Phoebe Waller-Bridge descended onto our screens triumphantly with Fleabag in 2016. With 2 seasons, the show carved a niche for itself with its subject matter, tone, visual style, and of course, its title character. The most striking aspect of the show, however, is how Fleabag talks to the camera.
The Fourth Wall that Engages
Breaking the fourth wall, a.k.a when a character looks directly into the camera, has long since been seen on screen. Some films use it periodically, others have characters that dedicate themselves to it. Fleabag falls into this category, joining the ranks of Jim Halpert in The Office and Deadpool, amongst others.
But Fleabag still keeps the style refreshing. For one thing, the fourth wall doesn’t just become a punchline. She is constantly looking to us, giving us more than her words by engaging with us. We are always watching, and she knows that. We cannot be avoided, and neither can she let us go. It adds a layer to the show and the character, holding her accountable to a third party no one else in her world knows about.
This makes for great comedy, but it also contains an emotional context. Even in her transgressions, in her worst moments, she knows she isn’t alone. She uses us for company, but that comes with an inability to hide. And yet, Fleabag is always hiding. She tells a therapist that her friends are always there and are always watching. But even with us, she is using her comedy and her sarcasm to hide her truth.
Even as we uncover her secrets, Fleabag manages to remain enigmatic with us.
The Priest Who Knows
In the second season of Fleabag, we are treated to the unforgettable and striking character of the Priest, played by Andrew Scott. With the Priest, we see Fleabag’s familiar routine of breaking the fourth wall falter. For the first time, someone catches her. For the first time, a character in her world can see her go away. As she disappears from her world for a moment to engage with us, the Priest sees the vacant moment.
Suddenly, Fleabag’s coping mechanism and way of being has been called out. She is no longer alone as she pursues moments of escape. It is this companion, this man who can see her even when she isn’t there, who becomes the man she falls in love with. It is a powerful thing the show is saying. That this woman who hides and cannot be vulnerable has finally found love in the person who can see right through her.
It tells us that perhaps, what she has needed all along is to be caught talking to us.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge has said that the show was never meant to have a Season 2. The show was meant to end with Season 1, at the end of which Fleabag stops talking to the camera for 5 minutes. Her secret has been revealed, and the woman no longer needs to hide or divert our attention.
And yet, she returned for Season 2, for the season in which someone catches her as she looks at the camera. The very existence and nature of the show are based on the character’s relationship with the audience and the camera. We have dictated and engaged in this character’s journey without fully meaning to.
At the end of Season 2, Fleabag shakes her head at us, telling us to leave her alone. She says goodbye to us, and we know there will be no more of her for a while. She has gone to live her life with the name she never told us. It is our burden to wait for her return.
Fleabag is a Comedy Drama Television Series created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge.