‘Fleabag’ Season 2: The Power of the Fourth Wall – Rolling Stone
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A Friend With Benefits: The Power of the Fourth Wall in ‘Fleabag’ Season 2

How creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge gets the most out of the connection between audience and protagonist — never more poignantly than in the second-season finale

Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Andrew Scott in Season Two of 'Fleabag.'

Steve Schofield/Amazon Studios

This post contains spoilers for all of Fleabag Season Two, now available on Amazon Prime Video.

When the first season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag debuted back in 2016, it seemed to fit into a long tradition of TV shows where characters break the fourth wall and address the audience directly. This has been going on since the medium’s early days in sitcoms like The Jack Benny Program, and has continued over the decades in series as wildly different from one another as Saved By the Bell and House of Cards. When Fleabag‘s title character, played by Waller-Bridge, turned to talk to us, or simply rolled her eyes at us, it was an added comic treat to an already wickedly funny show. And it took great advantage of Waller-Bridge’s expressive, exaggerated features, where a mere pop of the eyes could be as hilarious as a sharply-written punchline.

Fleabag‘s belated Season Two is even funnier and more emotional than the first for a variety of reasons. But the most important one may be the evolution of how Waller-Bridge uses the direct address.

The show is, miraculously, both a hysterical farce and a stunning portrait of grief and loneliness. Fleabag is a hot mess who makes one mortifying decision after another. But she’s also someone with an enormous heart who finds herself estranged from the people for whom that heart most strongly beats. As her father tells her in what seems to be the series finale (more on that in a bit), “I think you know how to love better than any of us. That’s why you find it all so painful.”

Season Two continues to deploy the direct address as the perfect comic button to a scene. As Fleabag’s lawyer, for instance, tells her over and over how good he is at sex, she in turn tells us over and over that he won’t be, followed by a quick cut to the pair mid-coitus, where she admits with pleasant surprise, “He’s really good at it.” But as the season goes on, those turns to the camera begin to signify something sadder: Fleabag talks to us because she has no one else who will listen.

In the second episode, she attends a session with a therapist (Fiona Shaw, who worked with Waller-Bridge on Killing Eve). As Fleabag runs through her many personal problems, the doctor asks if she has any friends. This is a painful subject, because one of the show’s most important bits of backstory is that Fleabag’s best friend Boo (Jenny Rainsford) has recently died. Worse, she stepped into a bike lane — in what Fleabag insists wasn’t a suicide attempt, but could have easily been — after learning that her boyfriend cheated on her… with Fleabag herself. It’s unclear whether Boo knew that last part, but the point is that Fleabag’s best friend is gone and she rightly blames herself for it. She flashes on Boo, looks uncomfortable and tries to change the subject with her trademark self-deprecating humor. A few moments later, she insists that she does have friends, and when the shrink asks if she has someone to talk to, Fleabag winks at us(*). We are her friends. And we are the perfect friends. We know everything she does. We understand everything she thinks. We don’t judge anything. Our perpetual silence is our approval.

(*) I’ve seen it suggested that the direct addresses are to Boo, especially since they don’t exist in flashbacks to when Boo was still alive. But thoughts of Boo always make Fleabag sad, where she is utterly at ease with the person on the other side of the camera. So at minimum, she’s compartmentalizing her feelings about her late friend.

This isn’t quite like Abed on Community understanding that he’s a character on a show, his fate at the whims of whoever’s writing his story. But Waller-Bridge has turned another aspect of the audience experience into something meta and amusing and poignant. We develop these entirely one-sided relationships with the fictional characters we watch, or read, or listen to: cheering for this one, rooting for that one, maybe even yelling out advice that will never be heard. Fleabag turns that around, suggesting that if the fictional people could only imagine that we exist, they might gain comfort from their own one-way rapport with us. It’s not that Fleabag knows there are cameras following her. It’s just that, since Boo died — and the direct address is completely absent from flashbacks to their friendships — our heroine needed someone to whom she could tell her problems. Doesn’t matter who and what she thinks we are, just that we are there to provide her an outlet in her many times of trouble. But we are also a coping mechanism that can prevent her from making deeper connections with the real (to her) people in her life.

Season Two uses the direct address more, and in more varied ways, at the same time that the major story arc involves Fleabag’s crush on a hot priest (Andrew Scott). He, of course, has his own relationship with a friend/deity whom no one else can see or hear, but who has come to define everything about his life. And despite that invisible companion, he feels just as lonely and adrift as Fleabag.

Which brings us to the startling, delightful moment at the end of the new season’s third episode. Fleabag and the priest are drinking gin and tonic out of a can outside the church. The sexual heat is palpable enough for the priest to throw cold water on it with the promise that they will not sleep together, along with an invitation to be friends. She turns to us for another sarcastic quip… and he knows. Not what she said, nor to whom, but he can instantly tell that, as he puts it, “You just… went somewhere.” This unnerves her, and in the next episode, she starts to (much like Homer Simpson) confuse this interior monologue with things she means to say aloud. When they visit her guinea pig-themed cafe, he not only continues to notice when she is mentally absent for a moment, but starts to actually look in the same direction she does when she’s talking to us, to her great shock and embarrassment.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Andrew Scott in Fleabag

Waller-Bridge and Scott double-breaking the fourth wall in ‘Fleabag’ Season Two.

At this point, the fourth wall hasn’t just been broken, but rebroken. We’ve gone from silent, unobtrusive observers of the narrative to a distinct presence. His awareness of her awareness of… something out there makes us a part of their dysfunctional, doomed love story. His demeanor, already kind and playful, becomes even more so as he recognizes this odd, barely perceptible quirk of hers, while she looks like she wants to climb out of her skin every time he looks where she’s looking. He knows what she’s going through, and can see her in a way that no one else can, just as she can see us when no one else should be able to.

She reluctantly agrees to talk to him in the confessional booth at the end of the fourth episode. The story she tells him implies that, where he communicates with another presence because of his faith in that higher power, she communicates with us because of a lack of faith in herself. She wants to be told what to wear, what to eat, what to be upset about, how to function on a basic level in this world. “I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father,” she admits, “because so far, I think I’ve been getting it wrong.” She is asking, essentially, to be a writer’s creation, subject to their whims in hopes they are wiser than her own.

In typical Fleabag fashion, this moment of emotional clarity only makes her life more of a wreck. He leaves his half of the confessional booth to visit her at the entrance to hers, and they kiss. (To this point, she’s been pursuing him. Here, though, he’s taking very unfair advantage of his position when she’s in an emotionally vulnerable spot.) And where we can’t raise any objections that she will hear, God’s disapproval is clear when one of the church’s paintings falls off the wall. Both recognize this is a bad idea, but they are too connected — sexually, emotionally and, yes, spiritually — to stop themselves at first.

Finally, the priest seems to wake up from the spell, arriving to officiate at the wedding of Fleabag’s father to her hateful godmother. He gives a lovely, unconventional speech during the ceremony, going on about how awful love is before pivoting to the idea that this is why people want to experience it together. “When you find somebody you love,” he suggests, “it feels like hope.” But when he catches up with Fleabag at the bus step near her father’s house, her hopes for their future are dashed. The moment he smiles at her, she knows it’s over — that he has chosen his invisible friend over her. “It’s God, isn’t it?” she asks, already knowing the answer. He is gentle but firm about never wanting to see her in his church again, admitting that he loves her as much as she does him.

This should be the moment to break Fleabag, and maybe it will. But we won’t know. Because in the extraordinary final moments of the season — and almost certainly the series — she gets up from the bus stop, looks at us and shakes her head. Where she is going, we’re no longer invited to follow. What she’s doing, she will have to do on her own, without the crutch of us to complain to, to laugh with, to take a mental break from her very complicated, very real life. As Alabama Shakes’ “The Feeling” plays, she turns to walk up the street and the camera doesn’t follow. The fourth wall is motionless because we are being left behind. As she moves farther from view, she turns back to wave goodbye.

Like so many moments on Fleabag, that wave contains multitudes. It is an inversion of the way we learn to say farewell to fictional characters we love when the show or movie or book comes to an end. (The last show to literalize it to this degree may be M*A*S*H, where BJ spelled out “GOODBYE” in rocks as Hawkeye flew away from the 4077th.) And it’s a sign that Fleabag has grown strong enough to go on without us — or at least self-aware enough to realize she has to try, lest she be stuck in this isolated misery forever.

Because this is the other dirty secret of being a fictional character: Not only is a silent, invisible audience aware of all that you do and think and say, but their presence makes your life more inherently dramatic, and often sadder, than it might otherwise be. A Fleabag where she is happy and well-adjusted and has consistently healthy relationships with her dad, her sister Claire and a man who isn’t already married to the Almighty would be better for her, but less interesting for us to watch. The only way her story improves is if it’s not a story anymore. And that can’t happen until she waves goodbye to us and heads up the road.

Fleabag is one of my favorite shows of the past decade. I would watch Waller-Bridge play this character forever if she wanted to. But I think about what this season had to say about the corrosive relationship between audience and protagonist, between those of us on opposite sides of the impenetrable membrane between reality and imagination, and I wouldn’t wish that on poor Fleabag. She deserves to stop looking at us, even if it means we no longer get to look at her.

 

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