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TV’s 2 best performances in 2016 shared a surprising common trait

Westworld’s Evan Rachel Wood and Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge used artifice to get at deeper truths.

Westworld Fleabag
Evan Rachel Wood of Westworld (left) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge of Fleabag gave the TV performances of the year.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The TV performance of the year belonged to Westworld’s Evan Rachel Wood. She was closely followed, for my money, by Phoebe Waller-Bridge of Amazon’s Fleabag.

At first, the two would not seem to have that much in common; they’re not even playing members of the same species. Wood plays Dolores, a robot who’s slowly discovering she’s trapped in hell — which takes the form of a theme park meant to entertain rich humans — on a sci-fi show that sometimes (often) bites off more than it can chew.

Waller-Bridge, meanwhile, plays a very real, very human, very damaged young woman called Fleabag, who is attempting to move on from a dark event in her past by deflecting anything approaching real emotion with sarcasm and snide jokes. She’s also the main creative talent behind Fleabag, which was one of 2016’s very best shows and, with a first season that’s just under three hours long, one of its most compact.

Yet the deeper you dig into these two performances, the more connections you’ll uncover, and the richer those connections become. For one thing, both characters are a living, breathing examination of how to move past trauma and tragedy — though Dolores has tragedy foisted upon her again and again, while Fleabag bears a hand in creating her own. For another, both characters are frequently fearless, constantly breaking the rules they’re meant to live by.

But the thing that most closely ties these two roles together is how they function. On some level, both are about using performance and artifice as a defense mechanism, a sleight of hand that distracts you from noticing that the character won’t stop rubbing salt in her own wounds.

Evan Rachel Wood’s performance is full of tremendous technical accomplishment and skill

Evan Rachel Wood’s work as Dolores is a tremendous technical achievement.

Both Wood and Waller-Bridge are engaging in what I like to call "look at how much I’m acting" acting. When done poorly, this tends to become the stuff of satire, of YouTube clips meant to point to failed Oscar bait. But when done well, a performance like this becomes ever more impressive simply because you constantly realize the sheer technical difficulty of what’s happening onscreen, even as the actor makes it look easy.

Think of what Tatiana Maslany often does on Orphan Black, where she sometimes plays five or six characters in a given episode, all with their own cadence of speech and physical bearing. Especially in the show’s dynamite first season, Maslany never let you see the seams, never let you realize just how hard she was working, because watching her work was like watching a stunt performer fly over a gorge filled with sharks: You were half convinced she’d fail but still hoping she wouldn’t.

Between Wood and Waller-Bridge, Wood’s performance most closely rises to the level of what Maslany was doing. In one Westworld scene early in season one, we watch, in rapid succession, as she drops the borderline hysteria she feels after her family was attacked, then any emotion whatsoever, and then her Western accent. It’s a mission statement for the character going forward: Wood will always calibrate Dolores exactly to the specifications of whomever the character needs to be in whatever scenario Westworld has dreamed up for her.

And yet alongside that, Wood also has to carry a kernel of the "real" Dolores, the budding consciousness within the character that is slowly but surely leading her to understand the hell she’s trapped in. So she’s playing an inherently inconsistent character — who can even change modes of speaking in the blink of an eye — who nevertheless must have a core of real consistency.

And all the while, Wood must contend with the show’s now famously twisted timeline, which essentially has only Dolores (the very first Host Westworld ever rolled out) as its constant. Figuring out what’s happening when in the storyline is more or less completely dependent on paying close attention to how Wood is carrying herself. That she pulls this off in every scene is remarkable. (Even more remarkable: Sometimes, Dolores is simply living inside a memory of an old self, so Wood has to convey both the former Dolores and the future Dolores remembering the past Dolores, in the same scene.)

For many Westworld viewers, it can be difficult to appreciate Wood’s work due to the fact that all of these timeline shenanigans make Dolores’s story hard to track in terms of simple "This is what Dolores wants to do right now" plot logic. Where other characters in the show face more immediate conflicts, Dolores is constantly trapped in a maze, trying to find a way to awaken her own mind.

As a show, Westworld is a bit all over the place, but it’s never had to worry about its superlative cast, and especially Wood, who is asked to play so many twists and turns and layers that it would be easy to lose Dolores in the midst of them. But by the end of season one, she’s oriented herself, again, as the show’s North Star, the one thing everything else in the Westworld cosmos points toward.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, meanwhile, plays with the basic grammar of modern sitcom acting

Phoebe Waller-Bridge stars in Fleabag.

Compared with Wood’s massive canvas, Waller-Bridge’s relatively smaller-scale work in Fleabag could seem very small and insular. And yet the more you watch the series, the more you realize that Waller-Bridge is cannily using the rules of modern TV comedy against us.

Fleabag is based on a pretty typical comedy conceit, one that’s been exhausted on shows like Modern Family and The Office. There’s a camera, and the characters act one way when they forget the camera is watching and another way when they’re performing for the camera, and the humor comes from the gap between the two.

In Fleabag, the titular character constantly is aware that the camera is present. She frequently flashes sidelong glances at it, quirks eyebrows in surprise at it, and chortles privately for it. But, importantly, none of the other characters are aware of the camera. It functions, more or less, as Fleabag’s private pressure release valve, as a constant acknowledgement that she is "performing."

Waller-Bridge adapted Fleabag from her own play, and it’s not hard to see her character’s glances toward camera as similar to the way a stage actor might acknowledge the audience. The series’ directors use very precise, locked-down framing to make viewers constantly aware that Fleabag is in control of her story, even when she’s not, because this is the way she’s choosing to present it to us. She might not be in control of her own life, but she’s in control of her own TV show.

This creates a tension not unlike Westworld’s time-jumping gambits. On Fleabag, too, there’s a major conflict between the show itself and the audience. Viewers want to know what happened, what pushed Fleabag into despair (and they very well might guess), but they also know that the show will only reveal what’s happening when Fleabag is good and ready to reveal her past.

When it comes to controlling information, Fleabag succeeds at this kind of storytelling trickery where Westworld frequently failed — on Fleabag, the choice to keep certain dark secrets is deeply rooted in character, while on Westworld it’s mostly been made to toy with the audience’s expectations.

But look more closely, and both storytelling devices ultimately are about placing viewers in the main character’s head. After all, if we got lost in our memories as frequently as Dolores does, we might better understand what she goes through in season one of Westworld.

In that sense, both Wood and Waller-Bridge are playing very similar characters. Their inability to engage with past traumas, and their ability to deflect those who deeply want to know about said past traumas, is intricately tied to their use of performance and artifice as defense mechanisms.

Their shows keep throwing up mirrors that might force them to confront themselves, but at every turn, they run away. And yet when they reach the center of the maze inside their own heads, they find what they were both looking for and dreading all along: themselves.