Dear Lili, Jane, and Evan,
Jane’s analysis of the Girls marriage plot is spot on, I think. But I want to think about another related structure Girls is adapting here. One of the things we’ve isolated often in our correspondences has been the way that Girls, in its stylistic hodge-podginess, often positions to offer revisions of familiar modes. This was true of the horror film aesthetic that has popped up on a number of occasions, it’s true of the numerous bizarro SATC moments, and it was true this episode of, not just the marriage plot, but the wedding set-piece.
If you’ve read anything on the internet or anything available in a magazine at the airport over the past year, you’ve been reading about Women in Comedy. Kristen Wiig, Whitney Cummings, Zooey Deschanel—Lena Dunham showed up late to this parade, but if her show had debuted in February as initially scheduled, we would see her as part and parcel of this glut, and very possibly, she’d have been photographed reclining in a silk chemise with Kerry Washington and Juliana Marguiles on the cover of Vanity Fair.
The reason I bring this up is not because I’m pitching an eight-month-old think-piece, but because the final episode of Girls was set at a wacky wedding, just like the pilot episode of Whitney, the third episode of New Girl, and the entirety of Bridesmaids. This too is a genre convention, and it’s one that Dunham is predictably excited to make grotesque. On Whitney, the title character attends the wedding of a friend, and after a series of bungles—she wears the same dress as the bridesmaids or something, and she eats a cupcake not realizing that the cupcakes are part of a wedding cake because she’s never seen Pinterest or been in the checkout line at a Whole Foods, apparently—she realizes that she and her boyfriend need to spice up their relationship. Like everything else on that show, it’s the most boring possible iteration of a familiar scenario, and thus instructive about the conventions of said scenario.
Girls makes reference to this kind of structure with Shoshanna’s mortification that she’s wearing white. The joke, though, is not that it’s a hilarious faux pas, but that Shoshanna, who knows her Sex and the City chapter and verse, is so immersed in rom-com logic, that the faux pas throws her into an existential crisis. I hope that Shosh grows as a character next season and that Dunham gives her a little bit more to do, if only because Zosia Mamet is such an appealingly versatile actress, but, at the same time, it’s been valuable to have her as a kind of psychotic, warped, rom-com Greek Chorus, reminding us at every turn of how Girls is diverging from and playing with those tropes. In Shoshanna’s mind, Girls IS Sex and the City or Bride Wars or He’s Just Not That Into You. (I’m imagining a Shoshanna POV dream sequence in which Jessa is played by Katherine Heigl.)
New Girl and Bridesmaids use the scenario as well, though with predictably greater aplomb. What they share with each other, and with Girls, for that matter, is an interest in the emotional violence of the wedding for other people. Their take is less about missed protocols than it is about psychic breakdown. The wedding is the test of relationships other than that of the bride and groom, and thus, it is full of explosive potential. As we’ve discussed earlier, the possibility and anticipation of disaster is one of Dunham’s favorite things to play with. If last week was the blow-up we expected—between Marnie and Hannah—this week is the return of a blow-up we thought already happened.
I won’t go too far into the nature of Adam and Hannah’s relationship, except to say this: there’s a lot of yelling. Specifically, there’s a lot of Adam yelling. At Hannah, at cars, at his co-stars, at Hannah again. In this, Adam is twinned with Thomas-John—who really laid into Jessa and Marnie once he realized he wasn’t going to get laid into, so to speak—and Charlie, whose rather mild voice-raising and table-slamming Hannah took as a foreshadowing of domestic violence. I guess I’m still not 100% sure why Dunham keeps setting her ladies up to be bawled out by men. If the racial and class dynamics on this show are suspect—and I think they’re a lot more complicated than they get credit for being—I think the gender dynamics at least are right on the nose. Except in this.
Why are the Girls so frequently dominated and shamed by men, even when they are in the right? And what is the function of constantly returning to the site of that domination: Jessa marrying Thomas-John or Hannah coming back to Adam or Hannah’s desire to move back in with her Marnie-slapping ex or even Marnie’s half-hearted quest to reproduce the feeling of Lonely Island spitting game at her. “I may scare you…” Yes please!
It’s one of the more vexing questions about Girls, I think. And one of the messier elements of Dunham’s version of the Marriage Plot. Critics who felt that Girls was a celebration of blithe irresponsibility, privilege, and pretension might feel a little differently today. This season has been as harrowing as it has been hilarious. And as Jane’s Graduate analogue makes plain, even the moments of triumph are undercut by ambivalence or even outright trauma. These are anti-heroines, monsters, as Adam repeats. But this is a beginning. It is a genesis story. Jessa will not stay married to Thomas-John, Marnie will not feel unmoored forever, Shoshanna will claim her sexuality, and Hannah will make it back to Brooklyn. But that doesn’t mean it feels like any of this will happen. There was a deep feeling, in this episode, of distance. These women have realized, over the course of the season, not that they are in the process of becoming “who they are,” but how far away they are from that. Hannah’s beach might as well be a desert.
And it is in that mode that I can’t resist one last visual echo:
At the end of the Coen Brothers’ great Barton Fink, Barton—the radical playwright who comes to Hollywood only to be sucked into a maelstrom of madness and failure—travels to the beach. He holds with him an unidentified box. What’s in it is never explained—it could be a human head, it could be money, it could be somebody’s soul, it could be a telltale heart—but, even after his escape from the immediate danger of the plot, he carries it with him still. The beach is a space of freedom, beauty, possibility. The majestic ocean represents the only space in the film that is not claustrophobic, not tainted by evil, not compromised. The box is representative of the anonymous, gaping maw of horror that has nearly destroyed Barton. And so, as Barton sits with his box and a bird dives out of the sky, we are asked to feel hope in the midst of sinister markers. For Barton sees a beautiful woman sitting in front of him. She sits, miraculously, in the exact pose of a painting from Barton’s room, his only source of comfort throughout the film. There is terror, but there is also this.
Hannah on the beach is not so on the nose. Her mystery box is a foil of cake, and we don’t know what she sees. She has been stripped of everything, as naked as she ever is on the show, and she looks with trepidation but clarity of purpose. The cake, which represents Jessa’s awful wedding and Hannah’s catastrophic argument with Adam, is with her. But she eats it, rather than letting it eat her. This violence, that waywardness, these bad decisions, they feed and sustain her. Hannah is far away from everything she could even think to want. And she has no idea how to get where she’s going, let alone how to get home. But the dirty water can wash away her sins, and all the heartbreak and stupidity will make her strong if anything will. This is a beginning, and what a beginning it is. When Barton first comes to Hollywood, the head of the movie studio, Jack Lipnick, shouts at him:
We’re only interested in one thing, Bart. Can you tell a story? Can you make us laugh? Can you make us cry? Can you make us want to break out in joyous song? Is that more than one thing? Okay!