“[Love] Makes you selfish, makes you creepy, makes you obsessed with your hair. Makes you cruel. Makes you say and do things you never thought you would do. It’s all any of us want and it’s hell when we get there. So it’s no wonder it’s something we don’t want to do on our own.”
Phoebe Waller-Bridge breathes life into characters that people have lived and lived with.
The first viewing of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s ‘Fleabag’ hits you like a tonne of bricks. Fleabag, the titular character, does not fail to shock the audience, leaving them squirming uncomfortably in their seats with her unabashed portrayal of sex and sexuality coupled with her blunt honesty. The show is comical and tragic, full of dark humour, encompassing a plethora of raw emotions of grief, love, and dysfunctional relationships, familial and otherwise. With well-written characters that you can’t help but hate and love simultaneously, fused with excellent writing and cinematography, ‘Fleabag’ establishes itself as a one-of-a-kind, critically acclaimed television show.
‘Fleabag’ was initially released as Waller-Bridge’s one-woman play of the same name at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013. The TV show premiered soon after in 2016 followed by its second season in 2019. The series follows the protagonist, referred to as Fleabag by the audience, through her own perspective. Phoebe, as Fleabag, meanders through the plot trying to navigate life amidst the tragedy of losing her mother and her best friend, all while running a business and understanding (not) the intricacies of the relationships in her life.
The series garnered widespread acclaim and praise, receiving several awards,and received several nominations for acting and writing.
“I have a horrible feeling that I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”
‘Fleabag’ deals with the complexities of human life. It deals with the discomfort of insecurities and infidelities and makes the audience acknowledge the seriousness and consequences of the same, just with a touch of humour.
Fleabag is a character who is flawed. She is selfish, she is mean, and cracks jokes in the most inappropriate of places. We as the audience feel her grief and pain and see beyond the humour that she uses almost like a concrete wall to deflect the true magnitude of her suffering. The audience though, only ever knows her as Fleabag, which broadly describes her ‘a dirty and/or unpleasant person or animal‘ of a personality- which also in some ways is exactly how she sees herself and wants to be seen as well. She is in no way a virtuous character and certainly not what you see as a ‘true’ feminist. Yet she is a character who does not feel ashamed for wanting the things she wants and saying the things she says, something women are conditioned to feel ashamed about. One can’t help but root for her as she tries to make things right even if the odds aren’t in her favour.
Fleabag’s evolution in terms of the relationships she shares with the people around her has a complete character arc. Even the rockiest encounter with a misogynistic banker ends up developing into a beautiful platonic bond and a deep conversation reflecting on mental health.
“I think you know how to love better than any of us. That’s why you find it all so painful.”
One of the things that makes ‘Fleabag’ stand out is the casual breaking of the fourth wall in the series. The fourth wall is a conceptual barrier in the world of theatre, a wall that the audience can see through. The lack of acknowledgement of the fourth wall is how any work of fiction works. The actors pretend to not be aware of their audiences, indirectly acknowledging their fictionality.
Television shows like ‘The Office’, and ‘Parks and Recreation’ show this breaking of the fourth wall by directly looking into the camera. They acknowledge that there is an audience that is involved in their lives.
In Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character continuously breaks the fourth wall, making faces and sarcastic comments to the camera i.e us as the audience, that the other characters do not seem to hear or see. This creates an intimate relationship between Fleabag and the viewers. The audience knows her real thoughts and feelings, those which the people closest to her do not. It almost makes you feel special- like she is letting you in on a secret.
Never once, in the series does the breaking of the fourth wall seem forced. It is essentially used as a comedic device, used to fill intense moments and awkward silences. The writing fills in the gaps between the story and makes us understand the character better. Making sarcastic comments to the audience about the scene that is playing out in the series is Fleabag’s way of coping with her pain. She never seems to go without talking to the audience. Creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge explained why breaking that fourth wall is so important for Fleabag’s character: “Fleabag was always performing for the camera to distract both herself and the audience from her misery. (…) Her drive was to entertain you, so she could never allow herself to be a victim for fear of boring you”
“I love you”, “It’ll pass”
In the second season of the series, the audience, along with Fleabag, gets unnerved when her potential romantic interest, “the Hot Priest”, ‘catches’ Fleabag looking at the audience. The audience feels shocked when the intimate bubble of this relationship they shared with Fleabag is popped by an outsider, even if it is an outsider she is attracted to. Perhaps it can be said that he is the only one who truly notices her.
As she walks into the night after her heartbreak at the end of the series, Fleabag gives the camera one last look, letting go of the audience while assuring us that she will manage on her own now. It is a bitter-sweet moment, but one only feels proud of how much she’s grown and the path she has walked. The last breaking of the fourth wall leaves the viewers with a sense of hope as we come to understand the happier she is, the less of a performance she needs to put up and this is where ultimately, we must say goodbye.
–Megha KajaleFY BSc