Cross-posted at Los Angeles Review of Books
The title of Girls Season 2 Episode 1 was “It’s About Time” — referring, exactly, to what? What is it we’ve been waiting for? Hannah’s (kind of, sort of) split from Adam? Marnie’s (kind of, sort of) return to Charlie? The return of the show itself? Probably mostly the latter: “It’s About Time” was a pretty conventional season premiere in that it mostly just eased us back into the milieu the last season had already established, concerning itself more with tone than with plot, character development, or theme.
Still, time was a theme, of sorts. Dunham has opted for the now-commonplace narrative gambit of skipping over an unspecified period of time (seemingly a couple of months) between seasons, so that a number of important events have occurred in the interim. (How is there not a TV Tropes entry for this practice?) Hannah is now having sex with Sandy (Donald Glover), unbeknownst (presumably) to Adam, who she is (reluctantly) nursing back to health after his accident; her gay ex-boyfriend Elijah has moved into her apartment, and is (platonically) sharing her bed; Shoshanna and Ray made some attempt at a relationship which fizzled out, due in part to her profligacy with emoji; Jessa and Thomas-John have been on a long honeymoon in Mexico (frankly, it would have been fine with me if they’d stayed there). Time marches on!
What I noticed most in this episode, though, were not the principals but the disaffected older characters, like Marnie’s embittered, narcissistic mom (Rita Wilson, playing against cutesy-pie type), or Elijah’s older boyfriend George, who has a karaoke-induced meltdown and then chastises the kids at Hannah and Elijah’s housewarming party for not having the right kind of fun (“When I was your age, I was snorting cocaine on twinks and dancing with my tits out!”). It’s interesting that the older people in Girls are frequently either attempting to re-enter the magic circle of twentysomething culture (like Jessa’s boss Jeff from last season) or passing angry judgment on it — or, in George’s case, both.
This intensifies a device Girls was already using intermittently last season: introducing older people at the story’s margins (most often parents, teachers, and bosses) in order to admit a corrective self-consciousness — or the possibility of self-consciousness — into the show’s mostly hermetic post-collegiate universe. Sometimes these older characters have some wisdom to dispense, but what we mostly see in them is a longing to return to youth, coupled with a scorn for how the young people of today are wasting it or doing it wrong. (“You look — can I be honest? — 30 years old,” Marnie’s mother tells her; translation: you don’t appreciate what you have, and you’re about to lose it.) It’s to Dunham’s credit that she can write convincingly for people over 30, but it must be said that she also takes a kind of sadistic pleasure in humiliating these characters, or emphasizing their most pathetic aspects: the scene where Hannah locks George out of the party (while still insisting, over his protests, that she’s “a sweet girl”) is both a case in point and a good allegory for the show’s general strategy vis-à-vis grown ups.
I wonder if, to some extent, the marginal presence of these voyeuristic, disapproving adults is Dunham’s way of working through the staggering amount of attention she’s received since the first season’s premiere. Much has been made of how popular Girls is with the generation it depicts, but it’s also, clearly, a source of continual fascination for older people as well, many of whom are vaguely (or not so vaguely) perplexed and disapproving. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out over the course of the season. If the last season (or the episodes Dunham directed, anyway) had a preternatural confidence, this one came closer to swagger: the final shot of Dunham stripping felt like a real manifesto moment, since nudity — and particularly Dunham’s nudity — has been the catalyst for so much of the aforementioned perplexity and disapproval. It emphasized something that’s too easily missed: that Dunham shooting herself naked isn’t just an exhibitionistic compulsion, or a sign of millennial shamelessness, or (pace Howard Stern) a “little fat chick trying to get something going,” but a directorial signature.
On a shamelessly exhibitionistic note, glad to be back in the fold here at Dear Television! Looking forward to hearing what the rest of you have to say.
I talk to my friends way worse than this,
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,
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.
Dear Jane, Evan, & Lili,
Glad to be here.
I too have been thinking a lot about terrible things happening to the cast of Girls. Evan just mentioned this as a thought experiment. What if things went woefully and irrevocably awry for The Ladies on Girls? Before that, Jane drew our attention to the threat of violence in her discussion of what Hannah identifies as Charlie’s domestic abuse spectrum behavior. And Elaine Blair, before us again, spoke eloquently about the idea that part of what is extraordinary about Girls, and what has been so infuriating to critics, is that Hannah and her friends live in a kind of bumper bowling version of Manhattan. Nothing bad would, nothing bad could ever happen to these privileged people. Nobody’s going to die in a gutter, because, in this world, there’s no such thing as a gutter. La di da, hakuna matata.
Like Evan, though, I think this is all part of the plan. Lena Dunham, whether she shares this mindset with her character or not, seems very interested in the idea of the luxury of anxiety, a kind of twenty-first century heir to neurasthenia. Don DeLillo has a line in Underworld: “It’s the special skill of an adolescent to imagine the end of the world as an adjunct to his own discontent.” DeLillo, of course, is not just speaking about adolescents or boys here, and it seems to me that this is equally applicable to Hannah Horvath and her sisters. Traumatic events only serve to displace anxieties about other, more mundane, or at least less global, concerns. The idea of Charlie lifting a hand to Hannah displaces her guilt over betraying(?) her bestie; the idea of contracting AIDS displaces Hannah’s anxiety about the emotional toll of her polymorphously unrequited affair with Adam; the idea of dying in a gutter like Flaubert displaces Hannah’s anxiety that her writing might not be worth dying in a gutter over.
So that, I think, is the perspective of the show to a certain degree. If Girls is an ethnography of a very circumscribed class of person, then this kind of apocalypticism is a big part of what defines Dunham’s subjects. But, to come back to what everybody always has to come back to with this show, just because Dunham has trained her eye on this kind of magical thinking doesn’t mean she’s not reproducing it to a certain extent. Now, I believe enough in Dunham’s self-consciousness about her work that I also can believe that this is all leading somewhere, but that’s not a sure thing. Why, for instance, doesn’t anything bad happen to these people? To take an example from last week’s episode 5, why doesn’t Hannah get fired for coming on to and then berating her boss? On most HBO series, all you have to do is wake up in the morning to warrant an axe in your brain, but Hannah Horvath’s intentional and energetically performed self-destruction simply won’t stick. The same goes for Jessa’s immaculate lack of conception. Hannah and her friends are engaging in a kind of recreational anxiety that is only possible because, deep down, they believe that their fears are unfounded. This is a phenomenon certainly worth looking into, a panic widespread enough to be a notable feature of modern life. Trouble is, Hannah and her friends are right. They don’t really seem to have anything to worry about.
But, again, Dunham is doing a pretty humane job lovingly articulating all the ins and outs of a particular kind of delusion, and I don’t want to begrudge her empathy. Marnie doesn’t need to die of Roman Fever like Daisy Miller in order for Dunham to effectively critique her behavior. Likewise, TV showrunners needn’t behave like the Old Testament God, meting out justice to the sinners down on earth, to be responsible social critics. If Tony Soprano always got what was coming to him, there wouldn’t have been a show, and, thanks to Matthew Weiner’s merciless skewering of Betty Draper, I think we’re all sufficiently familiar with exactly how grimy it can feel to see a television writer punish a character for all of her bourgeois vanities and transgressions. Girls doesn’t need to be a Jeremiad to be a valuable work of social fiction.
Dunham, for her part, seems to be laying the groundwork for something, and I’m excited to see what. Jessa’s relationship with the father of the kids she babysits is a bit of a time bomb, and one that could have actual consequences if it goes off. And, even though she didn’t get fired, Hannah’s whimsical forfeiture of her job could come back to haunt her in fiscally real ways. But what will happen then? To amend Evan’s question, can something bad happen on this show that does not lead to a moment of self-discovery? In other words, is Girls beholden to the Apatow rule that trauma begets wisdom, reckless stupidity begets enlightenment for the worthy? Or is Lena Dunham committed to shielding her characters from disaster? What if neither nightmares nor dreams ever come true?
Dear Jane, Phil, and Lili,
Very pleased to be a part of this grand experiment!
I’m going to try to keep this post relatively short, in part because I have a bunch of friends coming over in a few hours to watch Girls (and Game of Thrones and possibly Mad Men as well) and I need to get the apartment cleaned up before they arrive. (Is that too personal? Too dull? This is a blog, right?)
I wanted to pick up on Jane’s calling attention to Hannah’s line “Adults try things. That’s what I’ve learned” from Episode 5, which seems to be kind of emerging as the motto/keynote for the series (more so than the oft-quoted “a voice of a generation” line from the pilot, which was kind of a red herring, in my opinion). It’s really an interesting line, both because it obviously encapsulates, in its first sentence, Girls/Dunham’s commitment to tentativeness and exploration (can you be “committed to tentativeness”? if you can, then she definitely is) and, in its second, ironizes that commitment by showing how quickly Hannah’s rushing to sum up her still-developing experience. In other words, she’s announcing: “I am so mature that I have reached a point where I can see that what I’m doing is extremely tentative” — a statement that self-deprecatingly undercuts itself its own authority, as so much of Dunham’s writing does, while still allowing her (and the show’s narrative) to heave itself forward.
To put it another way, Hannah is testing: testing herself, testing other people, testing boundaries. This allows her to act at once bold and reckless and to disavow the consequences of her actions (because it’s just an experiment; if it doesn’t ultimately turn out, no harm done). And Dunham, too, is testing, I think, both herself and the audience. I’ve been surprised by all the negative press — people attacking the show, and often Dunham herself, for being too blithely white/privileged/frivolous etc. — but, as Malcolm Harris pointed out in his excellent piece on the first episode for The State, Dunham is a very self-aware and self-conscious artist who knows exactly what she’s doing by depicting such blitheness. She is, I think, testing her audience to see how much blitheness, unawareness, and unpleasantness they’ll accept.
One last thing I’ll throw out, re: testing limits and safety. My favorite part of Elaine Blair’s fantastic NYRB piece is this paragraph:
Many critics have noted that the girls, all from seemingly financially secure families, are members of a privileged class. A slightly different aspect of their privilege is the relative confidence we feel that they can seek sexual experience without being in physical danger, that any revelations they receive will be useful and interesting rather than damaging or crushing, and that the people in their world will not punish them for their curiosity or high spirits. The girls feel confident of this too. They have an air of extended innocence, a girlish exuberance (behind a scrim of polished good behavior) that is the characteristic bearing of American upper-middle-class young women. The young men exude their own version of innocence. Adam’s sex fantasy may be off-putting to some, but part of the deeper humor of the scene comes from our knowing that he is basically an overgrown boy—and probably a pretty good boy at that—whose grandma sends him monthly checks for his rent.
I found this incredibly astute: part of many viewers and critics’ disapproval of Hannah’s behavior seems to be a kind of weird jealousy that she’s putting herself in potentially perilous situations (economic as well as sexual) that we all know aren’t really going to turn out too badly. I wonder how the show’s tone would change, and its reception would change, if something really terrible happened to one of the primary characters — something along the lines of David Fisher’s traumatic carjacking in Season 4 of Six Feet Under? What if Hannah had learned she really did have AIDS in Episode 3, for instance? Or Jessa really had lost the kids she was babysitting? (Not that I’m wishing for anything bad to happen to any of the girls; just proposing a kind of thought experiment.) Would any of this alter any of the righteous critiques of the first five episodes, or not? I guess what I’m saying is that behind some of the hate and anger directed at this show seems to be a sense that safety — and, therefore, the ability to conduct tests with one’s own life — is unevenly distributed in our society. Which is, indeed, an excellent point, though I’m not convinced it’s one that Dunham’s unaware of.
OK, that was not that short! I’m sure there will be plenty more to say, about this and lots of other stuff, after Episode 6 airs. In the meantime, these dishes are (probably) not going to wash themselves.