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Breaking the Fourth Wall on ‘Fleabag’

Why the gimmick actually works on Amazon’s new series


Amazon’s new original show Fleabag starts with a speech — well, more like a rumination — about an all-too-familiar modern “romantic” situation. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who wrote the show and stars as the titular character (yes, she’s only called Fleabag), casts a side-glance at the audience and begins a Carrie Bradshaw–esque monologue about a booty call: “You know that feeling when a guy you like sends you a text at 2 o’clock on a Tuesday night asking if he can ‘come and find you,’ and you’ve accidentally made it out like you’ve just gotten in yourself, so you have to get up out of bed, drink a bottle of wine, get in the shower, shave everything … and wait by the door until the buzzer goes?”

Stealing looks at the camera, she continues to narrate the whole scene: letting the guy into her apartment, inviting him into her bed, agreeing to anal, waking up in the morning to a perfunctory, clinical goodbye from her sex friend. Great, I thought, another Bridget Jones–style “woe is single me” narration — only worse because it’s being delivered directly to me, in some sort of forced intimate moment with a fictional character. These Fleabag asides, I predicted, will ruin an otherwise solid show.

Breaking the fourth wall — a pesky trick in which a character addresses the audience directly — is rarely effective on TV, and pretty consistently schlocky and annoying. It’s a trope of self-indulgent one–man or woman plays — or worse, musical theater. (No coincidence that Fleabag was adapted from a stage play.) Zack Morris’s cheesy “nudge nudge” moments on Saved by the Bell come to mind. So do Frank Underwood’s disclosures on House of Cards, which are neither subtle nor truly revealing. I already knew you were going to screw over that cabinet member, Underwood. Don’t insult me by telling me again.

In the case of Fleabag’s opening monologue, I assumed that she’d end it with: “Does he like me?” or “Does he respect me even though we sleep together casually?” or some other stereotypical lady worry. But the real question she’d been mulling over turns out to be: “Do I have a massive asshole?” She delivers this line while looking directly into the camera with genuine, grave concern. The speech quickly establishes two points: (1) Fleabag is going to be a lot of fun to spend time with, and (2) we’re not going to have any idea what she is thinking or feeling unless she tells us herself. Fleabag is thus the rare show where breaking the fourth wall is not only tolerable, but also effective, because what female characters say when they speak directly to the audience — and they so rarely do — is often far more illuminating than what their male counterparts have to say.

At first blush, Fleabag’s antics feel almost too familiar, like she’s the British equivalent of contemporary antiheroines such as Unreal’s Rachel and Christine on The Girlfriend Experience. Fleabag is caustic, cheeky, foul-mouthed, and extremely (and enviably) sexually active. She’s also depressed and flailing, grieving the death of her mother, dealing with her best friend’s suicide, and attempting to save her failed business and her strained relationship with her sister and father. She numbs herself by indulging in very bad behavior. She drinks, screws, and steals with total abandon. But before the audience can make any assumptions about her motivations, Fleabag will tell you herself, in her own words.

As an actress, Waller-Bridge is a master of subtle communication. It’s incredible how she can broadcast a diary’s worth of contradictory emotions, jokes, and motivations with just an arch of the eyebrow or a nod. That arsenal allows her to shape much of how the story is perceived: Vile behavior is forgivable, understandable. We’re on Fleabag’s side from the get-go; her dialogue with us, the audience, demystifies the chaos of her psyche.

Over the course of six episodes, Fleabag’s situation goes from amusingly out of control to worrisome to excruciatingly miserable. Watching the dismissive people in her life — her uptight sister, her condescending stepmother, her cowardly father — all I wanted to do was scream at Fleabag: “Just explain yourself to them! They don’t understand you! Fix it by explaining!” (There were actually several times where I did yell exactly that.) Fleabag is powerless to a family that doesn’t want to listen to her, but when she talks to the audience, she is definitely heard.

There’s a certain kind of power in not leaving a story up for interpretation, especially for a TV show that’s told from the female perspective. I think of Clarissa from Clarissa Explains it All, who used her fourth-wall moments to unapologetically tell you exactly what it was like to be a quirky tween. Or Belle/Hannah on Showtime’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl, who used her asides to frankly explain why she liked having sex for money. Fleabag, just like Belle and Clarissa — a hot mess, an escort, and a teenager — are characters who don’t often get ownership over their own feelings, desires, or inner lives. The trope of addressing the audience actually gives them the power to explain what might be misinterpreted or dismissed. Fleabag doesn’t leave the audience wondering why she continues to watch porn even though her boyfriend says he will leave her if she does it again. Amateur psychology is unnecessary (Oh, she’s self-sabotaging! Oh, she’s a sex addict! Oh, she’s a drunk!) because Fleabag will just turn her eyes to the camera and tell us, directly, herself. There’s no other interpretation. Deal with it.