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.