Ben Rosenstock: ‘Fleabag’ and the allure of the realistic flashback

Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 5:35pm

I’ve never really lost anyone close to me. Two of my grandparents died when I was really little, so I hardly remember them. My cat died my senior year of high school, but we had seen it coming for a while, so by the time it happened it felt anticlimactic. The closest person I’ve lost is my piano teacher of six years, who passed away earlier this year. I was a little sad, but we had drifted apart in the three years since I’d worked with her, so it didn’t hit as hard as it could have.

But, to a certain extent, we all know what loss feels like. We feel it during break-ups, or when we stop being friends with someone. Sometimes we even feel this vague hole inside us that we’re not sure how to fill, and we can’t remember when it formed or what was there before.

In the raunchy British comedy “Fleabag,” which came to Amazon Prime on Sept. 16, Fleabag’s life is filled with loss of all kinds. Her mother, who died two years ago, has been replaced by an abhorrent stepmother who repeatedly squashes any chance of Fleabag bonding with her father. She doesn’t get along well with her sister, a woman whose affection she desperately craves even though they’re completely different. The little café she owned with her best friend Boo will go under unless she secures a loan. And oh yeah, about that best friend: she recently committed suicide, leaving Fleabag more alone than ever.

What’s special about “Fleabag” isn’t the plot itself. There are countless shows about strained familial relations and the grieving process; Amazon’s other new series, “One Mississippi,” is another good one. What’s special about “Fleabag,” even more than its razor sharp sense of humor and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s amazing central performance, is the way it uses formal elements to convey the unique symptoms of loss.

Central to all of this is the way Fleabag breaks the fourth wall, addressing us with raised eyebrows and Jim Halpert-esque reaction shots even while she’s still being spoken to. Breaking the fourth wall isn’t uncommon in comedy, especially in this age of mockumentaries, but there’s something especially powerful about the way this show uses it. It only gradually becomes clear that Fleabag is hoping her imaginary audience will fill the void left by her distant family and, most prominently, her best friend. We are a poor substitute for Boo; we can listen and conspiratorially share in her hilarious observations about the weird world she lives in, but crucially, we can never quite respond.

A listening ear can also be a judgmental one, though, and despite Fleabag’s relative shamelessness about sex and manners, there’s a deep sense of guilt that pervades her demeanor, exploding into the forefront in the season finale. It’s clear that Fleabag harbors significant shame about how she treated Boo in the time leading up to her suicide, and when she needs us the most, our silence comes across as judgment instead of understanding. The camera following Fleabag begins to feel intrusive and cruel, like we are the killer in a horror movie, an embodiment of her emotional demons chasing her.

Possibly the most effective element of “Fleabag,” though, is its flashbacks. In most series, like “Orange is the New Black” and “Lost,” flashbacks are of uniform length, structured to tell miniature, contained stories from characters’ pasts to give us insight about who they are. In “Fleabag,” however, flashbacks happen organically, whenever something reminds Fleabag of an old memory with Boo. It’s one of the most authentic depiction of flashbacks I’ve ever seen; they vary in length, sometimes lasting full scene-length, sometimes just a few seconds and in one particularly brutal instance, only a split-second. You can feel the flashbacks happening in real time — when there’s a particularly long scene from Fleabag’s past, she seems to zone out, only yanking herself back to consciousness when the memory is complete.

The flashbacks again exemplify that “Fleabag” understands loss better than any other show this year. There’s no closure to be found for Fleabag, only haunting, painful reminders of the friend she lost. Memories that used to be happy, comforting and pure have been tainted by the agony of the present; there’s nothing more heartbreaking than watching Fleabag and Boo doubled over laughing. Reviews always use the phrase “you’ll laugh and you’ll cry” when referring to comedies with dramatic undertones, but the phrase is never so true as in “Fleabag,” when every hilarious moment in the past has an equal and opposite reaction. The most joyful moments are the most tragic.

Anybody can understand that, even if you haven’t lost someone in that way. When I think about happy moments from my childhood, they make me smile, but they also make me sad that I can’t go back. There’s something inherently devastating about considering the past; innocuous moments you never thought twice about become rosy with the sheen of nostalgia, and you start missing everything just because you don’t have the option to go back. Sometimes I’ll have a split-second flashback of myself just walking down the hallway in high school, and suddenly I’ll be aching from how much I miss it, even though it’s not a particularly noteworthy moment.

Life is filled with flashbacks, even if they’re not as fully formed or structured as most TV flashbacks are. There are tons of images I can think of that make me wish I could revisit an old memory: our high school parking lot as my friends and I pull out on the last day of school, fluorescent green-gray lights in a building across the street like something from a David Fincher movie, the taste of almonds as I double over laughing in a kitchen at 2:00 A.M., my own incredulous groan at something cheesy Carrie Bradshaw said. All these memories wash over me, provoked by random words.

I thought of that sensation when I watched “Fleabag”: the feeling of being assailed by unwelcome memories, memories that are so sad because of how happy they are. “Fleabag” illustrates that loss isn’t just about missing someone you love. It’s about missing every moment from the past, no matter how small.