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.’
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.