David Haglund: Dan, you and I haven’t talked about this show since we both weighed in on the merits of the Season 1 finale, so I’m curious to find out what you think of Season 2 so far. But let’s start with a simple question: Did a single part of this particular episode, “One Man’s Trash,” make any sense to you at all?
Daniel Engber: Um, it’s “Daniel,” not “Dan.” And, yes, one part of the episode made sense: The discussion of whether Hannah had really invented the word sexit. As opposed to the 25 minutes that followed, that exchange reminded me of Things That Happen in the Real World.
Haglund: Really? Even that exchange didn’t quite ring true for me, though it was perhaps more a problem of execution than of vision. I might blame Richard Shepard, who directed this episode—as well as some of the weakest episodes in Season 1. The acting in his episodes is often overdone, in the standard TV mode—think of the fight between Marnie and Hannah last season. But I’m not sure I can blame the rest of this half-hour on him. What was your least favorite part?
Engber: My least favorite part: the moment where Joshua strokes Hannah’s hair and asks, “What is it, sweetie?” But really, the whole thing left me baffled and uncomfortable. Why are these people having sex, when they are so clearly mismatched—in style, in looks, in manners, in age, in everything? Why is he kissing her and begging her to stay over? Seriously, Dave—why?
Haglund: Jenni Konner has said that this season is about seeing what happens when Hannah starts “getting some of what she’s been pining for,” so I guess this was their attempt to wrestle with that theme. But presumably there are things that Hannah would not, in any world that resembled our own, get. Such as Patrick Wilson, for instance. I want to suspend my disbelief—just as viewers have, for generations, imagined that Al could get Peggy and Homer could get Marge and Jim Belushi could snag Courtney Thorne-Smith. But the show needs to work harder to make that seem feasible. And not pile implausibility upon implausibility.
Engber: I felt trapped by my unwillingness to buy into the central premise. Narcissistic, childish men sleep with beautiful women all the time in movies and on TV, so why should this coupling be so difficult to fathom? I think it’s because Hannah is especially and assertively ugly in this episode. She’s rude (“what did you do?” she asks Joshua, referring to his broken marriage), self-centered (“I’m too smart and too sensitive”), sexually ungenerous (“no, make me come”), and defiantly ungraceful (naked ping-pong). In sum, the episode felt like a finger poked in my guys-on-Girls eyeball, or a double-dog dare for me to ask, How can a girl like that get a guy like this? Am I small-minded if I’m stuck on how this fantasy is too much of a fantasy and remembering what Patrick Wilson’s real-life partner looks like?*
Haglund: No. This show has carried me along with just a few bumps in the road since it premiered last year, so I’m going to give myself the benefit of the doubt and say: This time, Girls, it’s you, not me. There are things they tried in this episode that I respect intellectually—for instance, rather than depict sex in an awkward way, they depicted sex in a sexy way. That may have been a first for the show! And I’m glad they tried it. And I don’t doubt that Hannah could hook up with a guy that looks like Patrick Wilson—after all, Joshua is 42 and recently separated, and Hannah is 24. If a young thing from the coffee shop around the corner surprises a lonely middle-aged guy with a kiss, he might respond the way Joshua does, even if he has Patrick Wilson’s pectorals. But I’m not sure he would agree to beg for it, or ask her to stick around quite as long as he does—especially if, as you pointed out, Hannah behaved so terribly.
That rudeness is the real problem here, I think. Because when Hannah has her epiphany later about how she actually wants to be happy, it falls totally flat—for a lot of different reasons, such as: Do we care if this person is happy? Is it surprising or interesting that after she spends a day or two in a fancy brownstone she decides she really wants all those nice things? The show evinced some self-awareness about Hannah’s materialism, but I suspect that Dunham & co. wanted us to do something other than cringe when Hannah delivered her little speech. It was hard to do more than that.
Engber: Yeah. And could you help me out by explaining what she meant when she said, “All I really needed was to look at someone and be, like, that person wants to be there after I’m dead”? Does she want a long-term partner who might handle posthumous reissues of her essay collection?
As for the purpose of the episode, I wondered if it wasn’t deliberately provocative, in the way that Lena Dunham’s nudity this season might have gotten more frequent in defiance of her critics. Not only has the show flipped the standard dorky-guy-and-hot-babe narrative, it’s done so with a hint of aggression. In her excellent review of Identity Thief this week, Dana Stevens talks about the “female comic grotesque,” and here’s how she describes the lead role in that movie: “Tacky, loud, and oblivious to all social and moral codes ... dressed in hideously garish clothes ... prone to drooly open-mouthed naps.” Remind you of anyone? That’s not Hannah Horvath’s character in general, but it is in this episode. And yet Girls is doing something very different than Identity Thief. We’re not really supposed to laugh at Hannah, so much as cringe a bit as we identify with her. She’s neurotic, but she’s not disgusting.
Haglund: Right. The sex in this episode was not intended to be gross, but sexy and appealing. And Dunham has defied her critics all season, I think. Joshua tells Hannah she’s beautiful, and she says, “You really think so?” “You don’t?” he asks. “I do,” she says, “it’s just not always the feedback that I’ve been given.” But this episode would have made more sense if it took place after we’d seen Hannah mature a bit. “I was gonna take in experiences, all of them,” she rants, “so I could tell other people about them and maybe save them, but it gets so tiring.” That’s hard to listen to when her writing this season has been depicted so superficially. I like when writers and directors push us to empathize with characters who are not likable—but then you have to make those characters interesting. This episode somehow put a hard-to-like character in a hard-to-believe situation which also, frankly, was pretty dull.
Did the materialism bother you as much as it bothered me? When Hannah first walked into Joshua’s apartment, she said it looked like a Nancy Meyers movie—so we’re obviously supposed to notice that it’s a tad opulent. But then she seemed oblivious about her reasons for wanting it. I mean, of course she wants what Joshua has. He’s rich.
Engber: No, the “fruit in the bowl and the fridge and the stuff” seemed to be in the same box (or hope chest) as Patrick Wilson’s pecs, his profession, his begging her to stay, his calling her “sweetie” and telling her she’s beautiful, and his letting her stay over even after she’d upset him. Don’t you think the Chris O’Dowd character, Thomas-John, represents money and things, minus all the other dreamboat perks?
Haglund: That’s a good point. Thomas-John is a finance guy—i.e., a dubiously ethical fatcat. As a doctor, perhaps Joshua was meant to embody something more noble and upper-middle class. But when Hannah acted as though the things he has were simply an option that she has turned down, well, it made me understand the complaints people lodge about this show and “privilege.” Generally, the series has put privilege deliberately on display. Here I wasn’t so sure.
Engber: I guess that point ties into the fact that this felt so much like an episode of Sex in the City—a couple of days of bliss with a new guy, and then a quick sexit with a lesson learned. People lodged complaints about privilege on that show too, right?
Haglund: Yes, and pretty reasonably—although I would characterize that show’s relationship to privilege as “unapologetic.” This also gets to the question of the show’s increasing conventionality. Sitcoms typically have characters arrive for 30 minutes and then leave, never to be seen again. That’s basic TV infrastructure: You have your cast, who are on staff and probably contractually obliged to appear in a certain number of episodes each season, and then you have guest stars, whom you hire for just one or two episodes. Real life is nothing like that.
Do you agree that the show has become more conventional—and, perhaps, less like “real life”—in Season 2? What are your feelings about the series more generally these days? And what were your feelings about it before you saw this episode, which I think we can probably both agree was the worst in the series thus far?
Engber: Sometimes my life does seem like a mix of intriguing guest stars and contractual obligations (or worse, forced contract renegotiations). So maybe that’s why I haven’t found the show to be more conventional, or less realistic, in Season 2 than in Season 1. For that matter, I don’t think this episode was that conventional. Yes, it felt like an episode of Sex in the City, but one that had been infused with some mutant DNA. It’s that twist that made the story so unsettling, a willingness to futz with gender and genre standards. I don’t know that it worked, but I appreciate the impulse—and I prefer an episode like this to one where, say, each character’s romance is nudged just a little further down the road to wherever.
Haglund: Dan—sorry, “Daniel”—that’s as good a case as one could probably make for this misfire. It was, at least, interestingly bad.
Correction, Feb. 11, 2013: This post originally linked to a photo that was not of Patrick Wilson's wife, actress and author Dagmara Dominczyk. (Return to the corrected sentence.)