Monthly Archives: May 2012

Bushwick Bildungsroman

Dear Jane, Lili, and Phil,

Thanks, first of all, to Phil for getting us started this week.  For some reason, this was a difficult episode to get a handle on, and thus to blog about: I thoroughly enjoyed it as I was watching it, but was swayed enough by the (largely negative) reactions of the friends who watched it with me to doubt my initial reaction.  I then watched it again, and started to agree with my friends: it was funny, but a bit awkward and forced in places.  But now Phil’s post has me reconsidering all over again…  Let’s see if I can work through this ambivalence here, before your very eyes!

I agree with Phil that the episode, like “The Return” before it, felt once again off-model, though in fact we are returning to the locale (New York City) and the supporting characters (Marnie, Jessa, Shoshanna, Adam, Charlie, etc.) whose absence accounted for the “offness” last week.  Yes, Bushwick definitely functioned (as it does actually function for New York’s middle-class twentysomethings, or at least did when I lived there in the mid-2000s) as a sort of hipster hinterland, a place just far enough removed from the normal run of things and the rule of law that Anything Can Happen.  For those who may not be familiar, Bushwick is a fairly desolate area of northern Brooklyn with a high crime rate and a lot of abandoned warehouses, many of which have been taken over (legally or illegally) by enterprising hipsters for parties/concerts/gallery shows etc.  Marnie’s cry of exasperation — “I’m never going to Bushwick again!” — is something I can easily imagine one of my friends saying after a particularly hair-raising (or just subway-intensive) night out.  It’s a symbolic space of both possibility and abjection.  We get some of both in this episode.

Another key difference, as Richard Brody points out in his blog post on the episode, is that the director on “Welcome to Bushwick” is not Lena Dunham but her go-to DP Jody Lee Lipes, who evidently has a distinctive visual style all his own.  Brody mentions Lev Kuleshov, whose work I don’t know; the density of detail in the crowd scenes put me in mind of Stanley Kubrick and Peter Greenaway.  After six straight episodes of fairly small-scale gatherings, it’s kind of overwhelming to be confronted with so many other people: this episode is lousy with extras, and they frequently threaten to crowd out the regulars.  While this was certainly jarring, I actually think I like the technique: it reminds us that Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna are, in fact, part of a much larger crowd of people very much like them, a sociological reality that’s easy to lose sight of when we’re focusing so closely on their individual dramas.

Still, as Phil so nicely points out, there’s more than ethnography going on here: the party didn’t, to me, feel exactly accurate (the “vibe,” as Jeff would put it, was a lot more Burning Mannish than I remember the average Bushwick rager being, though maybe things have tilted in that direction since I left New York three years ago), but it did conjure up its own sense of space in a way that, say, the benefit for Carrie in the previous episode didn’t.  To invoke Kubrick again, it was sort of like the masquerade in Eyes Wide Shut: a little bit laughable from one perspective, but haunting and nightmarishly right from another.

The most bizarre subplot in “Welcome to Bushwick” is Shoshanna’s “crackcident,” which I think was perhaps played a bit too much for laughs — exploring Shoshanna’s genuine terror over having accidentally lowered herself in the social pecking order (and the eyes of her mom) by doing a ghetto drug would have been a more emotionally rich way to go, I think.  I’m also not quite sure where they’re going, if anywhere, with the relationship between Shoshanna and Ray: was this all just a contrived way to have them meet-cute?  I am impressed by Zosia Mamet, though, who really nails a certain kind of high-strung obliviousness; I also think it’s funny how, when she smokes crack, she starts talking like a typical David Mamet character, all fast and stuttery and defensive.

The surprise for me, though, is how resonant I found the Jessa storyline.  As I said last week, I still struggle a bit to care about the three protagonists other than Hannah, and up to this point Jessa’s easily been my least favorite character.  But I thought the way her flirtation with Jeff was developed in this episode opened up some interesting new possibilities.   Like Adam, Jeff is another guy that’s been characterized, but that we don’t really know: the discovery in this episode is that he’s not “a good guy,” as Jessa thinks, but kind of a creep, especially when he reminds Jessa at the end of the episode that she’s his employee, not his friend.  For a show that’s been (rightly) praised for its emphasis on female friendship and subjectivity, it’s interesting to see the way Girls is handling its boys: manipulating us into thinking we know who they are, and then surprising us.  (Something similar happens, maybe less convincingly, with Charlie in this episode: like Marnie, we expected him to be hung up on their relationship for at least the rest of the season, but he’s bounced back almost immediately with “a tiny Navajo” named Audrey.)

Oh, Dear Television!  I don’t know what to think.  This felt like a pivotal episode, and not only because it’s The One Where Hannah and Adam Finally Get Together; among other things, it’s a test case for whether the show can really handle sensibilities and aesthetics other than Dunham’s.  (Hannah was a pretty muted presence in this show, in stark contrast to her total domination of “The Return.”)  I think it’ll be a challenge: Dunham’s made such a virtue out of intense self-scrutiny, and is so out-of-the-gate good at it, that the attempt to fold in other people and their concerns is, at times, a noticeable strain.  But I’m glad she’s taking the risk; if she pulls it off, the show — and her subsequent work — will be all the better for it.

Blowing my anonymousness,

Evan

A Theory of Crackuracy

Dear Lili, Evan, and Jane,

So, obviously since we last corresponded, the biggest news in Dunhamania is that James Franco, our generation’s James Dean, has finally weighed in on the show that’s been rudely Bogarting the zeitgeist for the past couple of weeks.  I won’t quote too much  from his article.  Vulture has already done a lovely job extracting it.  But suffice it to say that Franco, our generation’s Harold Bloom, utilized the lofty perch of his HuffPo blog to address Dunham’s haters, defend his own particular brand of millennial masculinity against different haters, and manage to wrestle with his inability to draw real connections between the story of Hannah Horvath and the story of James Franco, our generation’s Jean-Michel Basquiat.

What leads me to bring up JF is that the idea of recognizing or not-recognizing oneself in Girls (which has been both a problem and a selling point for the show since several weeks before its debut) has popped back up in my mind over the past few episodes. And this has as much to do with the identification of characters as the identification of place.  As Evan pointed out last week, episode six was Dunham’s first “off-model” experiment.  There were some issues, it turned out, when this show about New York became, for a minute, a show about Michigan.  While episode seven saw Hannah reunited with her fly posse in the city that never sleeps, this was also, to some extent, an off-model excursion in and of itself. “Welcome to Bushwick,” the title declares.  And while Bushwick may only be an annoyingly difficult trainride or an awkward cab fare away from where the Ladies keep their accidentally crotchless underpants, everything about this episode suggested that Bushwick was a foreign country.

My question to you all, however, is how much does accuracy matter?  How much should it matter?  It’s been a common cry of Dunham apologists—including those of us on this site—that Girls is not an ode to this group of people but, instead, an ethnography. The implication is critical distance over attachment, self-examination over self-involvement, realism over romance.  And, to that end, many viewings of Girls certainly are anchored in a kind of obsessive detail and hilarious specificity of person and place—“I totally know Shoshanna” or “That is just like a party I was at” or “That is exactly how I was fired from my internship at a literary magazine.”  These are by no means the only responses, though. My parents, for instance, know roughly 0% of the Brooklyn hipsters that I know, but they love the show, laugh at the jokes, and understand the characters in terms of their emotionality. (This is opposed to something like Portlandia, which works, to some small extent, as a broad comedy, but is really only accessible, I would argue, if you get the references.) In light of this, in light of Franco’s goofily ambivalent self-recognition, and after these two vacation episodes—especially what Evan called the Ghost World style of the Michigan episode—I’m wondering how much ethnography actually does anchor the show.  Is it an aesthetic or an actual practice?

Michigan was certainly detailed, but was it accurate?  The conversation I wish I’d gotten into last week here was about how uncanny Dunham’s suburbia was, how much it felt like a cartoon version of a reality.  As a suburban transplant myself, I recognized a lot of the mise-en-scene, but there were also things that looked true but rang false. Is the same true of Bushwick?  In other words, it’s tempting to say that Michigan functioned as a kind of extended dream sequence, a vision of a place rooted in reality but warped and inverted by the psychology of the dreamer.  Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich.  But, back to back, are we this week invited to think the same thing of the Bushwick party?  The uncanniness of Bushwick, I think, is supposed to make us question a lot of what we take for granted as straight-ahead representation.  There is a lot of emphasis in the episode, for instance, on recognition and accuracy.  Jessa and Ray strive to precisely diagnose Shosh’s particular trip. (CRACK!)  Jessa gets into what is essentially a semantic fight with the crust punks: “You’re going to reduce us to a subculture and then not accurately name the subculture?” And Marnie gets into trouble with Jonah for failing to accurately understand her own particular friend dynamic (Hannah is the selfish one, right?)

Then there’s Hannah’s comeuppance with Adam.  For six episodes, Adam has been one of the most evocatively and consistently detailed characters on the show.  Shirtless, brutish, the child of privilege, the elected representative of a kind of post-Marx, post-Thoreau, working-class, boho masculinity.  He’s into getting bossed around and he’s got daddy issues.  He cooks fresh game, he doesn’t text, and, above all, he’s a narcissist who refuses Hannah’s attempts at intimacy. This episode, we see Adam wearing a plaid shirt and juggling lesbians like a circus act.  We also learn that he’s a recovering alcoholic. This doesn’t automatically ennoble him, but it humanizes him and, most of all, makes Hannah feel both ensorcelled and betrayed.  After being thrown from Adam’s bike, Hannah calls Adam to task for not opening up to her.  But no, cries Adam, it’s she who never asked, she who was not interested in a mutual intimacy, SHE who, as Marnie independently confirms, is the narcissist.

Whether Adam is right in this situation or whether something in between is true, I’m not yet sure. I’m certainly not eager to have this strapping hulk with a sixteen-year-old boy’s rat moustache be the righteous force, literally and figuratively throwing our “girls” around.  But, for now, it seems like Dunham is saying something about the very aesthetic practice we often use to defend her show.  Nobody on this show is more thoroughly characterized than Adam, but, it turns out, he’s also the character about whom we actually know the least.  We have a lot of information about Adam, but very little of it is accurate—or at least it’s misleading.  But it’s not just us. The show portrayed Adam in this way.  We have scenes of Ray and Charlie alone. Even scenes of Jessa’s Highlander-looking unemployed employer with his buds.  But we never see Adam alone.  The show wanted us to have the wrong idea about him because Hannah may have the wrong idea about him.

I’m sorry to continue to end these posts with the sentiment that Dunham is some kind of heroic auteur, defying expectations, shattering paradigms, evincing a godlike self-awareness every Sunday evening. But if the bloody, stupid Game of Thrones episode that preceded “Welcome to Bushwick” can be called a triumph, so too can I apply that designation to this episode.  The world of Girls has, to some extent, splintered from Michigan to Bushwick.  The cracks are showing.  As with all ethnographies, this one is not the truth. Its accuracy is not a guarantor of its realism. And whatever realism it achieves has limits.  With her taxicab smile at the end, Hannah seems to see this revelation as a big step forward—people have likened it to that of Melora Walters at the end of Magnolia—but she’s flanked by two flat affects. Adam and Marnie are the happy couple at the end of The Graduate: free, but feeling the weight of their choice.  The good news is that we have a few more episodes left to deal with what we’ve uncovered.  As the Bard (James Franco) says, “If you really want to have experiences to write about, go to work.” I hope I’m not naïve to imagine that the experience Dunham wants to write about is the one Hannah is about to have and that the work our hero will be doing is that of untangling the world she imagines in detail but knows very little about.

Also, one more time, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. James Franco!

Malkovich, Malkovich,

Phil Maciak.

Call Me, Maybe

Dear Evan, Phil, and Lili,

It looks like I might make a poor habit out of writing about Girls on the last day possible. Once, a professor and I related my intense slowness (or procrastination) as a writer to my self-defensiveness as a thinker. I suspect many critics are like this: critical of others, but more so hypercritical, even preemptively critical, of themselves. Lauren Berlant seems to me like this. Susan Sontag certainly was so. Lee Krasner and Adrian Piper too. Many of them were women, steadying themselves—through prolonging the reading or researching process—in preparation for a deluge of future judgment. It follows that many of them, as Sontag’s early journals so vitally show us, were at one time definitively “girls.”

Hannah doesn’t strike me as such a writer. There seems to be less waiting, or hand-wringing, between her acts and their recording. Instead, Hannah’s a note taker. She takes notes. In real time. For her book. Dunham, as well, comes off as a bit too ahead of the game. (Is this why everyone is so eager to criticize her? Because this 26 year old could not possibly be capable, or ready, or have enough distance, to translate the experiences of 24 year old girls onto the television screen?) Her life is happening and she’s going to put it out there as it does. All those who, upon watching Girls, joke about the possibility of Dunham installing cameras in their apartments because, they “literally had that exact same conversation last night”? There’s some truth to that. Reflect my life back to me, Dunham. I’ll spend the week pondering what it all means.

Lili, your reading of episode 6 as reverse-Lynch and reverse-Lifetime was brilliant, but I think I loved this observation of yours the most: “she tells Eric about sex with Adam and Adam about sex with Eric. Those, for her, are seriously erotic moments.” Yes! Even Hannah’s prelude to her “possible overshare” with Eric is staged: “I will tell you what happened.” So she tells Eric about the end of her vegetarianism, when the boy she was dating only had meat at his house. And, of course, she couldn’t leave to get plant-based food because that would mean the possibility of never being let back into his apartment. Dunham says something along these lines in explaining the pipe-fuck scene of Tiny Furniture—that Aura doesn’t question the condom-less sex she’s about to have with Keith because that would increase the possibility of him changing his mind. Thinking through something often means, finally, not ever doing it at all.

Later, in bed with Eric, the specter of Adam’s kinky sexuality haunts the room. Hannah is here sleeping with Adam as much as she is with Eric. While this might be reverse-Lynch, it is also reverse-Sackler (did you know Adam’s last name is Sackler? Is that not perfect?). Hannah imports, as Lili notes, Adam’s script of sadomasochistic sex, but in a scene where she’s the only one who knows how to play it out. It’s a great moment where female submission doesn’t simply mean male domination, but quite the opposite.

Phil, first things first: I had no idea the song Heather lip-synchs to is an actual song by Keri Hilson. No idea! It’s rather—as most pop songs are wont to be—insidiously catchy, but that video–I don’t want to get into it now, but watch that video if you haven’t! (Dreams of Hollywood, woah, no?) But the more important Carrie, and the one that I didn’t even think of until reading the always-wise Dana Stevens, is, of course, that of Sex and the City. So it makes a lot more sense that we don’t know where Carrie’s body is and if, in fact, she is actually dead. Is Carrie really gone? Will further investigation really give us closure on that front?

Which brings me to Phil’s interpretation of Tad’s “a person like that,” which, while definitely carrying notes of fear and uneasy discomfort about his daughter’s mental well-being, also just expresses doubt. His Hannah is Hannah’s Heather. What if people “like that” remain self-delusional about their talents forever? What if they die before every finding themselves? What if they never stop to reflect upon their actual merits as artists and, so, never stop trying to become artists? What would it mean for them? Moreover, what would it mean for the rest of us?

All this leads to a large part of why I agree with you, Evan—why I find it strange that Dunham didn’t make the girls, or at least Hannah, native New Yorkers. Dunham grew up around a certain niche cultural circle that would be exactly the type who’d react to Heather’s jiving with a grimace. Self-doubt, for Hannah, only comes as an afterthought. Hannah/Aura/Dunham (also Marnie, Jessa, Shoshanna) can march through a party—then write about said party because those rooms have always been open to them. It’s only something I (as a person who has whittled this past month in New York) have become more sensitive to because those rooms really aren’t always that easy to place oneself in. Sometimes, you can feel attacked or, worse, ignored, by a room. Hannah’s position at Carrie’s memorial is a bit different—she doesn’t feel attacked in the room at all. As others have noted, her judgment might be the most monstrous aspect of that scene.

At least, then, Dunham often makes Hannah monster to herself—a slave to her own desires. I concur that “this place…doesn’t even really want us.”  And if New York is darkness, as Lili observes, then Adam is part and parcel of that: he doesn’t really want Hannah either. That’s largely the experience, though, of coming to New York. Find yourself and fit that self into a city that never wanted, nor needed, you in the first place. Until it does. Hannah’s life in New York (which bookends this episode) is not, as some have called it, a detractor to the singularity of this episode. Instead, Hannah’s conflicted relationship with New York makes “The Return” a kind of wake-up call. Don’t ask money from your parents. Don’t get a job at the florist. Don’t become like Carrie, and, dear lord, do not be like Heather.

I’d even hazard to say that the other wake up call—the one from Adam—though poorly timed, nonetheless also brings Hannah closer to her self-realization as a writer. Like many artists, Hannah is defined by her failures and limitations—in this case, she has to impose them herself because life might otherwise be (scarily) too easy.

The scene that brought it home, so to speak, for me was the final one with Hannah on her parents’ lawn speaking to Adam over the phone. Dunham’s directorial cues here are great, and so familiar: a girl somewhere between homes and between identities, talking to a boy that feels close despite, and because of, how far away he really is. It was painful and expected and disappointing and tender and, really, made my chest hurt. It was regressive, yet also forward-looking: an ending where you lean into arms that will surely drop you again. That’s okay, though. Unlike Tad, Hannah could afford to fall a few more times.

Going to try it out in L.A.,

Jane

“How are things in Ohio?”

Dearest Dear TV,

I’m in the (fittingly, for a discussion of Lena Dunham) awkward position of agreeing with much of what Lili and Phil say in their excellent analyses of Episode 6  (“The Return”), while also getting the feeling that I’m generally less enthusiastic about the episode than the two of you were. This, for me, was the second episode of Girls that didn’t quite work (the first was Episode 4, “Hannah’s Diary,” the first one not directed by Dunham, which felt a little broad and unfocused to me). Lili’s remarks about the episode’s sly allusions to horror movie conventions is apt, as is her fascinating comparison to Twin Peaks. Clearly, “The Return” is deliberately “off-model” (as they say in the TV biz), and that offness provides its own formal pleasures, as well as pointing up how strongly defined the series’ style is already after just five episodes.

That said, the Twin Peaks parallel actually helps me to clarify what I found unconvincing about the episode. If Hannah reminds me of any character from that show, it’s Agent Cooper: she reacts to everything and everyone in Lansing, Michigan with the same mix of ethnographic detachment, unconscious condescension, and “when in Rome” gameness to the (admittedly much less alluring) environment around her. But Hannah is supposed to be from Lansing, and Dunham never quite succeeds in making me believe this. She should be Audrey Horne, or Maddy Palmer, in this episode, not Agent Cooper: a little removed, tired, or ashamed of her hometown perhaps, but not totally alien in it.

I actually think it’s an odd decision, given how closely Hannah resembles Dunham herself and her Tiny Furniture character Aura in most other particulars, to not make her a native of New York. (At the very least, she could’ve been from Long Island, like this episode’s co-writer Judd Apatow.) Here is probably the place to declare/admit that I’m a native New Yorker myself, and, to me, Hannah/Aura/Dunham is definitely a recognizable New York type: a child of privilege with familial links to the artistic avant-garde who quietly rebels against a life of nonstop glamour — or perhaps resists being held to its impossibly exacting standards — by emphasizing the parts of herself that are down-to-earth, unpretentious, and self-effacing. (I’m not describing myself, mind you — I’m pretty pretentious — but this thumbnail sketch could apply to plenty of people I grew up with, and knew well.) “I’m the nicest!” Hannah calls up to Marnie at the beginning of “The Return” just before she departs for Lansing, and it’s true: of all the girls in Girls, Hannah’s the only one you could accurately describe as “nice.” (Shoshanna is unmalicious, but way too self-absorbed and insecure to qualify.) But her brand of unpretentious niceness — and to me this is absolutely key to the show, and to its charisma — is the kind of niceness that is bred by constant proximity to pretentious meanness (to someone like Jessa, for instance). Hannah, in other words, can afford to be so nice, because, as she puts it in this episode, she knows that “the worst stuff that [she says] sounds better than the best stuff that some other people say.” Even if she never lets on or drops the mask of amiability, Hannah is judging you.

One thing I did like about this episode was the strategy of focusing entirely on one character: we see Marnie only briefly, at the beginning of the episode, and from a distance; Jessa is represented only as an uncalled number in Hannah’s iPhone, and Shoshanna not at all. So much has been made of Girls‘s repurposing of the structure of Sex and the City that it’s surprising — and, again, weirdly pleasing — to see the show break out of that mode so soon. (I’m not aware of any individual episode of Sex and the City centered on just one of the four protagonists; maybe one of you who’s more familiar with the whole corpus can enlighten me.) Since Hannah is, at this point, the only character in the show that I really care about, I was happy to see her get an entire episode to herself. (I wonder if Dunham and the writers are planning to give the same treatment to Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna as well; it’s unlikely to happen this season, at any rate, given that there are only four more episodes.)

So the structure was fine, but the tone was wrong: you can take the girl out of New York but you can’t take New York out of the girl, and I missed the sure sense of place that’s on display in the show’s first five episodes. The Lansing characters — especially the vacuous, beret-wearing Heather — all seemed overly sketchy, bordering on caricatures; at times the episode felt more like Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World or (shudder) a Todd Solondz movie than it did a typical Dunham production, all reflexive disdain for suburban oblivion. (I’m thinking especially of Heather and the Twistarounds’ performance of that Keri Hilson song at the benefit for Carrie Lawrence; though I did like Hannah’s subtly mortified facial reaction.) There were plenty of nice, understated moments — Phil and Lili have already catalogued a few, like Eric mentioning the job opening at the florist, or Hannah absentmindedly singing along to Jewel’s “Hands” — but they were ultimately outweighed, for me, by the false, ungenerous ones. (Not to mention the shower sex accident scene, which just felt like a weird Apatovian imposition — “we’re losing ‘em! we need some old people fucking!” — kind of like the diarrhea sequence in Bridesmaids.)

I’ll stop there, because I want to hear what Jane thinks. But before I sign off  I’d just like to make clear that I’m glad the show is taking risks and playing around with its basic formal DNA so early in the game. I just don’t think this particular experiment completely came off. On to the next one!

Not a professional advice-giver,

Evan

There Is No Lena, Only Zuul

Dear Lili, Jane, and Evan,

And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that strange things happen all the time. And so it goes, and so it goes. And the book says, ‘We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.’

- Magnolia

Well, Lili, I am currently preparing a book-length manuscript on the subject of bad sex on Girls, and I hope we can get around to talking about that soon (I’m no Nostradamus, but I think I can safely predict that these aren’t the last mortifying carnal interludes Dunham has in store for us), but right now I want to take your lead and talk about Hannah the Monster.  How do we know she’s a monster? What kind of monster is she? Are people finally getting that Lena Dunham is not unequivocally endorsing the behaviors of her heroine?

Like you, Lili, I was watching this episode with dread in my heart, and, at first, I couldn’t tell why. I think you’re very right to say that Dunham is playing with and then negating a lot of horror movie tropes. There’s the de facto high school party that shouts out Carrie; there’s the ghost of Laura Palmer hovering about; Hannah’s late night creep into the kitchen that’s one chef’s knife away from the cold open of a slasher; the understated Psycho reference in the shower sex scene; and even the shot of Eric the Pharmacist sneaking up on Hannah as she sits in the car, rocking out to Jewel.  As they say a few hours earlier on HBO, the night is dark and full of terrors.  But the episode is also full of small, seemingly spring-loaded moments of potential danger, chief among them the shot of Hannah attempting to back into a parking space. Was anybody else sweating that one? I certainly was.

Adding to that sense of dread, I should note, is the spectacular musical score of Michael Penn. In the aforementioned kitchen scene as well as the pharmacy sequence and elsewhere, Penn plays with toy pianos and other whimsical sounds, laying them over death rattles of all sorts and pulsating, other-worldly kick drums.  It’s the kind of swirling, ill-at-ease carnival music Paul Thomas Anderson used to get from Penn and Jon Brion and that he’s now apparently committed to requisitioning from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, as is abundantly demonstrated in this week’s thrilling trailer for The Master.  And, in that sense, it is the PTA style of horror Dunham is trying to evoke here.  Car crashes, kidnappings, crushed dreams—as much as this is an homage to classic seventies horror, it’s also a nod to the terrified, banal crapscapes of Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love.  Hannah might be living out the “epilogue to Felicity,” as Dunham’s sister says in Tiny Furniture, but her old friend Heather is about to walk into Boogie Nights.

Part of the horror, then, I think is the very ordinariness Dunham is trying to portray.  And if anxiety has been a frequent subject on this show, this was like a theme episode about out-and-out fear.  Hannah Horvath’s Treehouse of Horror I.  And that fear is manifest in very humdrum, but strangely existential ways. At dinner, Hannah’s father asks, ominously, “What does a person like that turn into?” A Person Like That. Hannah’s father is speaking about his daughter in the way that unsuspecting neighbors speak about the serial killers they lived next to.  Hannah’s prediction for Heather’s Roller Girl future is that she’ll end up, “scared and sad and lonely and weird” in LA. This is clearly also a description of Hannah in New York, but that doesn’t diminish it as an admission of anxiety.  Then, there’s that song:

My name’s [Carrie]

I’m so very

Fly oh my

It’s a little bit scary

A little bit scary, indeed.

But that brings me back to Lili’s point about Hannah being the monster here.  If, as we’ve both noted, this episode is full of fright, suffused with cues that are meant to encourage us to read it as a kind of horror show, then the big reveal is very possibly that Hannah herself is the old farmer behind the mask at the end of Scooby Doo.  But if Hannah is the monster, what are her monstrous actions?  She ditches her parents.  She takes an unconscionably long time retrieving emergency menopause prescriptions for her panicked mother.  She sticks a finger up Eric’s butt and assumes, since he won’t tell her what he likes, that he’s into light pedophilia.  She shits on the shallow but sincere gestures of her old friends.  She dismisses working at a florist as not a “real job” even while she just quit an equivalent job in Manhattan.  Selfishness, narcissism, superiority complex.  It seems like the particular kind of monster Hannah has become is…a New York Chauvinist!

As a resident the great city of Philadelphia, often referred to by people who’ve lived in Brooklyn for no more than three months as “the Sixth Borough,” I am no stranger to the attitude of the post-collegiate domestic immigrant New Yorker.  While native New Yorkers often express a Horvathian patriotism about the city of their birth, nowhere is this pride more loudly expressed than in the recent graduate of Oberlin or wherever who feels he or she has just successfully “escaped” somewhere else only to finally arrive where the lights are so much brighter. The extent to which Hannah Horvath embodies this stereotype is raised to a new level in this episode. All of the aforementioned crimes aside, when Hannah delivers the monologue into the mirror about the worst things she can say being better than the best things other people can say, it’s like she’s becoming Travis Bickle.  New York has made Hannah almost violently insufferable.

This scene, in the context of the scary movie vibe that this episode sets up, gives us a real glimpse into both the threat this series dramatizes and the love story that this series is willing to give us.  That is, any legitimate fear Hannah has, outside of the previously mentioned leisure-class nervousness, is that she will be unsuccessful at remaking her life. She has “escaped,” she is taking the girl with the mismatched socks and trying to bring that girl to her apotheosis, and New York City is the key ingredient.  She is possessed, in some way, by this particular version of the rags to riches tale of upward mobility.  To become who you are is to become a New Yorker.  Success and happiness have no other geographical coordinates.  It is to rise to the top of an apartment building filled with improbably small and expensive apartments. But it is also to become, in some sense, monstrous to those you left behind. There is no Dana, only Zuul, to quote another great film about becoming somebody else in New York.

It’s also true that there’s no love greater in Hannah’s life than her love for the darkness, as Lili puts it, of New York City.  So what did Hannah learn in this episode?  What did we learn?  I think, first of all, that anybody still clinging to the idea that Lena Dunham approves of all the actions of her protagonist needs to stop clinging.  If she wasn’t one before—she was—then Hannah Horvath is without a doubt a full-on Al Swearengen anti-hero now.  At the same time, Dunham seems really invested in forcing us into an uncomfortable loop of sympathy and revulsion with Hannah. The show is criticizing Hannah for thinking her hometown is so small-time and backward, but damned if that town isn’t actually a little bit small-time and backward on occasion.  This is a tricky episode, but a really important one, for this show.  Too far on one side, and you end up with American Beauty-style, teenage wasteland commonplaces.  Too far on the other side, and you get the soft-lit romance of Dawson’s Creek (an observation I owe to Emma Straub).  This is a big dilemma of the past decade or so of quality TV. How do you make a show about a monster without either withering that monster with satire or becoming monstrous yourself?  In the interest of length, I’ll just say that I think the way out, the way of dealing with this character in a humane and kind and smart way, is to make a show, not about satirizing the follies of the young, not about the glories of New York, and not about criticizing the narrow-mindedness of the flyover states.  Instead, you make a show about something that Hannah’s mother and her best friend have given her in abundance. You make a show about forgiveness.

Never Don’t Worry: In Which Dunham Kills Horror

Dear Phil, Evan, and Jane,

Wish hard enough for misfortunes to befall the girls in Girls and the very next episode will nod understandingly but finally shake its head no. In Episode 6, Something Terrible Happens. Or rather, happened. Carrie Lawrence is Girls‘ Laura Palmer, but fails to launch as the mysterious dead girl whose death will expose small town America’s seamy underbelly. Nor, despite the callback to Carrie, can she hold a candle to that kind of high school horror. Instead, Carrie affords her former classmates a much-needed opportunity to develop the grief-stricken personae they’ll serve each other over restorative coffees. “She basically has PTSD,” says Heather’s coworker-boyfriend. Heather makes out with him, sighs, and enumerates Carrie’s virtues, the only example of which is her broad-minded acceptance of Hannah’s mismatched socks.

Jane, your point about characters failing to rise to a script rings true here. Heather’s half-baked bereavement notwithstanding, it’s obvious that Carrie’s disappearance or death (the withholding of salacious detail is yet another way in which Dunham un-Lynches America) isn’t a case of finely-wrought high-school torture; it isn’t anything so comfortingly intentional. Instead, Heather’s long list of things Carrie’s travel-buddies thought “the bitch” might have done—which includes sleeping with a stranger, being so drunk/hungover that she couldn’t function, and other activities the girls in Girls engage in with impunity—confirms that the explanation of her disappearance is a mixture of selfishness and insufficient fear. Carrie’s story, from which a lesson could easily have been extracted, after-school special-like, inspires none. In no way does Heather blame Carrie’s friends or imply their actions and conclusions were wrong. Fear and worry shouldn’t have been their responses, she seems to say; to the extent that Carrie’s cohort is coextensive with the upper middle-class girls, they’re used to the world cushioning their fuck-ups and keeping them safe.

This makes the benefit, held so that Carrie’s parents can hire a private investigator and “get some closure”, an emptier gesture than even this cynic supposed. From the community’s point of view, Carrie’s actual fate is irrelevant; what matters is that her parents achieve closure. In this bizarro-Twin Peaks, Heather’s choices in telling the story demonstrate the extent to which the town has experienced  “closure” and moved on to other things. Who benefits from the benefit? Well, the Twistarounds, for starters.

I want to linger on that benefit for a minute because it had all the ingredients to go Blue Velvet dark. I found myself watching every move in that scene with too much attention—noting how long it took Eric to bring the beer, whether Hannah drank it, how the Twistarounds were tempting fate with their beauty and untested sexuality. I had, it turned out, a bucketful of expectations for that scene, but I kept coming up empty. It’s possible I’m just paranoid, but I think those expectations were the result of some sneaky directorial choices.

I was rewarded for none of my detective work. Instead, Heather (Heather, ye gods! yet another toxic high-schooler attenuated) gyrates while rhyming Carrie with Very and Scary, thereby sanitizing the whole tragedy and making it neither. Stupid innocence abounds: Pharmacist Eric tries to sneak his arm around Hannah. Hannah notices but is working up to melt down over Heather’s performance. Heather’s not good enough to make it in LA, which speaks to Hannah’s own worries about not being good enough to make it in New York. She’s angry, but not because the benefit is a ghastly non-tribute to a dead girl.

I don’t mean to suggest that Dunham is taking all our 80s horror tropes and reworking them as innocent. Tunnel-vision, that inability for anyone in that scene to see anything but their own desire, including the Announcer-Boy who bops along with a hopeful rictus, is darkness of a sort. But it’s emptier and more realistic than the stories in which Terrible Things Happen.

This brings me to my bigger point: the last two episodes of Girls are anti-Lifetime movies. What happens when you don the righteous armor of the female victim and the predator refuses to play his part? Jane, your verdict on Hannah telling Charlie not to hit them—“it places dramatic conventions in a context where they sound absurd”—applies also to her encounter with her boss, which, as you say, is another instance of a man failing to “follow script”. Episode 6 just keeps stacking guns on the mantle. The moment when Suspiciously Handsome Pharmacist Eric follows Hannah out to her car to offer her some complimentary lubricant for her mother? That’s off in a very Lifetime-y way, and viewers familiar with the genre will recognize it and scream at their television sets for Hannah to run. Lifetime is based on not just the fear but the certainty that Bad Things Will Happen. It’s a standing order to remain paranoid readers in a horror-encrypted world. Leave the free tights, woman! Dark and murderous impulses lurk beneath, and they will eventually be revealed!

The evil man’s impulses are revealed: Pharmacist Eric doesn’t want to analyze people too much, doesn’t want to pressure her into sex, and doesn’t want a finger up his butt. “Why won’t you tell me what you want?” Hannah asks, a little annoyed. What if nightmares and dreams never come true? asks Phil, and here, in the aftermath of a moment gone flat, is a kind of answer. The only “real” fear—real in the sense that people spend emotional energy on it—is that Hannah isn’t good enough to make it. Next to that, even the real stuff of nightmare, like Carrie Lawrence’s murder, becomes safe and anodyne in this pleasant town where the handsome pharmacist is genuinely concerned about your mother’s vaginal dryness and wants to have fun and tender sex.

That kind of town is a blessing for a good person, a tragedy for a good reader, and a hell of a challenge for a fledgling writer who wants to read everything, including her roommate’s breakup and the benefit for a classmate’s death, as a reflection of her potential to “make it” or not as a writer in New York. Hannah’s the monster here. Of course she ends up talking to Adam at the end. Of course she asks him to tell her what he sees outside his window. She needs his darkness desperately, and New York supplies all the darkness Hannah’s life won’t. Are you boring? Step outside and maybe you’ll meet a crack addict shaking you down for cashews. Bam! There’s a story!

This accounts for why Hannah keeps coming back for bad sex. in Episode 5, Jessa helped Hannah figure out that she’s into sex for the story. (Jessa’s also the one who realizes the erotic potential in every story, and who gets her highs at last as much from story as from the sex the story demands.) Is this why, up until the unwelcome finger, Hannah’s breathing much more heavily with Pharmacist Eric than she ever has with Adam? If—despite all our vigilance, and the early promise Eric showed with that creepy lubricant—there’s no story here; if Eric is just a nice guy and not a budding serial killer or an old boss or a caveman who wears a lacy green sleep-mask, Hannah can’t pillage her sexual experience for material.

I submit that this is the most turned on we’ve ever seen Hannah, and that she’ll never be able to have an intense sexual experience with someone she finds narratively interesting. Good sex, for Hannah, is fine, but interesting material is more rewarding than orgasm.

That’s a smart move, and it puts paid to some of the hand-wringing over sex in Girls, some of which laments that young women are somehow regressing and fulfilling the man’s pleasure while annihilating their own. That’s not what’s going on here. None of the four protagonists is plagued by selfless impulses. Hannah is a motivated reward-seeker, just as people seeking sex are; it’s just that, in her case, there are bigger turn-ons than sex. Selfishness and selflessness aside, it’s refreshing to see someone value story highly enough to recognize it as a source of real power and real satisfaction. (Remember, she tells Eric about sex with Adam and Adam about sex with Eric. Those, for her, are seriously erotic moments.)

Isn’t it interesting, in a show with such a variety of realistically unsatisfying sexual encounters, that this episode featured two successful ones that went off-kilter at the end? Were you guys as surprised as I was to see Hannah really into a sexual experience until she ruins it by importing one of Adam’s scripts?

So what do we do with all this worry that can’t quite coexist with an embodied person? Phil, you wrote that Girls is at least in part about “the luxury of anxiety, a kind of twenty-first century heir to neurasthenia,” and I love that for how beautifully it captures this distinction with a difference: Hannah is always anxious but never afraid. That her anxiety isn’t generational is a nice touch  (and a reminder that Dunham shares a sensibility with Woody Allen): Hannah is like me, her father says. Like him, she’ll “jitter her way through her twenties.”

There’s so much more to discuss–the parents! The sex scene! The possibility that parents do know quite a lot about how their children work! The parental suggestions that Hannah refuses to listen to, because (to quote the lovely Heather in that scene where Hannah plays her own mother) “I know enough to know that you don’t really have to know anybody, you know?”

There’s a job opening at the florist,

Lili

American Nervousness, 2012

Dear Jane, Evan, & Lili,

Glad to be here.

I too have been thinking a lot about terrible things happening to the cast of Girls.  Evan just mentioned this as a thought experiment. What if things went woefully and irrevocably awry for The Ladies on Girls? Before that, Jane drew our attention to the threat of violence in her discussion of what Hannah identifies as Charlie’s domestic abuse spectrum behavior. And Elaine Blair, before us again, spoke eloquently about the idea that part of what is extraordinary about Girls, and what has been so infuriating to critics, is that Hannah and her friends live in a kind of bumper bowling version of Manhattan.  Nothing bad would, nothing bad could ever happen to these privileged people. Nobody’s going to die in a gutter, because, in this world, there’s no such thing as a gutter. La di da, hakuna matata.

Like Evan, though, I think this is all part of the plan.  Lena Dunham, whether she shares this mindset with her character or not, seems very interested in the idea of the luxury of anxiety, a kind of twenty-first century heir to neurasthenia.  Don DeLillo has a line in Underworld: “It’s the special skill of an adolescent to imagine the end of the world as an adjunct to his own discontent.”  DeLillo, of course, is not just speaking about adolescents or boys here, and it seems to me that this is equally applicable to Hannah Horvath and her sisters.  Traumatic events only serve to displace anxieties about other, more mundane, or at least less global, concerns. The idea of Charlie lifting a hand to Hannah displaces her guilt over betraying(?) her bestie; the idea of contracting AIDS displaces Hannah’s anxiety about the emotional toll of her polymorphously unrequited affair with Adam; the idea of dying in a gutter like Flaubert displaces Hannah’s anxiety that her writing might not be worth dying in a gutter over.

So that, I think, is the perspective of the show to a certain degree. If Girls is an ethnography of a very circumscribed class of person, then this kind of apocalypticism is a big part of what defines Dunham’s subjects. But, to come back to what everybody always has to come back to with this show, just because Dunham has trained her eye on this kind of magical thinking doesn’t mean she’s not reproducing it to a certain extent. Now, I believe enough in Dunham’s self-consciousness about her work that I also can believe that this is all leading somewhere, but that’s not a sure thing.  Why, for instance, doesn’t anything bad happen to these people? To take an example from last week’s episode 5, why doesn’t Hannah get fired for coming on to and then berating her boss?  On most HBO series, all you have to do is wake up in the morning to warrant an axe in your brain, but Hannah Horvath’s intentional and energetically performed self-destruction simply won’t stick.  The same goes for Jessa’s immaculate lack of conception.   Hannah and her friends are engaging in a kind of recreational anxiety that is only possible because, deep down, they believe that their fears are unfounded. This is a phenomenon certainly worth looking into, a panic widespread enough to be a notable feature of modern life. Trouble is, Hannah and her friends are right. They don’t really seem to have anything to worry about.

But, again, Dunham is doing a pretty humane job lovingly articulating all the ins and outs of a particular kind of delusion, and I don’t want to begrudge her empathy.  Marnie doesn’t need to die of Roman Fever like Daisy Miller in order for Dunham to effectively critique her behavior.  Likewise, TV showrunners needn’t behave like the Old Testament God, meting out justice to the sinners down on earth, to be responsible social critics.  If Tony Soprano always got what was coming to him, there wouldn’t have been a show, and, thanks to Matthew Weiner’s merciless skewering of Betty Draper, I think we’re all sufficiently familiar with exactly how grimy it can feel to see a television writer punish a character for all of her bourgeois vanities and transgressions. Girls doesn’t need to be a Jeremiad to be a valuable work of social fiction.

Dunham, for her part, seems to be laying the groundwork for something, and I’m excited to see what.  Jessa’s relationship with the father of the kids she babysits is a bit of a time bomb, and one that could have actual consequences if it goes off.  And, even though she didn’t get fired, Hannah’s whimsical forfeiture of her job could come back to haunt her in fiscally real ways.  But what will happen then? To amend Evan’s question, can something bad happen on this show that does not lead to a moment of self-discovery?  In other words, is Girls beholden to the Apatow rule that trauma begets wisdom, reckless stupidity begets enlightenment for the worthy?  Or is Lena Dunham committed to shielding her characters from disaster?  What if neither nightmares nor dreams ever come true?

As usual,

Phil.