The greatest, most dynamic character on television this year is silent. Sans dialogue, sans close-up, sans the ability to see which way the camera is — yet this star, nevertheless, persists
The eyebrow of Brit writer-director-actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge (possessing as many facets of talent as she does barrel-names) deserves a BAFTA. In fact, it deserves all the plaudits and the rightful acknowledgement that is has more conniving, ball-busting, gut-wrenching power in its most minute movement than some actors have over an entire career.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s eyebrow could move mountains. Not through unrefined destruction but through precise, chisel-like wit. Through a twitch, not a furrow. When this brow rises, it strikes low, burrowing to the centre and chipping at the exact nerve it desires: be it a laugh, a cringe, or a twinge of the heartstring. It tickles you pink, then leaves a lump in your throat on its way out. It moves your soul.
The way Waller-Bridge utilises this eyebrow in her hit BBC series Fleabag is like so: She (the titular Fleabag) sits at the dinner table with her family for the first time in a year. The last time her stepmother saw her she was laying a slap around Fleabag’s face. Right in the nook between the front door and the coat-rack where Fleabag’s father would hopefully not (but in fact, does) see. Right in the hallway where Fleabag’s dead mother used to lay her shoes. This stepmother, now seated to her right, leers over plates of entrees and wineglasses and calls Fleabag darling.
Fleabag looks down the lens, right at us, and raises her eyebrow.
Or like this: Fleabag is mopping up a bloody nose in the bathroom after her long-running feud with her sleazy brother-in-law turned, at last, physically violent. On the floor at her feet, a waitress who caught a stray fist haplessly cleans herself up too. Things are dire. Things are concerning. But when Fleabag turns to us, the eyebrow is raised, and along it pulls the corner of her mouth northward into a crooked grin. We breathe a sigh of relief. We know if the eyebrow is up, then her spirit is not far behind, higher and higher beyond the sardonic and into the delightful realm of sheer optimism. Like a secret weapon, this eyebrow is used sparingly and usually at the last minute. Right at the pinnacle of despair or awkwardness it appears, kicking down the door and strutting in from the wings of Waller-Bridge’s expressive face. The eyebrow is the last call for hope and laughter when everything has gone to spare.
Some highlights of its grand entrances include, but are not limited to: the sanitary section of a corner-shop after an attractive man spies Fleabag buying tampons, in the reflection of the passenger seat window as Fleabag’s repressed sister weeps over the steering wheel, in a bed post break-up, on the bus after accidental flirting, in the art studio of the hated stepmother after Fleabag pockets an expensive ornament for vengeance and, most preciously, from within the folds of a client chair in a therapist office when Fleabag is asked if she has friends and, in response, shoots one brief, glorious brow-lofted gaze towards us.
Fleabag is not the first show to break the fourth wall and address the audience, and it won’t be the last. But there is something about Waller-Bridge’s secret weapon, something unique. It is not the direct, lingering (and, in hindsight, very telling) aggression of Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards stare. Neither is it the empty blink that characterises The Office ensemble. When Fleabag looks out at us, the quirk of the eyebrow strikes a bullseye somewhere between hilarity and distress. She looks disconcerted, yes, but it is the brow that leads. Like a hook, it draws the entire portrait of her face round to centre-frame —showing impertinence before anything else.
That high-arch and playful dip that cavorts between her hairline and her eyes says, ‘yes, this is a mess, life is a mess, but I am still on top’. It says, ‘don’t you dare pity me, laugh with me’. Not snide, or beseeching, it is instead the perfect shelf from which a healthily irreverent attitude dangles. She might raise her eyebrow twice or three times per episode, rationing it between blinks. It’s a flash, a ripple in a river, a dart of something under the tide that hints at, but does not overwhelm, in troubled depths.
Fleabag is a miraculous TV saga of a flawed, messy, self-possessed woman, one who is un-beholden to anything, even to the constraints of the narrative. With every implementation of it, the razor-edge of her eyebrow breaks barriers. It would have been enough for Waller-bridge to give us Fleabag in of herself — the foremost female anti-hero — but she also gave us the brow. And every time the brow quirks our way, every one of us watching is invited in. It’s a joke, but it’s also the most earnest promise a television character has ever made: ‘Play along, and this one’s for you’. And we do, every time, eyes on the screen and brows aloft — because we are all Fleabag.