Fleabag finale: only connect
Broken fourth walls in television aren’t new. From House of Cards to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, protagonists have – sometimes with a subtle turn of the head, sometimes with a full-blown musical number – altered the fabric of their worlds, pulling aside the curtain or, you know, breaking a wall, to beckon us in. The opening scene of the very first episode of Fleabag sees Phoebe Waller-Bridge do the very same. ‘You know that feeling…’ she begins. In that moment, with that second person address, a connection between us forms. Considering that, at the end of the day, Fleabag is a TV show, it is genuinely quite alarming how very personal series two’s final scene felt. In the days since, I have come to blame the fourth wall.
At first, the fourth wall is just one of the many things that makes Fleabag spark. Throughout the first few episodes, her direct address to the camera feels like a comedic – then tragic – device, a means of mainlining her unpredictable female voice into a cultural consciousness previously saturated by those of raging, scabrous, fractured TV-men. For the majority of the first series we’re privy to her inner life in a way that the characters around her aren’t, but still she keeps us at arm’s length, only spinning us the version of the story she wants us to see.
It’s not until series one’s final episode that Waller-Bridge begins to really stretch the fabric of the form. Fleabag is still grappling to keep up the barrier between us – one forged from sarcastically arched eyebrows and wit – but, following an ill-fated appearance at her wicked stepmother’s sexhibition, after she finds herself abandoned by every significant person in her life, the barrier crumbles before her eyes. We finally understand what it is she’s been trying to keep from us all this time and the cameras – we – have her cornered, like a frightened hare. She panics; we’ve seen too much.
317 days, 19 hours and 26 later, we pick the relationship up again, this time both a little changed. There’s trust there now; we’ve seen the truth and yet here we still are. ‘I have friends’ she says, trying, to convince her one-time counsellor that she’s not completely alone, before throwing a wink at the camera. It’s an exhilarating moment. ‘Do you see them a lot,’ asks the counsellor. ‘Oh, they’re always there,’ Fleabag replies, ‘they’re always there.’ The fourth wall dissolves into the ether.
Without a barrier between us, the connection strengthens with each passing episode. We’re no longer voyeurs of her pain, we’re part of her; secret confidantes who act as the recipients of the kind of arch, honest asides she might once have shared with her mother, or with Boo. What Fleabag wants becomes what we want. We no longer root for her to do something entertainingly salacious, but instead – like real friends – we will her to do the thing that will bring her the greatest happiness.
Then, just when the ties that bind Fleabag to us feel at their most tightly knotted, the Priest looks us dead in the eye. Like her veiled admission of our existence to her counsellor, the moment wrenches us even deeper into Fleabag’s reality and, at the same time, tests the strength of our connection. Can The Priest see us because he possesses some kind of second sight? Or is it because of his genuine connection with Fleabag that he observes her with more clarity than anyone else? During one of these searching, penetrating moments, Fleabag shoots us a look: ‘He’s actually kind of annoying, isn’t he?’ She closes in on herself, protective of her secrets, and of us.
But by the very final scene, Fleabag has been pushed to a crucial realisation. Thanks to a careful rebuilding of her world since the breakdown of series one, she no longer needs to conceal any part of herself. Sex is no longer a ‘performance’ for us to laugh along with, her family is no longer fractured, the characteristics she inherited from her mother are not something to be shoved down deep, but to be proud of. She can connect in her own world and so — finally — she’s ready to be alone.
The thing is, I’m just not sure I was. To watch the line that tethered Fleabag and The Priest stretch and snap is so deeply painful because she’s right, we ‘know that feeling’. He turns, looks at her one last time, and leaves her at the bus stop to cry alone. Thanks to how beautifully drawn the characters are, and the electricity that surges between Waller-Bridge and Scott, the moment feels disarmingly real.
Just as I thought my little over-invested heart had borne all it would need to bear, the pattern begins to repeat. Fleabag stands, takes a last look at us, and starts to walk away. We follow, as usual, but with a shake of her head the line that tethers us to her snaps too. And that was real. Or, at least, it felt it.