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When an actor’s eyes speak worlds

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in "Fleabag."Adam Steiner/Amazon Studios

It’s like a hallucination, like that time Tony Soprano saw a fish talking to him, or Don Draper saw his late boss performing “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” except it’s a sidewalk in front of you, a flowing stream of eyes passing by. Pairs of eyes, above masks, that you exchange brief looks with, and maybe blink at.

Speaking only with your eyes is more complicated than I expected. Eye contact — among the other basics we’ve focused on since time started stopping — is now in the foreground. I’ve been aware of trying to control my eyes more intentionally, to telegraph assent, or acceptance — or disagreement, or worse — with only my cheek tops, my brows, my lids, and my crow’s feet, compensating for the three-quarters of my face that’s hidden. Sometimes, it’s with friends and easier, since they know my expressions; most times, on the street or at the dog park, it’s with strangers, and harder.


It reminds me of how eyes can speak worlds on TV, if the actor is right and the script calls for it. There are certain performances that are primarily distinguished by the sorrow (Phoebe Waller-Bridge in “Fleabag”), or the irony (John Krasinski in “The Office”), or the restraint (Mahershala Ali in “True Detective”) that the actors are articulating solely through their eyes. Obviously, most actors use their eyes as a tool, in concert with the rest of their face and body, but sometimes you can see the entire story, with all its deepest themes, unfold in an actor’s eyes.

For Elisabeth Moss in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the eyes are the window onto her character June’s desperation and, more subtly and importantly, her survival instinct. Moss’s work on the show is a great highlight of the Eye-centric genre. June is a prisoner in an authoritarian country where she cannot speak her mind, and she must keep herself straight-faced to live, not politeness exactly but eyes averted and submissive. At points early in her time in Gilead, June is almost gone, just a flicker in the back of her terror, grief, and anger. But steadily across the series, that flame grows, and we are able to see her resistance to the world burning in the back of her eyes. That flame is the only sign of hope in this dire dystopian portrait, the reason to watch no matter how depressing.


Gabriel Byrne as therapist Paul Weston in "In Treatment." Claudette Barius/HBO

Often, eye-based performances emerge from situations where the character, like June, is somehow unable to be openly expressive. Gabriel Byrne was riveting in “In Treatment” as therapist Paul Weston, largely because of the restraint he had to wield with his clients. Sitting across from them as they shared — each episode of the HBO series was a session — he did not want to reveal his reactions; he did not want to inhibit them with his judgments. And yet Byrne let us into Paul’s inner world during those half-hours, with miraculous subtlety, through the slightest shifts in his gaze.

The barriers to free expression for Rami Malek’s Elliot in USA Network’s “Mr. Robot” and for Aden Young’s Daniel in “Rectify” were less cemented in reality and more in their psychological bruises. Malek used his gaping eyes to signal terror and confusion, his character trapped inside illusions born of mental illness and self-protection. Young used his eyes to show us how interior — and almost wiped out of existence — Daniel had become in prison, forced to keep an invulnerable poker face for so long that his true feelings were almost unavailable even to him anymore. When Daniel first got out of jail, he was nearly a blank slate, but we could always see the hurt, the rage, the shame, and the intelligence in his eyes, ready to break out.


Mahershala Ali in "True Detective."Warrick Page

In the third season of HBO’s “True Detective,” Ali also seemed to conduct the entire narrative with his eyes. We follow his cop character, Wayne, in three separate time frames, and Ali brings us into Wayne’s consciousness in each one, largely through eye contact and a lack thereof. It’s a mesmerizing performance, as we see Wayne recede into himself as a response to the racism he encounters, as a way to let perps and witnesses talk unencumbered, as a mask for romantic anxiety, as a protection from the horrors he sees at work, and, when he is an older man, as a way to hide his dementia. His face is a suit of armor, but his eyes tell us all.

Krasinski is responsible for one of TV’s more famous eye-dominant performances, as Jim in “The Office.” He contributes an ongoing comic commentary on the action and the people at Dunder-Mifflin with his eyes, as the mockumentary cameras catch him or, more often, as he catches them. With his eyes screaming “HELP ME,” or “How predictable is that,” he communicates more than words could all of the absurdities around him. There’s more than a touch of Bob Newhart, one of the kings of Comic Deadpan With Eyes, in Krasinski’s work on “The Office.”


But my favorite recent comic eye performance is Waller-Bridge’s turn as the title character in “Fleabag.” Her Fleabag is detached, and her droll smiles to those in her life are mostly hollow. She is fronting, hiding in plain sight. With her eyes, though, she tells us the truth. She looks directly at us, something Krasinski does, too, and she lets us see her pain, even if only for an instant. In her eyes, we see her working to hide her grief, and in her eyes, in the final scene of the series, we see her at peace.

Even if she had been wearing a face mask in those last moments, her triumph over guilt and shame would have been loud and clear.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.