Dear Lili, Evan, and Jane,
Sorry to have been absent last week. Let’s get back to it! I’m structuring this post as a series of points/topics/questions because I’m all over the place on it right now. In any case, the common theme is support.
1. Is Hannah’s writing any good?
As is often my wont, I’m picking up this query from the end of Evan’s last posting in which he talks about the show’s funny relationship to artistic production. Since the first episode, it has been an open question whether Hannah Horvath’s grand masterpiece, her Key to All Mythologies, is, in fact, worth anyone’s time—including her own. It’s even an open question whether she’s writing at all. One of the more underplayed jokes in the pilot is that the manuscript she hands to her parents could not be more than 30 pages long; the story topics we occasionally hear referenced (about her hoarder boyfriend, for instance) seem designed by Dunham to be laughed at; Marnie is tolerant, at best, of her friend’s prose; and we never, ever, see Hannah working on the book that is, presumably, her prime occupation. The only people who compliment her on it are her father, who loves her unconditionally, and Professor Christopher Moltisanti, who, as Marnie points out, may just be macking on her.
Hannah’s book is a classic problem for a show about the creative process. Do we read the book? Do we hear what she writes? That approach worked for The Larry Sanders Show because The Larry Sanders Show within The Larry Sanders Show was great. It didn’t work for Studio 60 because the show within the show was hot garbage. But Dunham doesn’t let us see her book. She shows us the ripples it makes, the way that it functions as a placeholder for any number of other issues in her life. Hannah talking about her book is Hannah talking about herself. And this is partially what throws Marnie over the edge: Hannah’s ability to make everything, including Marnie sometimes, a metonym for herself. The book is about her life, Marnie’s heartbreak is about her newfound romance, Tally’s recognition is about her lack of recognition. This has the unique function of allowing Hannah to always be talking about herself, but it also functions to alienate everyone with whom she is close. When is the last time Hannah was in a scene with anyone other than Marnie or Adam for more than a minute?
Despite the fact that both Hannah and the show usually treat her book as a plot device or emotional trigger, Dunham is continuing to pursue the idea of Hannah as an actual writer by having her go to the reading. And I’m confused. Is Hannah really a writer? Or, rather, are we supposed to take Hannah’s writing seriously, or is it a smokescreen? The way I see it, the fight at the end of this episode (spurred by Hannah’s anguish about the reading) exposes Hannah’s writing for what it is: a pretense for every situation and human being in her life to be funneled into a narrative that is about her. From the hotel room in the pilot to her showdown with Chris Eigeman to this episode’s various refusals, Hannah’s writing is no longer winning her the support it used to. If her old prof really is just trying to get in her pants, then that leaves nobody supporting her art. Is Hannah really a writer, or is she, as the phenomenal Kathryn Hahn tells Jessa, “doing it to distract [herself] from becoming the person [she’s] meant to be”?
2. How good is Kathryn Hahn in this?
So good! Over the past year, Kathryn Hahn has been turning in the kind of boffo guest spots—on this and on Parks and Rec—people do before they hit it big. Somebody give this woman a series! Her face, the slightly low angle shot of her talking to Jessa, and the way the focus leaves Kirke’s eyes—this scene could have been a major whiff, but it read in the same vein as Hannah’s parents’ anniversary dinner, as one of the most sincere and actually insightful moments on the show. In any case, her monologue about the dream in this episode is both a perfect Dunham line-reading and a kind of valedictory speech on the show’s main themes.
The line I quoted above recalls Hannah from the cold open to the pilot saying that she’s “busy trying to become who I am.” If this series is about growing up to some extent, then the model of growing up it endorses has a lot to do with pragmatic self-understanding. College is over. Charlie is a college boyfriend. Understand what you can do, understand what you need. Katherine, in this scene, needs a good babysitter more than she needs a faithful husband. But Dunham doesn’t mock her the way she mocks her ladies sometimes. Jessa telling Shoshanna that she needs to “make some changes” and then saying that she’s starting by re-arranging the furniture in the apartment is a perfect example of this. Jessa understands that she needs something, that her life is, more or less, a shambles, but her instinctual move is to displace. Why reflect when you can re-decorate? Jessa tells Katherine that she doesn’t need her help, but that’s not strictly true, emotionally or financially. As Lili and I have both noted, Hannah’s mother has been perhaps the most supernaturally understanding person on this show, and I think Katherine just joined that club. There’s something about this gorgeously shot scene that transcends all the second-guessing and anxiety and reassures us that, even though life may continue to a mess for Jessa and co.—as it is for Katherine herself—there is hope in the idea that, one day, they will understand exactly what it is they are doing.