Fleabag, Untethered Intimacy and Breaking the Fourth Wall
From stage to screen, Phoebe Waller-Bridge has adopted techniques used by Charlie Chaplin as much as Groucho Marx to communicate intimacy and untethered love in Fleabag. Emma Fraser looks back on the inception of the device, pinpointing how the writer-actor got it so right. Warning: spoilers for Fleabag ahead.
A knowing look to the camera, a smutty smirk, or a quip intended just for the audience – these are some of the tools in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s fourth-wall breaking bag of tricks on Fleabag. Comedy has a long history of direct address in film and television, from Charlie Chaplin to The Office. Chaplin employed this narrative device in 1918 in A Dog’s Life, but a confessional film released earlier that same year beat him to the fourth-wall-breaking punch. Based on her 1910 article of the same name, Mary MacLane wrote and starred in Men Who Have Made Love to Me. The film is thought to be lost (a recreation was made in 2010) but MacLane is said to be lying on a sofa, smoking while looking directly at the camera, as her accounts of the men she has been with are portrayed. A dark lipstick-wearing heroine who smokes a lot while revealing personal exploits – does that sound familiar?
This narrative structure works as both a comedic device and a form of intimate confessional; in Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge marries these two ideas. It bonds the audience and protagonist, as we are in direct collusion against characters who are not privy to this secret form of communication. After MacLane and Chaplin came Laurel and Hardy, Groucho Marx, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks utilizing this self-aware technique, to make sure you know they are in on the joke as much as you are.
It increases the comedic dialogue with the audience, as well as providing extra insight into character motivation. Overly confident adolescent boys, Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) and Saved by the Bell’s Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), were also fond of this chatty approach. But they aren’t the only teens to engage in this way; how was Clarissa (Melissa Joan Hart) meant to explain it all if she couldn’t break the fourth wall?
The construction of this invisible barrier began before it could be broken on screen, as a result of Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski’s revolutionary naturalistic approach at the turn of the twentieth century. Instead of directly addressing an audience at any point, the actor is instead “alone in public”. Shakespeare monologues and pantomime audience participation this is not.
One advantage theatre has over television and film is the response from an audience is instant, whether it manifests through laughter, a gasp or silent indifference. It is hard to compare the experiences derived from watching a play with a six-part television series, but Waller-Bridge straddles theatrical and television narrative forms with Fleabag. Before it became a hit BBC series, Fleabag was Waller-Bridge’s award-winning debut at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It transferred to London’s Soho Theatre later that year, before returning in 2016. Waller-Bridge has recently finished an off-Broadway run in New York City. Six years after she debuted this hilarious and heartbreaking play, it still rips to the very core.
Intimacy is central to both Fleabag the play and Fleabag the television show. Watching Waller-Bridge play the original incarnation of this character in New York, midway through Series 2 airing and having seen the first series numerous times, was an intense experience I got to enjoy firsthand.
Even without the jet lag from a long day of travel, I suspect the tiny theatre space — offering a solitary chair on a sparse stage — would have still felt overwhelming. In the introduction to the text version of the play, Waller-Bridge notes, “In theatre, people come to you, or your characters. In TV, characters arrive in people’s living rooms, their kitchen tables, and are often even taken to bed with them!”. There isn’t another wall that can be broken, but to go from watching Fleabag in bed to sharing the same physical space involved a level of mental gymnastics that I hadn’t considered or prepared for.
In the same essay, Waller-Bridge talks about her fascination with audiences; unlike the Stanislavski method, she wants to engage and experiment with this body of people as much as possible, both on stage and screen. Even being as familiar with the material as I was, the play still made me gasp. Not only at the provocative jokes about pencils and hamsters — which transform into a sweet Boo story — but also during the climactic 10 minutes when Fleabag bares her soul, revealing a truth I already knew.
Waller-Bridge’s desire to challenge our relationship with Fleabag is evident in the second series, which shifts beyond raised eyebrows, smirks and exposition. The fourth wall device is still an important part of the narrative structure, but its role expands beyond an extended conversation between character and audience. We are no longer her only source of salvation.
Fleabag is not an unreliable narrator, rather, in the first series, she is more of a storyteller of selective information. She tells us all about her sexual exploits in graphic detail, sometimes in the midst of the act, but a secret hangs over her otherwise candid persona. Flashbacks support the stories she tells, which add to the authenticity, by showing rather than just telling. But when it comes to her dead best friend Boo (Jenny Rainsford), we’re given an edited rendering. Fleabag shows us their friendship, as well as flashes of Boo’s tear-streaked face, but it isn’t until Fleabag’s sister Claire (Sian Clifford) drops a bombshell that the full extent of her betrayal is revealed. Furthermore, at no point during Boo’s flashbacks does Fleabag look to the camera – she doesn’t need to. This is a tactic developed after, which suggests we are Boo or, at least a stand-in for Boo, as the expressions and asides she flashes toward us, are a secret conversation typically reserved for a close confidant. Instead, she now communes with an invisible audience who she can’t admit her darkest secret to, in the same way, she couldn’t tell her best friend of this betrayal.
Strangers are who Fleabag bares her heart and soul to in the first series; we find out about Boo’s death when she tells the taxi driver a “funny story” at the end of Episode 1. The Bank Manager (Hugh Dennis) is on the receiving end of her most truthful comments including the “I just want to cry. All the time” admission. In the closing moments of the first series finale, she breaks down but doesn’t break the fourth wall; there is no look to camera for approval or to show off, instead, she remains in this moment with a man she barely knows. He has been just as candid with her at a silent retreat in Episode 4, detailing his own recent struggles, which mirror Fleabag’s self-loathing and desire to reclaim something that has been lost.
But Waller-Bridge doesn’t rest on this formula, instead, she expands on the patented Fleabag direct address. In the first episode of Series 2, when she notes no-one has asked her a question in over 45 minutes, the moment is preempted by the Priest (Andrew Scott) asking her what she does for a living. This dinner is the first time Fleabag has encountered the Priest, she is not religious, but there is an instant flicker of excitement and intrigue. Some of the looks she usually reserves for the audience are directed at him; this is only the beginning of the Priest as the great disruptor.
“Where did you just go?” Five little words split the world of Fleabag open as the Priest becomes aware she has gone “somewhere” when she is sharing a reaction with the viewer. He doesn’t hear what she says at the end of Episode 3, but when the conversation veers into vulnerable territory he is at his most perceptive. His ability to see through her defensive layers is both exciting and unsettling. In the following episode, he looks directly at “us”, screaming into the camera when Fleabag deflects questions about the friend she opened the cafe with. As her protective barrier crumbles, the fourth wall narrative device is tested.
The Priest is a catalyst, but Boo is once again the foundation. Or rather, it is both Boo and Fleabag’s mother (who died three years before the events of the first series) who provide insight into why she is feeling lost and alone. These aren’t simply the reckless actions of someone who doesn’t care. In a flashback that is far more revealing than any aside, Fleabag tells Boo she doesn’t know where to put the love she had for her mother. Boo tells her to give to her, a gracious offer, but now Boo is gone too.
Without either of these women, that love is untethered – which is where the audience comes in. In her confessional to the Bank Manager, a fear of loneliness is her greatest motivator, her fourth wall breaking conversations ensure she is never alone. This need for someone to be there is only rejected when the Priest “sees” her in a way that no one has, since the death of her best friend.
Fleabag has talked to the audience while having sex, telling us intimate details mid-bang. The one exception is when she’s in bed with the Priest, when she physically pushes the camera away; not because it is a sad or dirty little secret, but because this love finally has an anchor. In what might be the final ever episode, she rejects the audience once again. She tried to get away in the first series finale as a result of the Boo secret reveal. She couldn’t give us the slip, instead, the camera lurched after her, dizzyingly.
But this isn’t the case anymore, as Fleabag ultimately does not need or want the viewer to follow her now. Having served our purpose, the audience is left at a bus stop waiting for a bus that is never coming. She shakes her head when we try to follow, a small wave and a look back is our whole goodbye. One day Fleabag might need us again, but for now, she is free.
Emma Fraser (@frazbelina) is a freelance television and film writer with words at Little White Lies, Vulture, SYFY FANGRRLS, Collider and more. She loves costume design, '90s teen TV and is currently attempting to learn German.