Continued from TV Talk: Atlas Shrugged vs Fleabag (Part 1)
Mark: ‘I think the confession scene, which turns into something else entirely, full spoiler alert, but it starts out very sincerely. I think Phoebe’s able to nail something with respect to her age group, her world, and I think she’s able to pinpoint a sentiment towards life and her own inability to grapple with life that a lot of people probably feel. When she’s confessing, she has no idea what is right or what is wrong.’
Jennifer: ‘She needs philosophy.’
Mark: ‘She does need philosophy, and I think that that is a sort of beautiful punctuation point in the story that appealed to me as an objectivist looking for meaning and deeper meanings in things, and looking to see if an author is conscious of those deeper meanings, which I think she is. There may be these holes where we don’t get to discover why she’s as corrupted as she is and why she is so self-destructive and destroyed one of the best relationships she ever had because, in all fairness to Phoebe, she wrote this character on a dare. Did you want to tell the story about how Fleabag came into existence?’
Jax: ‘Yes, Phoebe Waller-Bridge was taking part in the Edinburgh Festival because she was dared to come up with a 10-minute single character sketch, and I don’t even think she was given a topic, so this was just like a complete improvisation. She came up with this sketch and called her Fleabag and ripped on it for like 10 minutes. It was so wildly successful that she was later convinced to turn it into a series. So very different from Ayn Rand spending 11, 12 years writing Atlas Shrugged and plotting out her Magnus Opus. Definitely different things to compare this to but that element of philosophy is so lacking. All of those characters eventually get to a better place, but this is where I think a TV show like what we’re doing for The Strike that is based on Atlas Shrugged can really shine by showing how important philosophy is. I was saying earlier, she doesn’t think about when she sleeps with her best friend’s boyfriend; she doesn’t explicitly think this is the person who I value the most and I’m going to fuck with their lives. (If she did, that’s a serial killer or a sociopath). As an objectivist, we take it for granted when we make value choices like that: ‘well this guy is really hot, but wait a minute my best friend loves him’ — off-limits, period. And it’s almost like she was so whimsical, and you see her that way throughout all of season one. She just does stuff without thinking what the longer-term consequences are going to be. And I think that that is where a story like The Strike can come and drop a bomb on TV in a way that we don’t see very much with tv shows these days.’
Mark: ‘Not with human beings anymore, that’s for sure. Now, could you call Fleabag a hero?’
Jax: ‘No, she’s not an ‘Atlas Shrugged’ hero. If I get into a situation in life, what are the literary or fictional heroes that I can call on that would give me some guidance? What would Dagny do in this situation? What would Hank do? One of my favorite TV shows in the world is Buffy the Vampire Slayer; what would Buffy do? You know how they’re going to act. Their characters have been so well developed that you could put Dagny in any situation and you would know how she would react to it. I can’t say that for Fleabag. She is, in a sense, her own hero, and that she comes out of the slump that she’s in and she eventually makes good decisions, but I don’t know how she would react given a new scenario.’
Mark: We can say that she’s not a hero. There’s really nobody in the piece who is a hero. Perhaps the sister, Claire, identifies a little bit more as somebody consciously going in a particular direction as opposed to falling into a particular direction, but can we say she’s heroic or has certain elements to her that we could classify as heroic?
Jax: ‘I think in the end the heroic thing that she does, in the end, is — spoilers galore — she falls in love with the priest in season two and they eventually sleep together. He willingly sleeps with her. It was the passion between them and it’s a really great chemistry between the two of them. Fantastic chemistry. As a viewer, you’re like ‘oh should they get to … they shouldn’t …yeah I want to see that.’’
Mark: ‘They use the device of the fourth wall through the entire show to bring you into Fleabag’s inner world, and the priest is the only person who recognizes when that’s happening. And he’s the only person with whom she shuts out that fourth wall. She closes the door on the wall and has private moments with him, which I think is a very significant piece of information for us.’
Jax: ‘It’s critical because anytime you see her having sex with other men, she is always talking to the camera. And the one time that she consummates her relationship with the priest, she lowers the…’
Mark: ‘She pushed the camera down in the midst of passion. She makes the same gesture after she experiences the pain of loss and love at the same time when the priest chooses god over her. As the camera goes to follow her, she tells it to stay where it is and she walks off.’ I could say this is heroic. It is heroic to face your pain, to not deny it, and to allow love in, and to know that you’re worthy of love. It’s heroic not to evade anymore, and to that degree, we have a largely cynical piece that’s perfectly adapted to our cynical times giving us a little grain of hope that heroism even can exist in perilously cynical times when we think it’s naive to be heroic.’
Mark: ‘We’ve hit the things that we didn’t like so much about the show. Everybody’s a bad guy except for maybe Belinda and Claire, who are little bursts of sunshine in the middle of all the darkness that we have to endure. Funny darkness, but darkness nonetheless. And there’s a lot of potty humor in it that strikes my immature funny bone. Let’s talk about what reality does Rand offer in Atlas Shrugged that Fleabag doesn’t.’
Jennifer: ‘Well, characters with a much better sense of life for sure. They just start off higher and their heroic actions are just at a greater degree, and we’re missing that today, so it’ll be wonderful to be able to see that.’
Jax: ‘These are people that we can admire. They don’t have the same internal conflict that you see with characters like Fleabag, with the exception of Hank Rearden, who’s got a dichotomy, and Cheryl Taggert as well who has to deal with a lot of internal conflict. But for the most part, these characters don’t have as much internal conflict as external conflict with the world. In Atlas Shrugged, these characters are literally taken to hell. I shouldn’t say ‘literally’ as a writer. Are virtually taken to hell with so many regulations forced upon them, things taken away from them, Hank having to give up the one thing that means the world to him, which is his patent, for the sake of something that means more to him. Seeing how that rips him apart but he also makes that decision ‘this is the right thing to do,’ these are characters who are very introspective, and they don’t know all the right things to do yet. But what they count on is their solid moral compasses and they’re good people to see and to emulate and look up to. We’ve come up with a whole list of TV shows that we want to talk about. There’s maybe only one or two TV shows that we’re going to talk about where I could actually say that about maybe even one character from a show, so I think Atlas Shrugged offers this. What’s missing it’s this philosophy and even we’ll talk about that next week on Breaking Bad.’
Mark: ‘We definitely are drowning in a sea of cynicism, and cynicism is seen as sophisticated. Certainty is seen as passe and the certainty that many of the characters in Atlas Shrugged present puts people off now. People like wallowing in the mud with all the characters in Fleabag. I think increasingly they see themselves as rudderless as these folks and as potentially hopeless as these folks, even though it doesn’t project that goodness is impossible in the end because everybody finds their way. Claire finds her man, and she’s partnering with him in Finland. Fleabag I think finds her happiness because she’s confronted pain and love for the first time. I think the father is at peace now with the fact that he’s married the woman that took care of his ex-wife who passed away, and so everybody has had a sort of resolution.’
Mark: ‘I think we’ve covered what Atlas Shrugged will bring that people need. They need heroism.’
Jax: ‘Certainly in comparison to Fleabag.’
Mark: ‘They don’t need pockets of the heroic. They need to know that it’s possible through philosophy to grasp onto the things in the world and climb.’
Jennifer: ‘These characters have to be accessible. A lot of writers do it by giving their characters flaws that people can relate to and watch them overcome. It’s something that we’ll have to be very cognizant of as we’re writing.’
Mark: ‘I think when Rand wrote that, that wasn’t as much a part of writing as it is today. Do you agree? I mean nowadays people want to see the flaw. They need to see that internal obstacle overcome because they feel it’s how they relate to the character.’
Jax: ‘And serial TV wasn’t even a thing when Ayn Rand was writing. There were TV shows but it really wasn’t until the late 90s that you started getting something different than just a standalone episode. Then you started getting longer storytelling formats where TV characters had arcs over every season and storylines continued, so that wasn’t even a thing when Ayn Rand was writing.’
Mark: ‘If we were to sum this up, what would we say about Fleabag? How would we rate it — is it a thumbs up, or is it a thumbs down, or is it a thumb sideways?’
Jennifer: ‘I think for its genre, it’s two thumbs up. Dark comedy, yes. If you want to put it in dramedy, then I don’t know. What do you think?’
Jax: ‘For me, for both dark comedy and dramedy it’s thumbs up. I really did enjoy watching it once I got past episode two or three. And they do say that for a TV show, if you’re not hooked by episode four then there’s something wrong with it. So for me, I was hooked at the right time.’
Mark: ‘And I would say the same thing. It’s a product of our times, but it’s a very well-crafted piece. You will laugh in all the right places; I think the characters are meant to be funny and meant to be laughed at. And if you’re willing to take the ride through some pretty deep cynicism for a time it will pay off in the end somewhat satisfactorily because the people that you’ve grown to sort of like, or at least accommodate yourself to over a couple of episodes, they do end up winning in the end. And I think that’s a very important conclusion to a piece like that.’
Jax: ‘Someone should superchat Yaron $500 to review it and see if he completely disagrees with us.’
Mark: ‘We objectivists disagree about a lot of things. I am probably one of the lone folks out there who have some pretty strict criticisms about Ayn Rand’s didactic approach in Atlas Shrugged, which is one of the reasons why I so enjoyed your take on the script. That doesn’t mean it’s still not great; that doesn’t mean she wasn’t doing something that really nobody else could do, which is create a narrative around an entire school of philosophy. That’s a fairly impossible task that she accomplished in her third language. She’s going to get massive props from me, and nobody’s been able to equal it. But I don’t want objectivists to be closed to certain stylistic elements that may run afoul of the romantic manifesto because you’re losing out on some pretty poignant television, some pretty poignant film, and pieces of music, and art if you do that to yourself and you deserve to dabble in it all.’
The poll questions may be live until the next episode if you want to vote.
Question: What’s your favourite TV show?
While I’d give Fleabag a thumbs down (I didn’t get past the cynicism Mark mentioned and stopped watching after a couple of episodes), I’m giving TV Talk an enthusiastic double thumbs up. This first episode was really interesting and made me reflect more on the reasons I like Atlas Shrugged. I’m looking forward to next week’s discussion about Atlas Shrugged vs Breaking Bad.
I’ve edited the speech for written form (and will probably edit more in future episodes as I get used to the format), so watch the video if you want the quotes verbatim.
Please let me know if you spot any errors. I haven’t read it yet 🙂 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @PlnetPellegrino. You’re also welcome to get in touch if you’re a non-native English speaker and you want help understanding something.