Category Archives: GIRLS

Season 1 Finale: The Marriage Plot

Dearest Lili, Phil, and Evan,

Apologies for the long silence–my excuse for it isn’t sufficient, though it might seen rather appropriate. I’m currently moving out of the Greenpoint apartment I’ve been subletting these past two months. Early tomorrow morning I’ll be travelling by subway (hopefully in the right direction) to JFK, and then some.

Endings are by nature more difficult than beginnings, which, really, could start anywhere. Beginnings (like pilots) promise expansion, evolution, revision; they’re a glimpse into what is possible. The answers to what is possible—to what is even simply likely—falls upon endings. So. . .the finale to the first season of Girls happened. It did! As the episode title says, “She Did.” Jessa married Thomas-John. It might not have seemed likely—especially from the vantage of episode one—but it certainly doesn’t lie outside what is possible in the world of Hannah Horvath.

There’s a reason endings are so often spoken of in terms of consummation and satisfaction. Novelistic endings, as David Haglund points out, end with either a death or a marriage—and often both. Against the traditional marriage ending, however, Dunham’s show is again off-model. If Girls contends with what happens to youth after college, it’s now also engaging with what occurs after their weddings; two realms The Graduate approached, but never entered. As I’ve said beforeGirls begins where that film ended. She did. Now what?

Marriages are normalizing acts—they civilize and socialize. As the most unconventional girl in Girls, Jessa has suddenly become the most traditional. As the most unpredictable, she has to some extent satisfied our first impressions from the pilot. Except, the classic marriage ending comes part and parcel with a marriage plot: an entire narrative that leads up to the “she did.” By the time she does, readers are supposed to understand why. Jessa’s entrance into the world of legal domestic companionship happens too fast and, more importantly, too soon for these girls. What one can sympathize with from this twist ending is how especially bizarre it must also seem to Hannah’s aspiring New York cohort.  Shoshanna is rightly upset to watch this all fly, quite incomprehensibly, by her. Jessa’s wedding comes as a surprise—a “mystery party”—that leaves viewers with a sense of unease. Is this the ending we “deserve,” or expected?  There are things to solve here, and I’m, at least, compelled to tune in next season to make sense of what we’ve been left with.

A mystery can turn horrific quite quickly, but as we’ve rehearsed here, things are never truly threatening—only elegiac at worst—in Girls. Hannah gets robbed on the subway home—which she gets on heading in the wrong direction. (The other Carrie I’m reminded of here is Dreiser’s, which also offers its own twist on the marriage ending.) Hannah herself, though, is left unharmed (still armed with cake!), ready to translate this mishap into worthy memoir material. Upon exiting the F, she doesn’t look for a map nor even so much as glance at a sign. Instead, she shouts to a group of girls: “Where am I?” Their response—“Heaven”—doesn’t satisfy, because this episode is not about to end with death. Hannah doesn’t want Heaven, and for the moment she doesn’t even yearn for home. Rather than retracing her steps by getting on the subway heading back, Hannah walks toward a beach.

Growing up no longer culminates in a wedding. More often, it happens quietly. Sometimes you’re by yourself. You might not be aware of growth as it occurs. You might even be eating.

LIMINALLY,
Jane

Killing Carrie Bradshaw: Episode 9 of Girls

Dear Phil, Jane, Evan,

Writers suuuuuuuuck.

Haha. Just kidding. Sort of.

If life is a scavenger hunt, there are two things I can’t cross off my list. One is a genuinely happy marriage. The other is a dead writer—one who stood the test of time—who wasn’t a selfish jerk to his or her nearest and dearest. I spend a lot of time with Milton, and however stunningly virtuosic he came to be, his college writing, while still quite good, is clearly the work of a pompous ass.  His “greatness” describes specifically and exclusively his skill as a writer; it is not transferable to his personal qualities. However much integrity he had (lots, selectively applied), I’ve never come across an account of him that led me to think of him as a nice man or even a good man. In Hannah’s terms, being a good friend was not one of Milton’s primary concerns.

I’ve said before that what I really admire about Girls is that it lets its characters be every bit as flawed and selfish as people are in life—male or female–and lets them suffer the consequences. I don’t know what made the eighties and early ’90s so much more normal when it came to female characters on mainstream shows. Several things occur to me as contributing factors: one is the rise of the supermom with the concomitant rise of female sexual villains (Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction), the other is the increased volume of feminist critiques of the latter. Far be it from me to say that feminism spawned a spate of anodyne women—instead, I think TV and film executives got the garbled message from the Culture At Large that it was important to produce “positive role models” for girls and women. Positive role models are anathema to great story-telling, being exactly what they sound like: positive, posed and fake. But they make for tremendously successful sitcoms.

The more I think about the sitcoms of the 90s, the more convinced I become that they serve the same cultural function as advice columns: they establish a consensus of what constitutes an acceptable society. This is why people care so desperately when sitcom characters do polemical things. (Ellen, anyone? Roseanne?) If they were mere entertainment, who, really, would care?

They tend to be set in New York because New York is the place where social norms are most likely to be challenged. Elaine can exist as a character because New York is a strange space in America. It’s a place where a zany woman who can’t dance can hang out with three men without romantic overtones getting in the way. It’s where the oddball extremes of acceptable behavior can be explored and policed.

Friends paved the way, of course, making the story of a single working adult in New York City into a safeish fantasy of huge apartments and swathes of free time.  No one has any hard edges; everyone is puppyish, well-intentioned and harmless. Monica was famously the least likeable one because she was mildly neurotic.  What cultural work did it do? Well, it made the spate of single adults living differently from the previous generation lovable, and inspired the new generation to be lovable. Seinfeld does the same for a slightly older group of adults. It isn’t about nothing; every episode revolves around the question of what is or isn’t socially acceptable, and what to do in the Wild West of New York when the social contract is violated.

New York on HBO was wilder still. Hypercorrecting for the glut of Evil Women who turned up in movies like avenging furies now that they were Working, Single, and Sexual, the Sex and the City girls took over. They naturalized and reclaimed the behaviors that had characterized the Evil Women, ushered in the explanatory voiceover, and made a population that had felt invisible visible. No one could have foreseen that the formula’s success would have the unintended effect of temporarily reducing the palette of female behavior to four colors.

Jane and Evan have both noted the show’s callbacks to Sex and the City, and how it’s the paradigm Girls has to break. Phil, you wondered whether Hannah is a good writer, and whether we would see her work. I’m struck anew by the fact that Hannah, the self-described creative nonfiction writer extraordinaire, is not telling this story. Phil’s right: we don’t see her notebook or her diary, and we’re forced to rely on outside characters’ reactions to her work.

I think there’s a reason for that, and it’s this: Dunham resists Louie’s model, where bits of the “real author’s” work appears throughout the action of the episode, because she has to resist Carrie. Any shot of Hannah writing—any of shot of a young woman in New York in front of a computer—will conjure the specter of Carrie Bradshaw. That’s how completely Sex and the City has wiped out all the other female writers in New York.

Which brings me to my hypothesis: Tally is Carrie Bradshaw on crack. The sex writer whose Mr. Big died! Sex and drama, all wrapped up in a young and marketable package. In this episode, we saw the beginning of Hannah’s long quest to slay the beast. The question isn’t whether Hannah’s any good (although I have some thoughts on that I’ll get to in a sec); the question is whether there’s room for another kind of nonfiction writer in a literary world saturated with women writing autobiographical ruminations on their sexual escapades and/or dramatic stories of loss.

No wonder Hannah didn’t write about the boyfriend who was a hoarder; she was simultaneously worried that she had worked too hard on it (Tally’s shot in the dark praising Hannah for how she labors over things told) and that it was too close to Tally’s subject matter. Tally writes about a boyfriend she loved who killed himself, Hannah writes about a live ex-boyfriend. Which is the better story? It’s a lovely touch, then, that Hannah’s sourness and envy lead her, in a burst of “hate-writing,” to unconsciously imitate Tallie’s process (or Tallie’s account of her process). She shows up at the reading and says she’s decided to read something that for all intents and purposes just “poured out of her.”

It doesn’t work, of course. “It didn’t really come together for me,” says the prof, with the kind of honesty that makes her go giddy for his praise and his condemnation of Tally. (Incidentally, the sexual-paternal vibe between a male professor and a female student is such a staple of undergraduate Creative Writing programs, but it was totally fascinating to see that underbelly shown on TV—I hope it goes nowhere.) Hannah knows it didn’t work and goes home, feeling like she’s lost it, or maybe she never really had it, and quickly devolves into the nastiest, most appetitive and writerly version of herself.

The thing about trying to be a writer, generally, is that no one cares about what you write. They don’t, and they won’t, until you try and fail a billion times and keep forcing people (or paying them) to read you and react to you. (Poor Marnie.) To write is to scream for attention. If you happen to be a writer of creative nonfiction, it’s even worse, because you can’t even pretend that you want the attention for “the work” and not yourself. You are the story. The story is you. Or, if you’re not interesting enough, the story is the people you know. Hannah’s working in an extremely crowded niche. If Sex and the City paints womanhood in four colors, memoir paints creative nonfiction in two: there’s dramatic, and there’s funny. If you haven’t—as Hannah hasn’t—been given the gift of a dead boyfriend, her only recourse is humor and self-deprecation. This is why Girls sits uneasily in the category of comedy, even though it’s often funny. It’s much closer in genre to the personal essay. Each episode is essentially an essay, and essayistic humor is its own animal; quieter, darker, and—in the hands of its greatest practitioners—full of, and sometimes even motored by, autocriticism.

As for friendship, David Sedaris points out that few figures are as selfishly cruel as a funny nonfiction writer:

After finishing our coffees, Lisa [his sister] and I drove to Greensboro, where I delivered my scheduled lecture. That is to say, I read stories about my family. After the reading, I answered questions about them, thinking all the while how odd it was that these strangers seemed to know so much about my brother and sisters. In order to sleep at night, I have to remove myself from the equation, pretending the people I love expressly choose to expose themselves. Amy breaks up with a boyfriend and sends out a press release. Paul regularly discusses his bowel movements on daytime talk shows. I’m not the conduit, but just a poor typist stuck in the middle. It’s a delusion much harder to maintain when a family member is actually in the audience.

That’s from “Repeat After Me,” an essay that ends with Sedaris begging his sister for forgiveness in the only way he can: indirectly, sincerely, and pointlessly, because he’s not going to stop. The only reason Hannah has “passed” as a good friend is that nobody wants to read what she writes except Ray and Charlie, who aren’t in it for literary reasons. When Charlie “publishes” Hannah by reading her work aloud at a gig, she turns to Marnie, asks her to remove herself from the devastating description of her relationship, and wonders what she thinks of the passage just as a piece of prose.

We’ve talked before about Hannah as monster, and she is: she’s as bad and worse than Milton, without being anywhere near as good. Her only hope of redemption is becoming a hell of a writer or giving it up and deciding to be a good person instead. Phil, I’d guess, in answer to your question, that she’s on the shallow end of her arc toward Good Writerhood, because—well, Lena/Hannah, this is a portrait of the artist as a young woman. And she’s insufferable but all too real. It occurs to me that one thing Louie has going for it that Girls doesn’t is that Louie’s old, established, a good comedian. He’s already scriggled to the top so we don’t have to see the ugly parts of him—the arrogance, the cruelty, the neglect of his partner and friends—that preceded his rise. Professional success and good fatherhood (especially good fatherhood) mask a multitude of sins. Louie is basically sympathetic. As a person, he’s almost irreproachable. In this sense, Dunham is the braver and more ambitious storyteller.

It’s to Dunham’s credit that she manages, like Sedaris, to show the obliviousness even budding nonfictionists must cultivate in order to sleep at night, while showing the writer experiencing that obliviousness as real (Hannah really doesn’t see, while she and Marnie are fighting, that what she does is cruel). It’s to Marnie’s credit that she sees the gaping holes in Hannah’s self-knowledge and doesn’t point them out.

In “Repeat After Me,” David Sedaris and his sister have just seen a movie that eerily parallels their own relationship. He’s told her that a director is planning to make a movie based on his work, so they’re sitting in the car panicking, “each of us imagining a bored audience shifting in their seats.” Lisa eventually tells him about something terrible that happened to her, that has her sobbing by the end. “Dusk,” Sedaris writes, as if turning their life into a screenplay. “The camera pans an unremarkable suburban street, moving in on a parked four-door automobile, where a small, evil man turns to his sobbing sister, saying, ‘What if I use the story but say that it happened to a friend?’”

The first time I read that passage, I remember thinking that there was a word that disqualified it as a screenplay. The word is “evil.” The camera can show a small man, but it can’t show the monster he is on the inside. That’s the trouble with screenplays, and it’s what essays can do so well. All these years later, it’s fascinating to watch Dunham trying to make a script do exactly this.

Flowing out,

Lili

Makeovers, Makeunders and Makeouts (Episode 8)

Dear Jane, Evan, Phil,

I’m so grateful for your insights into last week’s episode because I kept digging through the Bushwick crust and coming up empty on the other side.

Marnie, Marnie Marnie. When Episode 8 showed her in an old t-shirt and bedhead hair, I realized I always think of Marnie as sporting a French braid. Even when she isn’t, and she generally isn’t. Her hair, like her personality, is wrangled. It’s never greasy, never unbrushed, and never, ever down. (This is why the Brooke Shields comparison rang false to me, even the first time. Keira Knightly seems more apt: the angularity, the tight jaw, the compulsion to pluck and pull any excessive hair.) Her upbraiding by Elijah cracked her composure (sorry), and it’s becoming clear now that the show’s structure is sort of a braid, bringing in the abandoned strand when you’d more or less forgotten it.

Girls braid each other’s hair. I experienced it myself, recently, when the internet went down in our hotel room in England and my friend Irene turned me into Lady Mary, Warrior Princess. It doesn’t have to be braiding, nor does it have to be hair, but a significant part of many a female friendship consists of seeing the capacity for glamour in someone with whom you’re intimate. That’s quite a trick, because glamour (Irene points out) is distancing: it’s marvelous, not quite human, and without cracks of any kind. It is therefore incompatible with intimacy. But friends—in a strange trick of double-consciousness—see it and narrate it and produce it in each other. Considered as a kind of primate grooming ritual, this makes sense: Cher saw herself as a bit of a saint in Clueless because makeovers are (in an obscure and secondary way) an act of love.

That’s a long way of saying that friends are good for helping us build up whatever sense of a “public self” we have. And that friendship is often, at least in part, a process of trying to live up to that ideal self that someone else sees in you. This is why Adam’s fellow actor is crushed: Adam’s not just withdrawing from the play, he’s withdrawing his good opinion of his partner’s abilities, his creativity, his artistic scope and his personhood. It’s the ultimate “makeunder.” Adam’s visions of people are hard.

I feel like a caveat’s in order here: female friendships obviously aren’t the only source for this kind of self-making for girls, nor are male friendships for boys. There’s a reason the woman who wants to remake a man is a comedy club trope. Trouble is, they miss the underlying socialization, the intimacy that underpins the impulse. In hetero pairings, it’s starting to happen to Hannah (who Adam  is teaching to run, barking at her his sense of who she can be) and to Adam, whose redemptive scene at the end is in strict response to how Hannah has reacted to his performance and its possibilities. Look at what happens to Marnie when Charlie’s image of her can no longer sustain her sense of herself as a woman who inspires excessive and suffocating love.

Back to the girls. What I liked about this episode was how successfully it mapped out the trio’s (or braid’s) shifting dynamics. Hannah’s been single and unhappy; Marnie’s been loved too much. Marnie can’t help but experience the inversion of their roles as horribly destabilizing. She hasn’t just lost a boyfriend (she never really cared about him anyway–Hannah’s right). What she’s lost, and what she’s mourning, is the loss of the source of her public self; Charlie’s devotion built her to a degree she’s only just beginning to realize, and to the extent that Hannah defined Marnie as the functional one, the stable one, she’s lost that too. Marnie’s selfhood is as raw and sensitive as Jessa’s ghost-fucked thighs.

That’s when Jessa shows up at the apartment asking for Hannah, with whom she “had a date” to console her for losing her job. (I love that Jessa is this programmatic about her distress.) Hannah’s forgotten, so she and Marnie are stuck in a room without their usually go-between, and boy, was that a beautifully understated moment of crisis. Had Jessa left, it would have been a tacit admission that she and Marnie are not friends and never would be; the braid that holds Jessa, Marnie and Hannah together would have been seriously mussed.

So they start with a communal anti-makeover by ragging on poor Hannah’s unwashed forehead. Pity for Hannah. Gossip over Adam. These things have nothing to do with Hannah or Adam; they’re currents which Jessa and Marnie can safely navigate, taking small risks to see how far they can trust each other.

And then Jessa gives Marnie the gift of her surprised admiration:

“You look really gorgeous. I love you all stripped down.”

“I’ve never been this miserable in my life,” Marnie says.

“It’s totally working,” Jessa says, truly arrested by Marnie’s appearance.

It’s a rapport-making moment, but then Jessa pushes things along a little too fast. She starts comparing Marnie favorably to Charlie’s new girlfriend. Marnie, Jessa announces, a little theatrically (you can tell she’s starting to enjoy her role as a proto-Cher), is “a striking and classic beauty in the vein of Brooke Shields.” It’s a crappy observation whose crappiness is confirmed when the venture capitalist repeats it, and Marnie calls her out on it. “You don’t have to do this,” she says. “Pretend we’re friends.”

Jessa is all astonishment, but Marnie’s relentless. Her hair’s a mess, her face is naked and she’s not performing: “We’ve known each other for six years; you’ve known my name for three.” The code is pretty much on the surface: Marnie’s evidence against their being friends is that she has never, before the compliment Jessa paid her on the couch, caught her attention. You’ve never seen me as anything more than I am.

Then Jessa makes one of those interesting mistakes that Dunham does so well: she starts listing what she perceives as Marnie’s good qualities, and in so doing, she proves Marnie right. The list is pretty devastating: Jessa admires Marnie’s “work ethic” and her “commitment to hygiene.” “I think you’re–” she starts up again, in search of an adjective. “Uptight,” Marnie interrupts. And Jessa has the grace to admit it. “A bit, yes.”

That was an important admission both because Jessa’s honesty was crucial to this particular braiding moment, but also because it lets Marnie respond. The assumption of her uptightness is paralyzing, she says, because it means that possibilities are foreclosed on. Nobody ever asks her to go to Rome. Later, when Jessa follows her to the venture capitalist’s apartment and it’s clear that he wants a threesome, Marnie’s thrilled. She’s been asked to go to Rome. She doesn’t particularly want to, however, although she does want to hang onto the feeling a little longer. She kisses Jessa, awkwardly, in a desperate plea to extend her newfound glamour in front of this man-as-audience, and Jessa plays up beautifully. When Jessa kisses Marnie back, the eroticism is subservient to the budding friendship: I see you, that kiss says, I see you the way you want to be seen, and I’m making it come true.

See you,

Lili

Turn On, Drop In, Drop Out

Dear Evan, Phil, and Lili,

You’re waffling. I’m waffling. Which makes a kind of poetic sense since this episode was all about commitment. The girls are waffling too. Evan, you called this a pivotal episode and I completely agree. The night before you posted your piece, studentactivism and I had a conversation about the very pivotal-ness of “The Crackcident.” What defines this episode as critical is how it pivots—how it waffles and how it makes viewers waffle in turn.

Ray’s steadfast pursuit of Shoshanna surprised me, especially since we’ve seen him repeatedly mock girls in prior episodes. Inversely, Charlie now has a new paramour and seems to have forgotten that once, he had strictly “decided on” Marnie. If we as viewers are having a difficult time coming to terms with these quick and new attachments, Marie is visibly having a harder one.

Jessa seems committed enough to accompany Jeff through the evening—and into the affair we were all waiting to happen—only to realize, on a hospital bed, that this was not at all where she wanted her night to end.

Then there’s Hannah and Adam’s always–always already–ambivalent attachment to one another.

When you’re committed to a character or anticipate certain narrative lines, episodes such as this last one can throw you off. Girls feels off-model because it is. Not only did Bushwick (and its uncanniness, as Phil and Evan both discuss) play up the girls’ geographical dislocation, it also emphasized their metaphysical confusion. Hannah doesn’t know where she is by the episode’s end, so she sends Marnie a drop-pin. Problem solved. Except they still don’t really know where they are. They’re just now able to inhabit that undeveloped space together (and not even for very long; they’re riding in a cab, after all, moving through the desolate streets of industrial Brooklyn).

Richard Brody continues to emphasize the discrepancies between Girls, the television show, and what he usually writes about: film. About “The Crackcident,” he says:

In “Tiny Furniture,” [Dunham] maintains a distinctively personal tone, type of performance, and sense of time. The tight formatting of each episode of “Girls” reduces her vision to a continuity of story line, character, and verbal style—and the hands of any other director recruited to realize it are also tied.

I disagree. If anything, Dunham relies on televisual expectations (of what the genre and medium can manage and communicate in a 25-minute episode) so as to interrupt the anticipated continuities of story line, character, and verbal style.

Why can’t Girls waffle a bit?

As Phil mentioned, the scene at the end of this episode recalls the end of the film, The Graduate.

But this reference had been established from the very start: the soundtrack that plays at the end of the Girls pilot recalls the end of The Graduate as well. The moving bus, the fading smiles, the tinkering music welcome our young protagonists into the world of adulthood, of marriage, of commitment.

As television, Girls can start where The Graduate had to end.

In transit,

Jane

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

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