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

7 responses to “Never Don’t Worry: In Which Dunham Kills Horror

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