Any synopsis of BBC Three’s Fleabag fails to do justice to its originality. The recent half-hour single-camera comedy follows its eponymous protagonist, a woman in her late twenties, as she lives her mildly disastrous life in the city, navigating her way through all your favourite sitcom elements: a dead end job (at a guinea pig café), strained familial relationships and a series of sexual misadventures.
The brainchild of Phoebe Waller-Bridge has had a life almost as chaotic as its leading lady. Starting off life as a 10-minute stand-up routine, Waller-Bridge reworked her material into a one woman play and took it to the Edinburgh festival before it eventually made its way onto our screens in its current guise.
With its focus on realistic depictions of sex and dating for women in the modern, metropolitan world, comparisons with Girls are inevitable. But Fleabag is far more structurally ambitious, and is all the more charming for it.
The cold open of the first episode sets the tone for what’s about to follow. It opens on a POV shot of the inside of a front door and then cuts to Fleabag, who is breathing heavily, trying to compose herself. She then turns to the camera and says:
“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 got in yourself, so you have to get out of bed, drink half a bottle of wine, get in the shower, shave everything, dig out some Agent Provocateur business… and wait by the door until the buzzer goes? And then you open the door to him like you’ve almost forgotten he’s coming over.”
At which point the doorbell goes, her bloke comes in and they get right down to it. Quick cut to them having sex before they roll over while switching positions and Fleabag addresses the camera again and lets us know that “he’s edging towards [her] arsehole” and she lets him because she’s drunk “and he’s made the effort to come all the way to see you”. A slightly bizarre morning after conversation follows and then she confides in us that she’s spent the rest of the day wondering “Do I have a massive arsehole?”
Cue opening credits.
Even in isolation this tells you everything you need to know about the interests and presentation of the show. Waller-Bridge plays her own lead and breathlessly rattles off her lines, increasing her pace as she barrels towards the end, with the sharpness and brightness of someone who knows the absurdity of what she’s describing.
Breaking the fourth wall for the purpose of massively oversharing instantly endears us to our heroine and creates an intimacy between audience and character. Asides and soliloquys have long been in the arsenal of the playwright who wants to give voice to the psychological interiors of their characters, with Bill Shakespeare being the most obvious proponent, and the Richard III-inspired House of Cards being a more contemporary example. Fleabag utilises the device to considerably different ends, though. Whereas Frank Underwood’s addresses to the camera are rooted in ego – a need for him to let you know that he’s the smartest person in the room; to mock his inferiors for their stupidity; to get the audience to collude and delight in his dastardly plans – Fleabag’s reasons for talking to us are far less consciously self-serving. Her narration of events before they happen, her running commentary and wry observations are shared with us in confidence. She shares her secrets and her witty jokes with us as though we’re friends and it’s an effective way of quickly developing empathy for a flawed character.
The rest of the recurring cast are familiar, stock characters drawn from the urban sitcom tradition – her uptight, straight-laced, successful career woman of a sister and her slimy, lecherous husband; her repressed and emotionally distant father and her relentlessly dreadful step-mother; a cavalcade of truly, truly awful men who flit in and out of her bed and life – but they’re drawn and performed with enough idiosyncrasies and given enough of an arc to spring into life in orbit around a charismatic central performance.
More importantly, it’s hilarious. The punchlines land and the scenarios, and Fleabag’s reaction to them, are always relatable, regardless of how absurd they might seem.
But as the episodes progress, a sense of melancholy pervades the narrative as it becomes clear that Fleabag’s chaotic behaviour is being driven by something darker. The first episode ends with the revelation that her friend Boo, who was hit by the bike in order to elicit sympathy from her cheating boyfriend, actually died. Throughout the rest of the season, we’re given more insight into their relationship and just how mutually supportive and important they were to each other. It’s not saccharine best-friends-forever sort of story, but rather a way of showing how real friendship can a foundation to build the rest of a life on.
The show makes excellent use of flashbacks to deepen our understanding of their relationship and their shared history. These flashbacks arrive with little fanfare, invading the narrative without notice to show a fragment of a memory. It’s an authentic and heartbreaking depiction of the way that even minor, everyday things can trigger memories and catch us off guard, as well as recognising how painful this can be when we’re grieving. The fact that these flashbacks are fragmentary and therefore incomplete is both true to life and of significance in the larger story, but we’ll come back to that.
Watching Boo and Fleabag laugh together with a glass of wine in their co-owned café or ogling their fit new neighbour while extremely stoned is joyous, but it’s also tinged with a profound sadness as Boo’s death has severed their bond. In fact, as more of their relationship is revealed, it becomes clear that Boo was Fleabag’s real family. Suddenly, our protagonist’s overactive libido and her strained attempts to reconnect with her sister can be seen in a different light – the loss of Boo, of someone that she was so close to, has left such a gaping void at the centre of her world that means everything Fleabag has been doing is an attempt to fill that void with some intimacy; including turning to her biological sister as a surrogate for the sister she’s lost. Her witty, carefree demeanour is a facade and it masks someone who is trying to process their grief but can’t find a healthy way to do.
And it’s here that the device of breaking the fourth wall really comes into its own. Her desperate loneliness and need for connection in the absence of Boo is what motivates her to turn towards the camera. Fleabag has lost the only person who understands her, who laughs at her mercilessly dark humour, who accepts her faults so she tries to talk to the audience, to make jokes with us in an attempt to recapture what she’s lost – someone who listens to her, knows her and loves her – someone she can share her life with.
It’s a brilliant conceit. It’s the sort of storytelling decision that elevates Fleabag from being a funny, enjoyable show to being an innovative and remarkable piece of work. Using the way the story is told to further the type of story being told, while grounding it all in character motivation, is a hallmark of quality storytelling. Here form and function are aligned in order to develop the thematic concerns of the show as a whole and it works seamlessly. *
As noteworthy as the show’s use of breaking the fourth wall and flashbacks is, the way it uses a far more simple device is even more impressive.
In the final episode, there’s a major twist; a revelation that hits you like a ton of bricks, even if you’ve seen it coming. We discover the real reason for Boo stepping out in front of the cyclist: Fleabag is the one who had sex with Boo’s boyfriend.
It’s a big twist and it’s shocking, but it works because it doesn’t just rely on shock value: it utterly reframes everything we’ve seen before. Not only does it cause specific scenes take on new resonance – an awkward encounter with Boo’s ex in the shoe shop; a brief memory of seeing someone unbuckle his belt; the image of Boo stepping out into the road – it also changes our perspective of Fleabag’s character (as well as explaining the self-deprecating title). Her hedonistic tendencies, her inability to confront her real feelings and her efforts to repair her relationship with her sister are all recontextualised with this new information. Her behaviour is no longer just attempt to fill the void at the centre of her life, or a method to manage her grief – it’s also a way for her to try to assuage her own guilt.
Fleabag’s habit of breaking the fourth wall is also called into question with this twist. The revelation that she’s been an unreliable narrator, and therefore hasn’t told us the whole truth, shouldn’t come as a surprise, given how frequently we’ve witnessed how her thoughts and actions deviate from one another. We’ve seen her do this constantly throughout the season, so it makes sense that she’s not been entirely honest with us either. It’s designed to make the audience feel stupid for not seeing it coming and creates a sense of betrayal, mirroring the reaction of Boo (and enhancing the notion of the audience as Boo subsitute).
A lot of the time a big third act reveal is a pretty hollow experience that has little effect other than creating a way to delay the plot until it reaches its climax. What makes the twist in Fleabag work so well is that it informs our understanding of the central character, in addition to informing our understanding of the plot. It’s so refreshing to see a widely used story device actually deployed with purpose.
But for all its clever formal tricks and structural ingenuity, Fleabag is first and foremost supremely entertaining. It’s a filthy and witty comedy, with a bitterly wicked sense of humour and a deeply affecting tragic core. It’s about how vitally important human connection is and how sorely we feel its absence. It’s about how even if we’re truly broken and even if we’re phenomenally shitty to one another, we can still be better to each other. It’s about love and loss and loneliness.
It’s well worth a watch.
* In an interview with the AV Club, Waller-Bridge explains how, as a way of mitigating her nerves at doing stand-up, she decided to write and perform her routine by imagining she was delivering her material directly to her friend in the crowd. The fourth wall breaking definitely seems like a remnant of this original source, both structurally and thematically, as a way of talking to someone you’re close to as a coping mechanism.