What a Bunch of Guys Think of the Sixth Episode of Girls

Slate's Culture Blog
May 20 2012 10:52 PM

Guys on Girls: Oh My God, They Killed Carrie

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Lena Dunham on Girls (HBO)

David Haglund: The women of Slate made some excellent points in their typically excellent analysis of this episode—but I want to start with a line they didn’t touch: “It’s like we’re all slaves to this place that doesn’t even want us, you know?” That’s something Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah, says about New York when on the phone with Adam near the end of this episode that takes place mostly in Lansing, Michigan, where, we learn, she grew up.

It’s a key line for the series—recall that Adam, in the pilot, says, “You should never be anyone’s slave.” The language is obviously hyperbolic on this show about well-off young white people (though Hannah has recently done a lot of work for no pay), but it highlights the source of much of their struggles: They’re trying to make it in New York, which is frankly just a harder place to live than many other places, but which seems to Hannah where she needs to be to pursue her dream of becoming a writer.

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And this episode showed she was right—by removing Hannah, for a little while, from where she belongs. It also gave us a much more interesting picture of her parents than we got in the pilot (when, as Meghan O’Rourke says, “they verged on caricature”). I suspect Engber may complain about the “narrative incoherence” of their actions in this episode, but I prefer to think of it as narrative complication: These people are not quite what they first seemed to be. Hannah’s mother understands her daughter more than we realized; her father, maybe, less so. And, as June Thomas pointed out, Becky Ann Baker, who plays Hannah’s mom, demonstrated actorly courage beyond anything Lena Dunham has done so far, by baring all at 59.

But the best scene was once again between Dunham and Driver: That phone conversation, with Hannah barefoot on her parents’ front yard, and Adam wearing a rather feminine eye-mask and looking up from his very serious-seeming book in bed back in Brooklyn, was the latest riveting wrinkle in their slowly unfolding relationship.

What did you make of that scene? And where do come down on the women’s debate about Hannah’s surprisingly Adam-like sexual maneuvers? Also, on an entirely different note, what was the deal with Carrie, Hannah’s dearly departed and awkwardly mourned high school acquaintance? Was she a cross between Amanda Knox and Natalee Holloway—or something else entirely? And why drop that story in this episode?

Seth Stevenson: I loved this visit to Lansing: the marching band music on the soundtrack, a sort of warped take on Aaron Copland; the vulnerable, recognizable moment when Hannah puts on her game face in the mirror before a date (“You are not in danger of mortifying yourself”); the utterly accurate portrayal of a young person visiting her parents, with emotions on both sides veering between love and exasperation.

The dead white girl plot rubbed me the wrong way, though. It felt like hipster urbanites laughing at the tragedies that befall the little people out there in flyover land—like the writers felt not just the dance tribute to the dead girl was cheesy, but the very circumstances of the girl’s death were cheesy.

Daniel Engber: I had the same reaction as Dana Stevens in the girls’ dialogue: They’re making a point of killing Carrie—that is, Carrie Bradshaw, Sarah Jessica Parker’s lead character in Sex and the City. It did seem a little off, but I like how the show fills in the cracks with little jokes in code. I loved the scene where Hannah is watching Netflix with her parents, and you hear the soundtrack in voiceover:

Man#1: “These are my sleeping socks. My feet like a little air at night.”

Man#2: “How come you’re wearing ‘em in the daytime, then?”

That sounds like exactly the sort of film that might have served, in olden times, as the mutually unsatisfying middle ground after the whole family makes a long browse down the aisles at Blockbuster. Or sits together in front of the instant Netflix queue. And, of course, the scene they’re watching—I had to look it up—happens to be from Million Dollar Baby. Is Hannah a “scrappy little girl” like her mother says, and like Hilary Swank is in that movie? Or is she just a big (million dollar) baby who needs her parents’ money to live?

Dan Kois: They don’t even stream Netflix! They still get DVDs in the mail, like all parents in the Midwest. Heck, I still manage my mom’s queue

David, you’re right that Hannah’s talk with Adam out on the lawn was a moment from this episode that will resonate in further episodes. Meghan O’Rourke mentioned how evocative the scene was of late-night, lawn-based phone calls in her own life, but I think it’s crucial also that Hannah asks Adam to describe what’s outside his window. As she stands on the softly lit, immaculately kept suburban lawn of her parents, Adam launches into a story about the crackhead on the sidewalk—as stark a disparity between Lansing and New York as you could draw.

And while the city, as Hannah bemoans, doesn’t want her there, she’s unwilling to accede to its demands just yet. She’d rather be unwanted in a city where you can just stick your finger in someone’s asshole than be a comfy florist in the city where she was born.

Why do you guys think she never asked her mom for money, even though her mom gave her a wide-open target? Is she just getting tougher, or more independent, or was she too ashamed?

Forrest Wickman: She may be getting a little tougher, but mostly I think she’s just too proud. Once again her attitude toward her parents’ money was explained by her attitude towards food. When they’re watching Million Dollar Baby and argue about her texting during the movie, her mom says, “Maybe she’s hungry.” Hannah denies it and storms off—but later she sneaks down to the fridge when her parents aren’t looking and pigs out. It’s the same with her parents’ money: She’s desparate for it, and she’s already shown that she’s willing to steal it when they’re not looking, but she’s too proud to admit it to them when they ask.

I’d like to repeat a question that Dana Stevens asked over in the women’s discussion, but no one ever really answered: Do we know how Carrie died? Or as I might have phrased it, do we even know she’s dead? I agree that the tone was unduly mean towards the Midwest, but in the somewhat skewed world of the episode I got the impression that Carrie might be just fine, that she may only be a little lost—or just rebellious, someone who wants to get lost—but that in this apparently more wholesome town they just assumed she was fallen.

Kois: What a delicious idea, that Carrie might be lost, not dead! The episode certainly doesn’t disprove that theory. Maybe she just wanted to get away from her friends who were like, “Bitch, you can get your own ride to the airport.”

Or maybe Carrie will show up in Hannah’s apartment in New York when Hannah returns? Or maybe CARRIE IS HANNAH [dramatic chord].

Wickman: It’s worth noting that the cheesy dance tribute did have some implications for Hannah. The scene in which she and Eric the pharmacist criticize Heather as being naïve (“She’s gonna go to L.A., and, like, live in some shitty apartment, and feel, like, scared and sad and lonely and weird all the time”) is immediately followed by her dad expressing the same concern about her. (“At what point will she realize, well, she’s not going to be what she wants to be when she grows up?”) The whole episode felt very MFA vs. NYC: It asked whether she should go after life experience and try to make it big or whether she should go to a cozy university to have time to write. But MFA, or “flyover country,” felt a bit like a straw man.

Haglund: That great MFA vs. NYC piece (by Chad Harbach, who grew up in the Midwest and moved to New York) makes for excellent supplementary reading for this episode. (And returns us to a question broached before: Should Hannah be writing a memoir, or fiction?) And I agree that the deck feels a little stacked against Lansing. It’s a university town, right? She could have met graduate students.

But of course she wouldn’t meet graduate students, because for her Lansing is not so much a university town as it is simply where she grew up. So she sees old high school pals, the people who read her erstwhile advice column, “Holla at Hannah” [shudders]. And while I don’t care for the sneering some NYC transplants do about acquaintances back home (witness this satirical Twitter feed, e.g.), hometowns can feel a bit small and unsophisticated after some time in the big city. And Eric the pharmacist was not a rube, even if he likes “vanilla” sex (as the Slate women put it). Hannah simply has different ambitions.

Stevenson: This episode featured an incredibly economical expression of the show’s themes. At one point, in rapid succession, Hannah 1) gets a text from Marnie asking if she’s wheedled rent money from her parents yet, 2) calls Adam and hangs up on him, and 3) tromps out to the refrigerator to stuff her face while standing in front of its murky halflight. There you have it: money issues, sex issues, food issues. Reminded me of the first moments of the first episode, when Hannah is told she’s being cut off monetarily while she’s in the midst of shoveling food into her mouth.

Kois: That scene, like a lot of the episode—like a lot of all these episodes!—reminded me that the progression of Hannah from girl to woman is still very much a work-in-progress. Her development always seems to be herky-jerky, one-step-forward-two-steps-back. This isn’t a complaint: I think it’s a strength of the show that we can see that the arc of Hannah’s universe bends towards non-fuck-up-itude, even as individual moments demonstrate how far she still has to go. And as Meghan mentioned, the lack of a Carrie Bradshawesque “this is what it all means” monologue makes the show richer.

Engber: I’m sorry, I was too distracted by the Ewok celebration music in the background to notice the thematic importance of her stuffing her face. Just like I was distracted by the marching-band drum roll when she backed into a parking spot in front of the pharmacy. What happened to the music this week?

Stevenson: I enjoyed the soundtrack in this episode. I mentioned the melted Aaron Copland horns that play when we first glimpse the exterior of Hannah’s parents’ house. But there was also a John Mayer ditty playing at the pizza place. And Hannah emotes along to Jewel sitting in her car in the pharmacy parking lot. The sounds of lawnmowers and sprinklers filled Hannah’s neighborhood. It felt like a smart way to capture all those little contextual clues that reminded her she’s not in New York anymore; her landscape has changed.

Haglund: This was the first Dunham-directed episode in a little while, and I thought her hand was surer than Peretz’s or Shephard’s were in the last couple episodes.

Engber: Was this the first one where Judd Apatow was listed as a co-writer? Do you think Lena Dunham farmed out the parent-talk to him?

Haglund: Perhaps, in addition to helping out with the parental parts, Apatow, a product of Nassau County, advised Dunham, child of Manhattan, on what it’s like to return to a suburban hometown.

Kois: I would imagine that he stepped forward and said, “I have been waiting 14 years for the opportunity to write dialogue for Becky Ann Baker again, so I will handle this, thank you.”

It’s interesting that the article Forrest flashed to was MFA vs. NYC. The Fleet Foxes song at the end credits made me think instantly of the New York Magazine piece “The Kids Are Actually Sort of Alright,” written by former Slate-ster Noreen Malone, itself a battle-cry-of-a-generation much like Girls is. That piece explicitly uses another Fleet Foxes song to describe a certain kind of winsome helplessness that Malone argues is endemic to today’s twentysomethings—though I’d argue it’s been felt by my generation and the generation before as well.

But Malone ends that piece with a note that neatly encompasses both what Hannah’s trying to do with her life and what Lena Dunham’s doing with Girls, a show that is hyperfocused in its intent yet broad in its ambition. Malone talks about the “locus of control,” and how—despite the fact that her generation feels that the world spins on wildly, affecting their lives in ways they can’t ever predict or alter—they can still find a way to, like her friend Desi:

place the locus of control firmly within himself, centered narrowly on his own life and the people he knows. Notwithstanding what that attitude portends for social justice (nothing good), maybe it’s the only way to feel like you are in charge of your own destiny, by focusing your lens ever tighter.

Wickman: Can we talk about the sex? Because I saw it very differently from how the women did. Over there everyone seemed to think Hannah’s problem was that she was thinking too much about her partner, which I think everyone would agree is true of most of Hannah’s sex scenes early on. But I don’t think it was true of this one. While she certainly could’ve been more demanding, mostly I think she needed to prove to herself that it was, as L.V. Anderson said, “too vanilla for her taste.” Sure, he was boring, and eventually he seemed to completely give up on her desires, but meanwhile she was getting off on herself. On her idea of herself as more adventurous, more New York-y, and so (to her mind, as we learn in her monologue) inherently more interesting.

Meanwhile, the best sex yet on the show was from an older married couple. (Of course it ends up with him torquing his back.)

Stevenson: I felt like she was the Adam during her encounter with the pharmacist. Spouting off dirty talk she doesn’t even really mean, because she thinks it’s what she’s supposed to do. Treating sex as a performance venue rather than a means of gratification, emotional connection, and fun.

Wickman: No one else felt that Hannah was just getting her own ego off with that “tight like a baby” shit? I feel like I’m on crazy pills.

Engber: I don’t think Hannah was being demanding, self-actualizing, overly solicitous or even tone-deaf with her dirty talk. She was just responding to the fact that this dude had picked her up by slipping a bottle of lube into her pocket. He was totally asking for it!

And with that, I have to bow out of this exchange. Gotta go run an errand. For my mom.

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

Dan Kois is a senior editor at Slate and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer.