An attempted link between Fleabag’s mastery of the technique and our daily lives
Whoops. The character from that TV series just glimpsed at you, did you catch that? If you did, then you probably know what breaking the fourth wall means. Starting from the tv series Fleabag, food for thought is up for grabs to debate on whether something can be said about our daily habits.
I recently came across the tv series Fleabag once again and decided to rewatch it, having the opportunity to delve into it with a more conscientious approach, so to say. I won’t spoil anything about the content, but I will tell you that one of the most memorable aspects about Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s series is the breaking of the fourth wall1. The concept of fourth wall was developed around the 17th or 18th century, but the willing suspension of disbelief by the audience goes way back in terms of theatrical representations. This indirectly agreed-upon wall represents an imaginary division between the actors and the spectators. Just as one of those mirrors you must have seen in some police film: actors only see themselves, while the audience can see through. Breaking the fourth wall, thus, brings the artistic work inside the world of metatheatrical expression; several experiments on this theatrical and cinematographic technique have been carried out (just to mention one, Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of on Author is a main instance of an absurdist metatheatrical composition). All of this said, Waller-Bridge is able to floor the public by creating a direct contact with them, in their own homes or through their phones.
In a way, Fleabag’s character seems to be reassuring her audience with sarcastic humorous laughs. Perhaps, though, it can be also seen the other way around: Fleabag is constantly looking for reassurance and she seeks it through the camera lens, knowing that someone is going to be behind that. The series has been praised for being peculiarly delicate and persuasive in using the technique of breaking the fourth wall2. It has been written that the degree of intensity with which this technique is embedded in Fleabag overlooks it being merely a narrative mechanism, but could resemble some form of dissociation from reality3. Fleabag’s character engages in conversations addressed directly to the viewers; they are not just comments or descriptions, rather appear as explanations, confessions, rhetorical questions.
Pondering all these theories and comments, I thought, don’t we all do that? Through social media and instant messaging, aren’t we all looking for constant (graphic) reassurance? In engaging with our mediatic audiences, don’t we all put up a sort of character, a sort of defined personality that we want to spread and share, perceiving each other all the time? It has happened sometimes that people on social media would break the fourth wall, speaking directly to their public, with or without breaking character – with or without seeking for reassurance.
Some critics and journalists have inquired on whether the fourth wall can still be broken with some sense, while some others have posed the question of the ‘quality of this technique’4. Leaving it to you to decide whether breaking the fourth wall can still be effective or not, for sure today (especially) younger generations are more exposed to practices that resemble it; even if they are not proper instances of fourth-wall-breaking, social media, online meetings, videocalls are representative cases of what got us all used to being looked at directly through a screen. And perhaps this is why now, in the arts, breaking the fourth wall should be done with parsimony. Going back to Fleabag, the series extremises all kinds of experiences – be they good or bad –, bringing them on the verge of being surreal. And that may be the goal of the whole series, prompting reasoning and thinking into the viewers.
A query lingers: can we still be amazed by narrative techniques or are we all numbed by being bombarded with perceivable contents all the time? Well, I do not know about you, but I can safely say that, at least in my case, Fleabag represented a positive answer to the question above. You might as well give it a try.