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What Does the Fleabag Fox Mean?

Photo: Amazon Studios

In the final scene of Fleabag’s second season, after the eponymous Fleabag has her heart broken at a bus stop, I was desperate for a happier ending. When season two of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sexy, wry British comedy begins, Fleabag tells us, “This is a love story.” She falls for a Catholic priest — the Priest (Andrew Scott), as he’s titled by the show — who offers her a kind of pastoral care only a celibate man of God has the time and capacity to give her. It is this counsel that ultimately redirects Fleabag, allowing her to save herself from the self-destruction and grief we saw in season one. And yet a love story that involves three battling wills — Fleabag’s, the Priest’s, and God’s — must surely disappoint one person.

In my search for something romantic to take from the conclusion, I recommended season two to my father, a progressive and rabble-rousing Catholic and, perhaps more importantly, a retired English professor whose Yale Ph.D. in Renaissance English and multi-decade teaching career has trained him to interpret the world as a literary text. For him, the happy ending was clear. “Of course they end up together,” he said to me the morning after he finished the final episode. “The fox chases the Priest down the street.” My father’s conclusion struck me like a revelation because he saw what I wanted to see: The fox represented something crucial about the relationship the Priest has with his celibacy.

To better understand this fox theory, it needs to be traced back to its origins. Halfway through the season, Fleabag and the Priest drink gin-and-tonics on a bench in the church garden when the fox first appears — right after the Priest tells Fleabag she’s good for him because she makes him question his faith. “And?” she prompts him. “I’ve never felt closer to God.” Just then the Priest hears something rustle in the bushes.

“What was that?” he asks, jumping up in terror. “It wasn’t a fox, was it?” He runs behind Fleabag, physically barricading himself from the invisible fox while she laughs at him. “Foxes have been after me for years. It’s like they have a pact or something.” He explains that his relationship with foxes began long before he met Fleabag, including one time he was on a toilet in a train and a fox tried to get through the window, and another time he was at a monastery and woke up with a fox pointing at him out his window.

“Lucky God got there first,” Fleabag says, perhaps beginning to put together what, exactly, the fox means to the Priest. But, apparently, God has not saved the Priest from foxes. When Fleabag says she can’t imagine being a priest — “Especially the celibacy” — just then, the Priest jumps up and shouts, “Oh! It’s a fox!” Foxes, in that moment, become inextricably linked to his sexuality. Perhaps, every time he’s seen a fox has been when he’s second-guessing his celibacy, perhaps having stolen a private moment in the train bathroom or woken from a sexy dream in the monastery.

“Chill out about the fox!” Fleabag tells him.

“I just don’t know what they want from me,” he says apologetically.

Once he calms down, the two talk more explicitly about Fleabag’s desire for a sexual relationship with him. He tells her sex between them won’t bring any good, and then, for the first time, he notices her turn away from him and disappear for a moment from their conversation. He may not know exactly what she’s doing, but we do — by this point the audience is familiar with how she sees us. Fleabag turns to the camera and tell us, “We’ll last a week.”

This meta-moment, when he notices her breaking the fourth wall, initiates a new kind of physical and emotional intimacy, one cut short when both characters simultaneously scream because they see a fox. The fox is a stand-in for the Priest’s conflicted feelings about his celibacy and his budding love for Fleabag. He may attract foxes, but unlike Fleabag’s invisible audience, she can see them, too.

The night they consummate their relationship, he tells her, “I can’t have sex with you because I’ll fall in love with you. And if I fall in love with you I won’t burst into flames, but my life will be fucked.” To the Priest, sex and love are synonymous and sacred — he believes one will lead to the other, so we can assume he does, in fact, fall in love with her that night after they sleep together. (The fact that Catholics don’t believe in contraception opens up another possibility that their night together could result in future plot points.)

When Fleabag and her priest wake up in the morning, he must officiate her father’s wedding. The next mention of a fox happens just before the wedding begins, when Fleabag tries to find a quiet moment in the garden amid some family drama to smoke a cigarette. She stumbles upon the Priest practicing his homily. He’s startled to see her. “I thought you were a fox,” he shouts. The two passionately kiss against a wall. “I don’t know what this feeling is,” he tells her. Since he vowed to fall in love with her if they had sex, I’d guess the feeling is love. “Is it God or is it me?” Fleabag asks. But the Priest doesn’t know.

In the final scene in the series, after the wedding, Fleabag sits at the bus stop while the Priest admits he’s chosen God over her. “The worst part is, I fucking love you,” she tells him, watching his eyes fill with tears. As he walks away he looks over his shoulder and tells her, “I love you, too.”

And then, just as he’s gone, a fox appears.

The fox pauses and looks at Fleabag. “He went that way,” she tells it. Alabama Shakes’ “This Feeling” begins playing. “I just kept hoping / I just kept hoping / The way would become clear,” they sing. “Being a romantic takes a hell of a lot of hope,” the Priest told the wedding-goers just hours earlier. “When you find somebody that you love, it feels like hope.” The lyrics might as well say both Fleabag and the Priest went on loving. When the fox — the symbol of sexual desire — chases him down the block after he tells Fleabag he can’t choose her, love is running after him, too. We can’t know whether it catches him, of course, but foxes haven’t left the Priest alone since he first chose God. Fleabag walks away, evidently okay on her own. By admitting her feelings, she has made her choice clear. What’s less clear is whether the Priest will stick to his vow of celibacy since his indecision, sexual desire, and love for Fleabag are in hot pursuit.

Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk has suggested, alternately, the fox could symbolize God. The show does have a clear symbol for God, though: pictures getting knocked off the wall in times of blasphemy. It happens when Fleabag says she doesn’t believe in God (“I love when He does that,” the Priest says when a picture spontaneously falls), and to stop the Priest from breaking his vow of celibacy during his confessional make-out with Fleabag. When God wants to catch the Priest’s attention to correct his course, He’s not sly. So why does the fox silently follow him even when he’s walking away from temptation? That’s hardly benevolent supervision from a higher power.

While we see Fleabag and the Priest walk away from each other in the final scene, narrative and life have different end points. Fleabag’s narrative ends with a good-bye to us viewers, but after the good-bye, the fox appears and life continues. In his essay “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” German literary theorist Wolfgang Iser wrote about the co-authorship that takes place between the writer’s intentions and the reader’s interpretation. He wrote, “One must take into account not only the actual text, but also, and in equal measure, the actions involved in responding to that text.” Some of us are the romantics the Priest referred to in his homily — those who dare to hope, and who equate that hope with love. We may be seeing the ending we wish for. But that’s the beauty and power of art — the possibilities that exist beyond the narrative. Like the Priest’s explanation about the Bible’s inconsistencies, none of what we read or watch is literal. “It’s for interpretation to help us work out God’s plan for us,” he says. As I rewatched the series with this new possibility, I saw the symbolism of the fox, some tangle of love and unresolve, chase after the Priest. Presumably, foxes will continue to haunt him until he resolves his celibacy, and allows himself to be with the person he really loves.

What Does the Fleabag Fox Mean?