Are You Okay, Phoebe Waller-Bridge?

With her dark comedy, the star and creator of Amazon’s series “Fleabag” is breaking new TV ground — while crashing through the fourth wall.

Written by Emilia Petrarca
Photographs by Ash Kingston

Ash Kingston

“Are you okay?”

It’s a loaded question that’s thrown around freely — and almost never received with an honest answer — in Amazon’s new TV series “Fleabag.” Usually, it’s lobbed in the direction of Fleabag herself, who is a twentysomething struggling London café owner played by the actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Fleabag is definitely not okay.

In the first episode, she shows up unannounced, drunk, and teary-eyed at her father’s doorstep in the middle of the night. “I’m totally fine,” she says, unprompted.

“Okay…” he replies, raising an eyebrow.

Fleabag forges on: “I have a horrible feeling that I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.” She delivers this with all the portent of a shrug.

“Well,” her father replies, “you get all that from your mother.” And then he calls her a cab home.

It’s emotionally subversive moments like this one that have earned the show the categorization of “dark comedy.” The character Fleabag was first conceived of four years ago when Waller-Bridge, 31, was challenged to take part in a friend’s stand-up storytelling night. The bit played well, and Waller-Bridge turned it into a one-woman stage-show, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 2013 and went on to win numerous awards. When it closed, Waller-Bridge was commissioned by the BBC in partnership with Amazon to create a six-episode series starring Fleabag, which premiered in the U.K. this summer, and this fall in the U.S., to further critical acclaim.

“Fleabag” has been described as a “gloriously rude, and far funnier, update of Bridget Jones,” while others have compared its modern-life relatability to “Girls” and “Sex and the City,” and its deep melancholy to “BoJack Horseman.” But what makes Fleabag original and compelling is that she’s the woman we all look away from because she is instantly recognizable in ourselves. She’s hopelessly lonely, but also in bed with everyone. And when she breaks the fourth wall and looks directly at the camera, which she does throughout the show, it can feel as though she’s moderating a conversation between the devil and angel on our own shoulders.

In the final episode, Fleabag tosses the question “Are you okay?” back at the audience in an attempt to bring us down with her: “Either everyone feels this a little bit, and they’re just not talking about it,” she says. “Or I’m really fucking alone, which isn’t fucking funny.”

Photo by Ash Kingston. Produced by Biel Parklee.

“Someone told me that when they first watched the pilot, they Googled: ‘Is Phoebe Waller-Bridge okay?’” Waller-Bridge said on the phone last week from her London flat. When asked if she was, in fact, okay, she laughed off the question. “Am I okay? That’s so funny. Yes,” she said. “I’m having a lovely time.”

Unlike her character, Waller-Bridge is not prone to oversharing the highs and lows of her personal life. But after watching the series, it’s hard to separate Fleabag from Waller-Bridge herself, whose own nickname, bestowed upon her by her family, was the inspiration for the show’s title.

“I completely relate to this person,” Waller-Bridge reassured me, despite the fact that Fleabag has been described as an “unlikeable character.” She continued: “I think it’s the aspects of her character that make her unlikeable are the most important part. You realize she’s hiding her pain, rather than projecting an attitude for no reason. Hopefully, that’s what lets her get away with her naughtier, immoral side.”

And it’s true, despite Fleabag’s tendency to fuck everyone and everything up, we still want to sympathize and root for her in the end. She’s a champion not only for the unlikeable, but for everyone who desperately wants to be liked. Which is, of course, everyone.

“The main relationship in the whole series was the one between the camera and Fleabag,” said Waller-Bridge of breaking the fourth wall. “I had to convince myself that whoever was watching on the other side of the camera was instantly complicit with Fleabag and instantly a friend of hers. There’s so much attitude in what she’s saying; if I felt like there was a judgmental audience, I would have failed miserably. You would have seen the rabid insecurity in my eyes.”

Photo by Ash Kingston. Produced by Biel Parklee.

Waller-Bridge, who first played Fleabag onstage at the age of 26, has been described by The Telegraph as “one of Britain’s most brilliant young performing talents.” She’s starred in the British crime drama “Broadchurch” and films such as The Iron Lady. And prior to releasing “Fleabag,” she also wrote and starred in another six-part comedy series called “Crashing,” which is considered the unofficial prequel to “Fleabag” — a bunch of twentysomethings failing their way into their thirties.

“To me, most comedy is dark comedy,” Waller-Bridge said. “There’s an innocent comedy… I was about to say that ‘Tom & Jerry’ is an innocent comedy, but that is so dark as well! Tom wants to kill the mouse the whole time and the mouse is tortured. Anyway, I guess all comedy is dark comedy. Or at least, the best comedy is. It’s that really thin line between laughing and crying. One is a release from the other, and I feel like all the best comedy comes from pain.”

There are two deaths — her mother’s, and her best friend’s — that shape Fleabag’s pain. Other than those topics, there is very little else that is out-of-bounds with Fleabag. She tackles, with forensic wit, everything from rape to butt stuff to “having a wank” to a “devilishly handsome” Barack Obama on the news while her boyfriend lies in bed next to her — a scene that perfectly encapsulates the show’s view on the issues of the day.

In the first episode, she and her sister Claire attend a feminist seminar. The lecturer poses the hypothetical question: “If you could lose five years of your life to have what society considers the perfect body, would you?” In the stoic audience, only Fleabag and her sister’s hands shoot straight up in the air.

When I posed the same hypothetical to Waller-Bridge herself, she responded: “Without hesitation. I think my life would be improved. Five years! It’s nothing!”

Feminist inquiry was only just heating up in the U.K. when Waller-Bridge first started writing “Fleabag” a few years ago. “At the time, there seemed to be so much pressure on what the definition of feminism was,” she said. “And the more the conversation got clouded, the more frustrated I got. It seemed to contradict itself so much. And that’s why I wanted to put Fleabag in that position of confusion, rather than give her a perfectly articulated voice about feminism. She absolutely wants to be able to identify as one, as every human being should. But she struggles to figure out what exactly that means, and she doubts herself.”

Without the audience noticing, “Fleabag” manages to weave issues of personal and structural power together in a way that feels both serious and lighthearted. Which is probably the best way to tackle any volatile topic — with one’s sense of humor intact.

“People are always trying to be on top,” said Waller-Bridge about the show’s central power dynamic (pun intended). “And not always with a macabre agenda, but I think that people are desperately trying to remain in control, rather than being honest.”

Photo by Ash Kingston. Produced by Biel Parklee.

By the end of the series, Fleabag is only slightly closer to defining herself, her boundaries, and how to move forward than when we met her, but she’s in a place that feels more honest and hopeful. In one of the final episodes, Fleabag smokes a cigarette with a bank employee who denied her a loan that would save her café. In one of the quietest, realest moments on the show, he asks her if she’s okay, and she replies, with a smile, “I just want to cry all the time.”

“There’s something that feels really completed about it,” said Waller-Bridge when I asked about the potential for a second season. “But at the same time, now I have her. I’m going to force myself to find the right story. As long as it’s the right story, I can bring the character back.”

For now, Waller-Bridge is enjoying the “warm bubble” of positive feedback, even if it’s on the Tube in London. “It is weird when people look at you and smile,” she admitted. “I’m constantly in a state of paranoia thinking that I’ve forgotten that person’s name, when actually I’ve never met them before.”

So she’s okay? “I’m just constantly on the verge of bursting into tears with joy,” she said. She sounded sincere.