For most of my life, I’ve had the vague suspicion that I am a fictional character. Ever since I was a kid, like a really, really little kid, I’ve had a sense of the edges of my reality, of the people in the studio audience who might be watching me.
Not actually, right? Like ... I don’t genuinely believe that if I sailed far enough out into the ocean I might bump into a wall painted to look like the sky, like Truman in The Truman Show. I know that no one is watching me on a screen, that I’m not a character in a novel or anything like that. (When Elon Musk briefly tried to convince everyone that we live in a simulation, I had a moment of, “Hmm ... maybe!”) The “fictional character” feeling hasn’t materially impacted my life in any way — though I’m aware that with a few twists in my mind here and there, it could have been debilitating.
But never mind that I know I’m a real person and not a construct. I still catch myself bumping up against little moments of serendipity that feel like they were written, more than events that happened. Or I’ll hear someone say something particularly concerning and mug for an unseen camera like Jim Halpert on The Office.
I don’t like to talk about this because saying, “I think I’m a fictional character,” is a pretty good way to make people around you feel very concerned about your well-being. But this little suspicion sneaking around the edges of my consciousness has always been a minor disassociation, a way of distracting myself from myself and inventing reasons that the pain and struggle associated with anybody’s life are part of some larger story that somebody somewhere is telling about me, to the cheers of an adoring audience.
The more I’ve talked to friends about it, or noticed the ways that they, too, mug for unseen cameras, the more I’ve realized that maybe not everybody thinks about reality in quite the way I often have, but almost all of us are aware of it somehow. Modern life feels so weird and meaningless and cruel at times — and modern technology makes it so easy to apply a performative filter to it, in the form of one screen or another — that starting to imagine some other reality just behind that fourth wall over there is tempting, at least a little bit. It’s a detachment. A defense mechanism.
So when BBC and Amazon’s Fleabag — a show about a woman named Fleabag, who is, like me, in her 30s, and who keeps breaking the fourth wall to talk to the audience, sometimes while she’s in the middle of a conversation with somebody on her plane of reality — released a second season that directly addressed this same tendency within Fleabag herself, I almost couldn’t look right at it. It was too bright.
And it’s one of the best seasons of TV I’ve seen in ages.
It’s hard to talk about Fleabag because talking about Fleabag robs it of some of its power
Here’s the problem with talking about Fleabag: A lot of what makes it work stems from the audacity of its presentation, from the sheer skill with which Phoebe Waller-Bridge (who wrote every episode and stars as Fleabag) flits between Fleabag in her reality and Fleabag looking through the camera and into ours. But that presentation is hard to convey in words.
(Still, I’m going to put a spoiler warning here, because I am enormously glad I watched season two knowing next to nothing about what happens, even though “what happens” amounts to “Fleabag is reunited with her family as she prepares for her father’s wedding.”)
“She looks at the camera sometimes” doesn’t seem that impressive by itself because lots of movie and TV characters are well aware of the camera in their midst. (The obvious, kind of terrible example is Frank Underwood from House of Cards.) The brazen theatricality of this idea (and here I’ll note that Fleabag began its life as a stage play) is so easy to overdo if all involved aren’t very careful about it. (Again: Frank Underwood.)
What’s tricky about Fleabag is that Waller-Bridge breaks the fourth wall in nearly every scene, sometimes within single lines of dialogue. She’ll be walking down the sidewalk with her love interest — the gorgeous and sexy Catholic priest who will be officiating her father’s wedding, who is played by Sherlock vet Andrew Scott, and who’s been dubbed the “Hot Priest” by Fleabag fans — and the two will be having a conversation when she suddenly flits her eyes toward us to mention, “His beautiful neck.” But she has to do this in a way that doesn’t make it feel like she has completely abandoned the conversation she’s in with the Priest.
Watching her work is a basic reason to check out Fleabag: Waller-Bridge’s skill at playing with the relationship between Fleabag and viewers is notable on a sheer level of being a virtuoso performance by an actor at the top of her game. The character is constantly aware of two levels of reality — the characters she’s hanging out with as well as all of us in the audience — and Waller-Bridge plays this awareness a little like Fleabag is constantly distracted by something, like we’re the phone screen she can’t quite look away from, even though she’s talking to somebody else.
Fleabag’s first season used the relationship between Fleabag and the show’s viewing audience to tease out the dark moments from the character’s past that she’d prefer to forget. She was so smart and caustic and witty that it was easy to accept her fourth-wall breaks as a kind of inner monologue — but little by little, these moments proved to be self-laceration, an unwillingness to forgive herself for her sins.
Similarly, season two initially feels as though the talking-to-the-camera thing is a crutch that Fleabag relies on, having outlived its usefulness now that its title character has started to properly grieve her dead friend Boo and the role she played in Boo’s death. Talking to the camera is a thing Fleabag does, and it’s a thing the show does, so of course she’s going to keep doing it, offering witty, snide asides that elicit some great laughs in the middle of all the farce (and given that this is a season where Fleabag falls for a Catholic priest, farce abounds).
But then something magical happens: Fleabag and Fleabag both start to realize that the audience is a crutch. Talking to the camera is a storytelling device, yes, but it’s also Fleabag trying to disassociate from her own life, a defense mechanism built up in the wake of a friend’s death. From Fleabag’s perspective, we are the fictional characters. Her relationships with the people she loves have been broken just a bit, and the more she uses us as a way to avoid the work of fixing them, the worse they become.
What’s more, season two’s most audacious gamble weds the show’s fourth-wall breaks and its romantic plot. The more Fleabag and the Priest connect (with hints of romantic tension, despite the whole vow of chastity thing, and Fleabag starting to open herself up to something religious in nature, despite the whole deep-seated cynicism thing). He starts to realize that something is distracting her from their conversation just a little bit. The Priest doesn’t ever see us, but he does look right into the camera at one point, because she was just looking at us and he wants to see what she sees.
Fleabag opens the season by announcing that we’re watching a love story — and yes, she and the Priest flirt up a storm, with amazing chemistry to boot. But the beauty of the story is the way it understands that the hardest thing about love, sometimes, is to realize that you are worthy of being loved.
For a certain sort of person, loving someone else is easy, but loving oneself is hard, as cheesy as that sounds. And for that sort of person (not that I would know or anything), deflection, or looking for a camera that’s not actually there, can provide the opportunity to disconnect from life just a little bit, while still maintaining the barest of tethers to reality to make sure nobody else realizes anything is wrong.
But when you meet somebody who does ...
Fleabag has turned to us so often because we have to watch her. We’re a captive audience, at least on some level. And, sure, she lusts for the Priest, because he’s so very hot, but what shakes her even more than her attraction to him is the realization that he can’t see us, but maybe he can see her. I’ll leave it to you to find out what happens between them.
Waller-Bridge has said that she believes Fleabag season two will be her last outing playing the character, and it’s this sudden bit of self-realization that marks just how hard it will be for both the character and the show to ever return to this particular well. Now that Fleabag has recognized us for the crutch we are, she can hopefully resume her life as it was.
This might be the end for Fleabag. Even though the series has only lasted 12 episodes, that feels appropriate.
The sixth and final episode of Fleabag season two — and probably the series overall — is packed with wisdom and an exact sense of where to leave a story so the audience aches for more, even as they realize that to extend the story would be extraneous and unnecessary.
Even so, I’ll be there in an instant if Waller-Bridge decides, in a few decades’ time, that it would be fun to see what Fleabag looks like in her 40s, in her 50s, in her 60s, etc. And by deftly juggling faith and love in season two, Waller-Bridge proves herself more than capable of talking about the sorts of big themes that have always animated some of our best stories. How might she tackle marriage? Parenthood? Death?
But wishing for more Fleabag would be selfish on my part. Fleabag never feels gimmicky, because the show is thoughtful enough to ask, “Just what is Fleabag doing when she looks at the camera?” A lot of shows wouldn’t so thoroughly question a device this central to their storytelling. But if Fleabag were to push beyond her moment of realization, if it made her twist her crooked smile our way for season after season, it would rob that moment of its power. What had once been funny would become sad.
As much as I would like to see Fleabag again, I’d also like to know that she’s attained a kind of inner peace. I know all too well that fighting through the thicket of your own mind is the work of a lifetime and not a couple of years’ worth of TV. But Fleabag did it. Why not anyone? Why not me?
It took years of therapy, but I tracked down the schism inside myself that made me approach reality as a series of character arcs. With time and effort, the sense that I am a fictional character has gone away. I don’t yet know quite who I am, but I’m starting to understand where my boundaries are and fill in the map of my own head. It hasn’t been easy, and it won’t suddenly become so. But I’ve started, and that is enough.
So if I’m wrong about all of the above — if I truly am a fictional character in some other universe, if you love watching me look toward the camera, if you see a little bit of yourself in my moments of candor — consider this a farewell. After all, ever since I finished season two, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Fleabag’s farewell to me, one last look back on a long walk away. Some relationships are best defined by the boundaries we set, and by how they end, however bittersweet.
Fleabag is airing — in its hopeful entirety — on Amazon.