Breaking the Screen: Direct Address in ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Fleabag’

Hailing from the theater, direct address is a narrative trope that is used in both drama and comedy, yielding very different results.

On the surface, Fleabag and House of Cards couldn’t be more different. One is a witty British comedy series that began as a one-woman play, and House of Cards the bleakest of bleak political dramas set in Washington, D.C, the lion’s den. Yet, both shows are linked by breaking the fourth wall; a stylistic tool derived from the theater that can simultaneously alienate the voyeuristic audience and build sympathy for the addressee. Both shows deploy direct address masterfully to different effect.

Netflix’s House of Cards carried the technique over from the original British series. North American audiences, for whom theater is not nearly as integral to the culture as it is to Brits, are not accustomed to direct address in TV or film. So, it was quite a bold move on the showrunners’ parts to adopt the same, Shakespeare-inspired technique. But Frank Underwood’s macabre monologues have become iconic. They’re wrapped up in – some would say, gimmicky – metaphors disguised as wisdom on how to succeed in politics.

The asides in House of Cards begin as a point of necessity. If we are to see this man commit these heinous acts, we need to understand his reasoning, and there is always a reasoning. Everything is calculated. Of course, direct address isn’t the only, or even the best way, of garnering sympathy – but it’s the most efficient way. But before we even start identifying with Frank Underwood, we cling to him for guidance just as much as we are repelled by him. After all, we have no idea who these people are. Frank Underwood’s asides fill us in, so we don’t have to wait for indirect exposition. 

At first, the soliloquies are almost riveting in their poetic violence. But eventually, the asides become predictable. We learn that he can justify anything in the name of ambition. The show runners devise new ways to make the soliloquies seem fresh. Namely, by starting Season 2 without any asides until the very end of the episode. He shifts his gaze slightly towards us, as he looks in the mirror: “Did you think I’d forgotten you? Perhaps you hoped I had.” They even let Claire Underwood break the fourth wall in Season 5. “Just to be clear, it’s not that I haven’t always known you were there. It’s that I have mixed feelings about you. I question your intentions.” This is especially prescient in the post-911 age of surveillance, where we are all being watched and tracked whether we like it or not. Then, House of Cards’ meta trope is amplified by the omni-voyeurism that we all experience. Might as well lean into it, and manipulate what the audience is hearing and feeling. And just like Frank, Claire’s address to the nation, so to speak, is just as calculated and cunning as her plans. They can give and they can withhold their inner thoughts.

Fleabag’s seductive grimace

Fleabag is not so conniving. Whilst as Frank Underwood guides us through the political maze in Washington, Fleabag (the name is never explained) guides us through womanhood. Specifically British womanhood. Much of the humor in her direct address stems from the stark difference in what she says to characters in the show and what she says to us in her asides. In one episode, her boyfriend makes the unfortunately very common mistake of comparing her to other women. “You’re not like most girls. You can…keep up.” She looks at him, seemingly moved by his half-compliment and then her attention snaps to the camera like a boomerang, giving us the look that she can’t give to him. Whether it’s because she’s British, and thus is brought up the conceal her true feelings in lieu of decorum, or because she’s a modern woman living in a sexist world. Either way, the cathartic (for her, and for us) asides reveal something interesting about womanhood. Maybe we do need a guide.

Like House of Cards, Fleabag also plays with the direct address trope. The direct addresses often lead to flashbacks of her dead best friend Boo. Not only is she speaking to us directly, she’s letting us into her memories. So, after becoming used to her confiding in us and revealing everything, in one key moment, she withholds. In Episode 4, a hippy dippy therapist at a silent retreat urges everyone to let go of their past. As if automatically, a flashback begins, but Fleabag hastily stops it. She looks at us uncomfortably, and says “not for now.” The flashback is eventually revealed in the final episode, but this moment is a hiccup in Fleabag’s seeming lack of control over her own narrative. As the viewer, we want more, but we also come to appreciate how much she’s already shared with us. And like in House of Cards, though seemingly a refreshing moment of unrestrained honesty on the characters’ parts, the direct address is deliberate. Do we even want someone to bear everything to us, and only ask for our attention in return? At least, that’s too big of a price for me to pay.

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