Facing Fleabag: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Punch in the Heart”

Curator's Note

Fleabag is renowned for Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s ribald humor, bold sexuality, and striking use of direct address. Yet her direct address evolves across the series’ two seasons: it’s always hilarious, but it increasingly redounds to her larger ethical project, ultimately targeting the viewer through its “face-to-face encounters” (see Levinas). Producer Sarah Hammond confirms this as the show’s fundamental goal: “When you laugh you’re really vulnerable, and what Phoebe does is she gets you just when you’re laughing, and it comes out of nowhere.” The comedic direct address in Fleabag, Waller-Bridge explains, entices viewers “to open themselves up—to then be punched in the heart.”

Season One uses direct address frequently and familiarly. Fleabag’s visual check-ins and asides share her wry musings with the audience, creating moments of comedy through camaraderie and omniscience: “He’s going to leave the dinosaur,” “He’s going to bring in odd canapes now,” “We’re going to have sex.” But our constant presence also manifests an emotional crutch—one of many (drinking, smoking, sex, cruelty)—to avoid grieving and admitting that her wrong choices damaged herself and others.

But Season Two interrogates Fleabag’s deflections through the mechanism of direct address itself—in unprecedented ways. The audience remains her confidant and co-conspirator, yet we increasingly function as mirror, witness, and judge. “At the beginning [the direct address] sounds quite fun,” Waller-Bridge observes, “but actually it's a nightmare … This constant eye on her was the perfect pressure for her to then crack under, because she wasn't being honest and truthful.” The new character of The Priest senses that her dependence upon us is an escape from intimacy with others: whenever she addresses us, he shockingly asks, “Where did you go just now? It’s like you disappeared!” Eventually The Priest inspires her to risk vulnerability with others, to grieve, and to love. She becomes accountable to herself, to us, and to others—thereby modeling emotional and ethical accountability for us. Indeed, Waller-Bridge’s goal for Fleabag is to entice the viewer—through the one-two punch of comedic, heartfelt direct address—to face and embrace that responsibility among self and others as well.



Brown, Tom. Breaking The Fourth Wall: Direct Address In The Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012).

Lévinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969.

Waller-Bridge, Phoebe. Interview. “Edinburgh Showcase 2017: 'Fleabag' by DryWrite and Soho Theatre.” British Council Arts. June 28, 2017.

Waller-Bridge, Phoebe. Interview by Terri Gross. “’Fleabag' And 'Killing Eve' Creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge Is Full Of Surprises.” National Public Radio. Fresh Air. May 13, 2019.



Virginia, I find your reading of the evolution of direct address across two seasons of Fleabag and its ethical implications cogent and compelling. Having recently gotten turned on to the contemporaneous Chewing Gum (2015-2017), I’m curious to know how/if you read creator/star Michaela Coel’s own use of direct address as operating in tandem with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s. Interestingly, both developed their breakout roles/series from theatrical works they wrote and performed; Faye Woods’ 2019 article puts their respective work (and use of direct address) in dialogue. Do you see this technique deriving from theatrical or stand-up traditions and/or other gendered modes of spectatorial address (e.g. Austenian voice-over in Clueless, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and The Mindy Project)? Is it your sense that direct address as a technique has been traditionally gendered masculine, in which case should Waller-Bridge’s (and Coel’s) feminine/feminist interventions in this regard be included within our thinking about it/them as (an) ethical project(s)?   

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