By Leo Cookman
Has an existential crisis ever looked so chic? The second season of Fleabag recently ended, to much critical and popular acclaim. It’s adored for its fourth-wall-massacring quips and supernaturally charming star, but seemingly absent from its praise is its take on one of philosophy’s oldest questions: What is the meaning of life?
Fleabag’s first season, originally written as a one-woman play by its star, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, was a breakout hit in the UK that later came to the US via Amazon Prime. It offered a frank and funny depiction of a woman, the titular “Fleabag,” struggling with grief, the gig-economy, family tensions, and the modern dating scene. Throughout her struggles, we learn that she inadvertently caused the death of her best friend, she gets practically disowned by her family, abandoned by her previous lovers and just barely saved from bankruptcy. Of course, the tragedy is almost always still comical. Or in the words of philosopher Albert Camus, it’s absurd.
For Camus, absurdity isn’t wandering around wearing a funny hat. Rather, it’s the preferred solution to the search for value or meaning in a universe that continually rejects both. As he argues, there were only three ways people generally dealt with this meaninglessness. One obvious answer is a “leap of faith,” in which one surrenders the logical reality of existence and accepts some form of higher power. In today’s more secular age many people find this higher power in love and relationships. Of course, as anyone dating in 2019 will tell you, romantic love can be an existential hellscape too. The second season of Fleabag perfectly encapsulates these two leaps of faith towards meaning by embodying them in one character, the sexy, sweary, whiskey-drinking Hot Priest, whom Fleabag naturally falls in love with. Another response to the lack of meaning for Camus is suicide — where one recognizes the futility of existence and so choose to opt out.
But the third way to address cosmic indifference is simply to embrace the fact that life, and the universe, is devoid of meaning or purpose. It is to embrace the absurd. In this way, one becomes the “absurd man,” or in the case of Fleabag, “absurd woman.”
In the opening scene of the second season, and through a bloody nose no less, Fleabag describes the show as a “love story.” She’s referring, we assume, to the complicated relationship between herself and Hot Priest. Throughout the season, she tries to reconcile her lack of religious faith with her attraction to a man of the cloth. Aforementioned Hot Priest, however, has to reconcile his church life with his feelings for Fleabag. This conflict comes to a head in the confessional box when Fleabag admits, “I want someone to tell me what to wear every morning … I want someone to tell me how to live my life.” This confession prompts the priest to finally give in to his desire and kiss her. This could have been their happily ever after as, through their love, they have both found the meaning for which they were searching. But this is all short-lived, as Hot Priest gives up their relationship, and returns to the cloth. Here, he doubles down on his own leap of faith. Fleabag, instead, embraces Camus’s third option: the absurd. At the precise moment when she has lost her love and potentially lost her sister and her father as well, she accepts this shattering collapse of meaning and ends the show a true absurd hero, with a sad smile, a quick chat with an urban fox, and a confident nod of dismissal to the viewer.
For Camus, the absurd hero is someone who “without negating it, does nothing for the eternal.” In this description, he summed up the second season of Fleabag, a cool seventy-seven years early. While Fleabag may point out the failings and flaws of faith and religion, the show still portrays it as a very important part of society. It is not negated. That said, it is rejected. Camus adds that the absurd man “prefers his courage and his reasoning. The first teaches him to live without appeal and to get along with what he has; the second informs him of his limits.” Fleabag ends the season with no appeal for help. Rather, she accepts the hand life has dealt her. She has found her limits, both the lows and the highs. In this way, Waller-Bridge has created the ultimate absurd hero. Fleabag rejects meaning from any outside agent within the show. She also, in a meta way, rejects the meaning created by the show itself when she walks away from the camera in the exact point of crisis that other, less smart, shows would treat as just another enticing cliffhanger.
While existential dread is not uncommon in the modern TV dramedy, embracing the darkness that it entails, while simultaneously offering some real hope, as a result, is rare. With the current state of the world, it is easy for a pessimistic, dark show to talk about the futility of it all. But Fleabag is smarter than that. The central character acknowledges all of this and then laughs at it. For Camus, this is the absurd hero in action. He likens it to the struggle of Sisyphus — the Greek king who was cursed to roll a rock up a hill, only for it to roll down again, for eternity. His lot is not unlike our own; we’re forced to repeat the daily, meaningless, fruitless tasks of existence every single day. Camus’s solution to this meaningless comes from Oedipus: ‘I conclude that all is well.’ Instead of ignoring or rejecting this existential drudgery, by accepting it, and even embracing it, we create the meaning ourselves. Or as Camus suggests, we must imagine Sisyphus happy — with or without the help of a Hot Priest.