I watched it, I realized I’d never written about my love for this series, something I want to do now with this reflection on a remarkable juxtaposition done in the fourth episode of the second season.

Note, there will obviously be spoilers (but not beyond S2,E4).  I’ll be as general as I can be with the plot but if you haven’t seen this show maybe watch it now?  I don’t wanna be bossy but it’s brilliant.  Every.  Single.  Moment.

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Fleabag Season Two advert / Photo Credit – Amazon.com

Written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag is a two season show based on Waller-Bridge’s one-woman play which she debuted in 2013.  The show originally aired on the BBC and streams on Amazon Prime (it alone is worth the price of Prime) with the first season dropping in 2016 and the second in 2019, to great critical acclaim.  The first season, if I had to boil all it’s brilliant, hilarious, emotionally-aware complexity down to a single line, is an exploration of human connection.  What begins as an unabashed journey through the titular (and otherwise unnamed) Fleabag’s sex life, reveals itself to be the complex story of a woman deeply struggling with her sense of self.  The narrative uses sex, the most intimate of human connections, as the vehicle to examine the effects both the healthy and unhealthy connections in our life have on us.

Season Two begins with Fleabag trying to “be better.”  She is trying to form stronger, healthier relationships with the people around her.  In the first episode she, her sister Claire (Sian Clifford), and Claire’s husband Martin (Brett Gelman) are out to dinner with their father (just called “Dad” (Bill Paterson)) and his fiancée (called “Godmother” (Olivia Coleman) as she is their godmother…who started dating their dad after their mom died).  At dinner, Dad and Godmother introduce the girls to the Priest (Andrew Scott) who will be marrying them.

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The fam at dinner. / Photo Credit – Fleabag

There is an immediate connection between Fleabag and the Priest (dubbed “the Hot Priest” unanimously and immediately by just about everyone on the internet) and one of the central story points of the second season is their growing relationship, as both Fleabag and the Priest try to figure out what it means for them.  As Catholic priests are celibate, it makes things more than a little complicated.

What I love about this episode in particular is how it presents the struggle of love with no outlet by juxtaposing Fleabag’s ever-growing sexual attraction and the sincere love she feels for the Priest with the loss of her mother years before.  This particular episode pivots on those two plot points, flashing back and forth from their mother’s funeral to the present through the entire episode.  The way Phoebe Waller-Bridge weaves these two experiences together is poetic, poignant, and honest.  That, I think, is what continually strikes me about this show – its honesty.  Few works have ever captured the human experience in such stark, unapologetic honesty as Fleabag.

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The (Hot) Priest and Fleabag meet. / Photo Credit – Fleabag

Alongside the show’s particular brand of boundary-less humor, there’s a remarkably tender moment in this episode where Fleabag is talking with her best friend Boo (Jenny Rainsford) after her mother’s funeral service.  Through her tears she tells Boo:

Fleabag – “I don’t know what to do with it.”

Boo – “With what?”

Fleabag – “With all the love I have for her.  I don’t know where to…put it, now.”

Boo – “I’ll take it.”

Fleabag – [laughs]

Boo – “No, I’m serious.  It sounds lovely.  I’ll have it.  You have to give it to me.”

Flebag – [laughing and crying] “Okay.”

Boo – “It’s gotta go somewhere.”

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Fleabag and Boo at the funeral / Photo Credit – Fleabag

The first time I saw it, I cried at both the honest pain and beauty in this scene.  I still get teary-eyed on rewatches.  I’d never really considered grief in this way before.  When we lose someone we love it does raise this question.  We don’t stop loving them when they die yet they aren’t there for us to love anymore.  So what do we do with all the love we still feel for them?  Boo, in an act which makes her friend laugh while simultaneously assuring her she’ll always be there, offers to take it.  But the question remains.  Perhaps there are few more unique kinds of pain than a love we have no outlet for, a love that defines us yet remains – at least in part – trapped within out heart.

What do we do with all the love we feel?  Because it’s gotta go somewhere.

After the above exchange takes place, the narrative flashes forward again.  Fleabag is sitting in a pew in the darkened church.  She knows the Priest goes to bed early, always by 9:00pm, so at 9:45 she’s not there hoping to run into him.  She’s looking for something else.  Slowly, tentatively, she kneels down.  She is a devout atheist yet, as she finds herself stranded in a love she can’t act on, she turns to prayer.  I love this moment.  She doesn’t believe in God yet, when she has nowhere else to turn, she still turns to the God she doesn’t believe in.  It underscores both the depth of her frustrated hopelessness as well as the draw to something more we often feel when we are at our lowest points.  While obviously different than the love for her mother, her love for the Priest also has no outlet.  This love too defines her, yet remains trapped within her heart.

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Photo Credit – Fleabag

There is no doubt it’s a shared love.  We see this clearly as the season unfolds.  We see the sparks between them.  We see their clever, comfortable banter.  We see them enjoying – and actively seeking out – time together.  We see the light in their eyes when they look at each other.  But what I find most telling is how far outside of their respective comfort zones they are willing to go with one another.  Fleabag, again a devout atheist, will go to Mass to listen to him preach, read the Bible he offers her, help him shop for vestments, attend a Quaker Prayer meeting with him, work the church picnic, and actively build a relationship without sex, something Season One makes clear is not her traditional m.o.  For the Priest we see the same.  All of the flirting and the growing closeness he has with her is outside his comfort zone.  He was ordained a priest in the Catholic Church.  This means, barring him leaving the priesthood (which is no small task), the idea of romantic love, sex, and marriage are forever closed to him.  Just as Fleabag enters a world she’s unfamiliar with, he allows himself to enter a world he has vowed to leave behind.

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The Priest and Fleabag debate the afterlife as they stroll through London. / Photo Credit – Fleabag

This is significant.  In all those moments, in stepping outside of their mutual comfort zones, they are making themselves vulnerable.  In so doing, it illustrates their love and the strength of their relationship.  Loving, trusting, and secure relationships are places of safety.  As such, they are places with great potential for growth.  We only grow through discomfort.  This makes perfect sense if you think about it.  If everything’s fine in life, why would we change anything?  But when we’re uncomfortable we seek to change that and that opens the door to the potential for growth, based on how we change.  With someone we are comfortable being uncomfortable around, those relationships then hold the potential for great growth.  We can be vulnerable there.  To be willing to go so far outside of their respective comfort zones with the other shows how safe they feel with them, how much they trust the other.  From within the safety of their relationship, both Fleabag and the Priest can challenge the other and in those challenges they find the chance to grow.  They have a beautiful, intimate, healthy relationship…but their love remains a love they can’t fully act on.

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Fleabag stepping outside of her comfort zone. / Photo Credit – Fleabag

As she begins to pray she’s disturbed by a sudden explosion of rap music coming from the sacristy.  Going to investigate, she finds the Priest.  Surprisingly, he’s awake.  He’s also kinda drunk and is trying to reach a bottle of whisky he keeps hidden in the sacristy.  Just as Fleabag’s weighed down by her feelings for the Priest, so too is he trapped between his vocation and his growing love for her.  He tells her about a saint – Origen – who castrated himself to stop the sort of feelings/thoughts that would lead him away from a life devoted solely to God and scripture.  (Sidebar…yikes.  I use Origen as an example for my students to show you can overcommit to your studies.)  Castration isn’t the sort of thing one casually muses on.  So clearly, he feels as trapped as she does in his own way.

They begin a conversation, jokey at first but slowly the walls drop.  He tries to get her to drop her highest walls, to answer deep questions about herself, to share with him the real pain she carries.  Their conversation in the sacristy leads to the confessional, as the Priest urges Fleabag to fully open up and share all that’s weighing on her heart.  As someone who’s spent his life studying and teaching theology, I can say it’s rare you get a priest character depicted with any sort of real depth.  Fleabag is a much needed exception to that rule.  And if it’s rare to find a well-rounded, dynamic priest character in contemporary fiction, it’s even harder to find a moving depiction of the sacraments, especially the sacrament of Confession.  But the scene that follows is so damn beautiful in every way.

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Photo Credit – Fleabag

You know what?  I don’t really need to go into how this episode ends or even what transpires in the confessional.  It’s not essential for the analysis I’m doing here.  And maybe, maybe you’re reading this and haven’t seen the show yet but you may still want to and I don’t want to ruin anything needlessly for you.  So we’ll leave the narrative there.

The fourth episode of Fleabag’s second season juxtaposes the loss of her mother with the very real love she has for a man she can’t be with – a shared love that weighs on the Priest just as it does on her.  Each situation is unique and each brings its own sort of exquisite pain.  Whether you look at it from a theological or psychological or biological or evolutionary perspective, we are literally made for community.  We are made for relationships.  As such, we are made to love.  So to love someone with your whole heart and find something – be it a loss or a vow or anything else – serving as a barrier between you and the full expression of that love forces us to deny a foundational part of who we are.  It forces a question and a pain as unsolvable as it is unbearable.

What do we do with all the love in our hearts?  Because it’s gotta go somewhere.

When it has nowhere to go, Fleabag says, it’s hell.

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Fleabag tries a therapist to help her figure out what she should do about loving a priest…to no avail. / Photo Credit – Fleabag

However, I found a different answer posited as I began rereading Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera last night.  In the opening pages of the novel, Dr. Juvenal Urbino has been called to the residence of a good friend of his who had died the night before.  In reading his (married) friend’s final letter, he learns of a woman he loved – a woman he only ever had stolen moments with as they carried on an affair for many years.  It shocked the doctor.  “In any event it was difficult for [Dr. Urbino] to comprehend that two free adults without a past and living on the fringes of a closed society’s prejudices had chosen the hazards of illicit love.”[1]

Why, the doctor wondered, would anyone do this?  Why risk the scandal?  Why risk damaging your reputation when you are otherwise “two free adults without a past?”  Why love when you can’t ever fully be with the Beloved, freely in the open all the time?  But love, Márquez suggests, can rarely be put within the narrow, often judgmental parameters offered by our culture.  Upon meeting the woman whom the dead man loved we see, “Moreover, a clandestine life shared with a man who was never completely hers, and in which they often knew a sudden explosion of happiness, did not seem to her a condition to be despised.  On the contrary: life had shown her that perhaps it was exemplary.”[2]

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Fleabag takes the Priest to her cafe and introduces him to her guinea pig, Hillary. / Photo Credit – Fleabag

The love within our hearts has gotta go somewhere and Márquez confidently proclaims it can go to the Beloved, even if it’s a relationship society condemns.  The love – and the sudden explosions of happiness it brings – is what matters.  Love is more important than the arbitrary rules of society and culture.  Love is a higher law and as long as we can accept how the love manifests itself, we can be blessed with an “exemplary” life.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about that.  The line’s as beautiful as it is provocative.  The idea of loving someone who can never be completely ours sounds terrible.  It’s the exact struggle Fleabag and the Priest are navigating.  But Márquez challenges that notion.  He says these two people shared that love until the end of this man’s life and that this life, “in which they often knew a sudden explosion of happiness…was exemplary.”  I couldn’t get that line out of my mind after I read it and I was happy I hadn’t finished writing this piece yet as it kept bringing me back to my contemplation of Fleabag and the Priest.

What is the difference between the two lovers examined in the opening pages of Love in the Time of Cholera and Fleabag and the Priest?  We have two examples of love where the Beloved can never be completely theirs yet with two very different endings.  For Fleabag and the Priest, it was torturous.  For the lovers in the opening of Love in the Time of Cholera it made life exemplary.

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Fleabag and the priest share a smoke on the night they meet. / Photo Credit – Fleabag

As I continue to contemplate this difference, I keep returning to the words of Jala al-Din Rumi, a Sufist mystic poet writing in the 1200s CE.  In the opening lines of his poem “Fringe” Rumi says:

You wreck my shop and my house and now my heart,

but how can I run from what gives me life?

I’m weary of personal worrying, in love

with the art of madness!  Tear open my shame

and show the mystery.  How much longer

do I have to fret with self-restraint and fear?[3]

Maybe it all comes down to how we love.  Can we find our way to loving without possession?  Can we love the other, with the totality of our being and allow them to love us in the same way in return, without them every being completely ours?  Or will that lack of possession always bring us pain?  As Rumi so wisely states, love wrecks “my shop and my house and now my heart.”  Any love can do this but a love that defines us while remaining at least partially trapped within our heart can do so with a particular ferocity.  Yet Rumi also wisely asks, “how can I run from what gives me life?”  Regardless of all the pain and unanswerable questions – all the things that wreck our shops, homes, and hearts – love is still that which gives us life.  How can we leave that behind?  Fleabag shows us the wreckage of love with an honesty so brutal it’s beautiful.  And Márquez reminds us the life-giving nature of love can be every bit as true for a love that falls outside the bounds of what society and culture deem “acceptable.”

Rumi’s poem begs the question, are we trapped withing “self-restraint and fear?”  Or are we ready to fall “in love with the art of madness” and “tear open my shame and show the mystery?”  His language is intentional as to give ourselves over to love often seems mad…by society and culture’s standards.  Love itself is the most beauteous of mysteries and, depending on who we love and when we love them, it can give us a sense of shame or guilt or self-recrimination.  This is all the more true of the “illicit love” Márquez names and Fleabag depicts with such honesty.  But on the other side of that shame, when we tear it open, we find the beautiful mystery of love.

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Photo Credit – Fleabag

Fleabag shows us what we feel – our natural reactions, struggles, and pain – when we’re in this situation.  Love in the Time of Cholera challenges us with the idea that all love is worth living, even if it is with someone who can never be completely ours.  We just need find the path to love without possession.  So what do we do with all the love in our hearts when we find ourselves with no outlet for it?  How do we get from the experience of Fleabag to Love in the Time of Cholera?  If it all comes down to how we love then it may well begin with trying to find the courage to follow love no matter where it takes us and to believe in that love with a faith equal to the power of what it opens inside us.

If nothing else, it’s worth trying to get there.  Even the attempt is important.  Because the deep, aching pain Fleabag feels both in regard to the loss of her mother and with the love she can’t act on with the Priest is only there because each of those loves are that which give her life.  They also give that life its highest possible meaning.  What can be more worthy of our time, our faith, or our desperate attempts to realize than that?

 

 

__________________________________________________

[1] Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera, trans. Edith Grossman ( New York: Vintage International, 1988), 14.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jala al-Din Rumi, Rumi the Book of Love, trans. Coleman Barks (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 59.

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