How ‘Fleabag’ Bridges the Gap with the Fourth Wall

The second and final season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag is a thing of many miracles. Most discussed is the show’s introduction of the Hot Priest (Andrew Scott), a character who is as charming, disarming, complicated and, yes, hot, as any great romance love interest. Scott’s and Waller-Bridge’s ability to make her whole audience swiftly and thoroughly fall in love with a religious authority figure is the season’s first and, to date, most-celebrated miracle.

Then there’s the miracle of unorthodox storytelling: the fact that Waller-Bridge, who has a playwright’s background, barely gives any characters — including her own protagonist — proper names. Despite this, the tit-for-tat rhythm of each perfectly-paced scene feels so natural (at times purposely stilted, but still natural) that we only recognize the anonymity of these characters if or when she chooses to draw attention to it. Characters are called “Dad” and “Godmother” and “You” and “Him,” and somehow the overall impression left by the namelessness is not one of distance but of intimacy. As with her other shows, Crashing and Killing Eve, Waller-Bridge is a masterful writer. The entire series is only 12 episodes, six hours, yet by the end, we recognize the main characters as more than thin comedic sketches or unnamed allegorical players. They misspeak and mess up and feel things they shouldn’t and laugh at the wrong times; they’re heightened, sure, but they’re people just like you or me.

Fleabag’s greatest miracle also happens to be the one that’s toughest to pin down. It’s another play on a familiar storytelling device, although this one focuses our attention even more precisely on the line between unreality and truth. The fourth wall, that invisible barrier between an audience and a subject, has long since stood between us and the things we see on screen, but it’s by no means sacred. Everyone from Ferris Bueller to Dora the Explorer has done a direct address to camera, and at this point, the device seems to be used arbitrarily as often as it is with a purpose.

Fleabag’s second season isn’t just breaking the fourth wall, but tearing down the very concept of a fourth wall as we know it in order to reimagine the connection between the viewer and viewed as something bolder and deeper. Waller-Bridge’s character has been joking and intimating details in our direction since the series’ first episode, and while her unbeatable acting and quippy writing made the whole thing feel fresh, it still functioned as a traditional reference to the camera throughout the first season.

We initially get the sense that Waller-Bridge has more in mind for the fourth wall during a therapy session scene in Season 2, Episode 2. Her titular character shows up to redeem a gift voucher her father gave her, only to find that the therapist (Fiona Shaw) is able to see past her glib persona more easily than expected. After the therapist calls her on her loneliness, she insists, “I have friends.” “So you do have someone to talk to,” the therapist says. “Yeah,” our protagonist answers, with a cheeky wink to the camera. Asked if she sees them a lot, she replies, “Oh, they’re… they’re always there,” then repeats the phrase more seriously, glancing regretfully to the camera as if hoping we won’t notice. In just a few seconds, it becomes clear that Waller-Bridge’s character is aware in-narrative of the presence she’s referencing, conceptualizes it as a collective rather than an individual, and has mixed feelings about it.

Before therapy, the woman known only as Fleabag was engaging almost as much with the camera as she was with those around her, sometimes turning a full 180 degrees just to give us a pithy one-liner. Going forward, there’s a hint of reticence in her attention to the screen, her jokes and asides offset by glances that communicate an uneasiness with our judgment or attention. Then the priest notices us. “We’ll last a week,” she comments to the camera after the pair decide to be friends without benefits. “What was that?” he says to her, and it’s a thrilling moment, an unnerving surprise that questions the sanctity of the narrative structure we’ve come to understand. “Where’d you just go? You just… went somewhere,” he insists despite her denials. This brief moment reveals that her asides, then, aren’t extra-narrative but a vital facet of the story itself, a dissociation or lack of emotional presence that only he has been astute enough to recognize. She’s unsettled, and so are we, but the show’s just getting started.

In the next episode, she and the priest are walking down the sidewalk, and as they discuss the afterlife, she muses to us about his body. The divine and the earthly topics collide, however, when she accidentally looks to us in answer to his question, then to him for a comment on his neck. He hears her. In his earnestness and attention, the priest is able to unground her enough to fray her interior narrative structure — since, by this point, it’s clear that this is the character’s tool as well as the writer’s — at the seams. Either that or he has a direct line to the heavens that gives him a fourth-wall-breaking sixth sense. From that point on, the priest begins to treat her asides as a disservice to herself, and with sweetness and humor, he pushes her to stay connected to the moment she’s in.

“I’ve spent most of my adult life using sex to deflect from the screaming void inside my empty heart,” the protagonist says when she’s in therapy, and it becomes clear that she’s feeding the void in her dissociative moments. In a flashback to her mother’s funeral, a period during which she didn’t acknowledge the camera at all, she tells her best friend Boo (Jenny Rainsford) that she doesn’t know where to put the love she had for her mom. “I’ll take it,” Boo says, “It’s got to go somewhere.” This brief exchange, already somber, is made heartbreaking by our knowledge that Boo killed herself after Waller-Bridge’s character slept with her boyfriend. Our protagonist’s tremendous grief, guilt, and detachment, once just an outline, now take clear shape all at once. She loved her mom, and her mom died, so her love went to Boo. Boo died, and the tangle of emotions surrounding her death was so overwhelming and dangerous that she wasn’t willing to touch it again, even if it meant the love stayed tied up.

So this woman we’ve been following for two seasons instead gave her love, a brittle and incomplete form of it, to us, to the camera, to the unknown audience in her mind, rather than go near the memories of those whom she can no longer hear speak back to her. The protagonist’s self-destructive approach to love, sex, family, and everything else is conveyed in quips and coolness because that feels so much easier than emotionally gutting herself for others to see. She knows better than most that vulnerability, when punished, withers. In the end, the priest may not be hers to take, but by easing her down from the emotional ledge she’s cultivated, he’s the only one capable of making her recognize what she’s lost when she decided to become invulnerable. He says as much during his sermon at the series finale wedding: “Love is awful. It’s painful. It’s frightening. Makes you doubt yourself, judge yourself, distance yourself from the other people in your life.” Here, her eyes slide to the camera. We’re the distance, not the love. “So no wonder it’s something we don’t want to do on our own,” he says, and although he’s probably looking at her, it almost looks like he sees us, too.

Most love stories are surface level. If you already love romance, you’ll enjoy them, and if you don’t, you might not. Fleabag’s second season is declared a love story in its very first scene, as our hero pats at her bloodied face in a restaurant bathroom. Miraculously, she’s not kidding. It’s one thing to hear a therapist or friend say — as I and many other viewers likely have — that hurt and distance, however large, can be overcome by human connection. It’s another to see it demonstrated artfully, holistically, and undeniably on-screen. By the end of the series, Waller-Bridge may as well be reaching through the camera to shake those of us who trust pain more than love back to life. When her character and the priest state their love for one another even as they leave each other, it doesn’t feel like an ending, but a beginning. All season, people criticize our protagonist for being the way she is, as if she’s a walking hurricane and not a human being. The priest knows better. Their unspoken covenant is one of intentional connection, not just with one another, but with the world. In the final scene, she breaks the wall one last time with a little wave before leaving us at the bus station. As she walks off, a solitary figure in the night, neither she nor the audience should feel alone. Alabama Shakes plays us out: “So please don’t take my feelings/I have found a name/Yeah, if I wanted to, I’d be alright.”

Valerie Ettenhofer: @aandeandval Val is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer, TV lover, and cheese plate enthusiast. You can find her @aandeandval wherever social media accounts are sold.