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

Slate's Culture Blog
June 10 2012 10:55 PM

Guys on Girls: All the Dick Moves

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Michael Imperioli and Lena Dunham on Girls (HBO)

David Haglund: Back when we were discussing the second episode, Dan said we all have friendships “that—often around age 25—become so exhausting to maintain that we have tough decisions to make. I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see Girls address that before season’s end.” Those words prove prophetic with the ninth episode—though Dan had the wrong friend in mind: He was thinking of Marnie and Hannah’s friendship with Jessa, not their friendship with each other.

Tonight’s episode, “Leave Me Alone,” ended with that friendship falling apart, at least for the time being. The women of Slate found that scene unconvincing—Hanna Rosin even concluded that the Hannah/Marnie friendship has never been persuasive. Do you guys agree?

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I don’t. This felt like a “plot” episode, one that moved the story along but lacked the thematic unity of Girls at its best. (And it was once again directed by Richard Shepard. Do we blame him, or do the producers just like giving Shepard these episodes to deal with?) Still, friendships in one’s early 20s are genuinely vulnerable—as Girls keeps reminding us (a bit heavy-handedly at times, as in that scene between Jessa and her ex-employer), most of us at that age are still figuring out who we are.

And even this mildly disappointing episode had great moments. Alex Karpovsky shined as Ray again (“This isn’t a consumptive women’s hospital; we don’t wear aprons, no” ) and was the perfect character to prompt Hannah’s wrestling with her real subject as a writer. That parody of bad writing at the reading Hannah attends was spot on: “Maybe everyone in this town is just looking for a bathroom. In fact, he thought, maybe everyone in this whole damn world is.” Ouch.

Finally, that fight between Hannah and Marnie, even if it ended on a clichéd sitcom note, included some important lines—especially this one, from Hannah: “No one could ever hate me as much as I hate myself. OK? So any mean thing that someone’s gonna think of to say about me I’ve already said to me, about me, probably in the last half-hour.” That time frame seemed less than arbitrary to me: It’s the length of the show.

So, you guys have any mean things you want to say?

Forrest Wickman: Hannah’s line about hating herself was a good one, but she’s wrong: Just because she is hard on herself doesn’t mean she’s not blind to a whole bunch of her own shortcomings. Here the show hit on a big theme that’s hard but important to remember: Just because you’re excruciatingly critical doesn’t mean you’re not also naïve.

Seth Stevenson: True, and I thought the episode handled one bit of blind hypocrisy particularly well: During their argument, Hannah keeps faulting Marnie for letting her self-worth depend on having a boyfriend. But previously, when Hannah’s writerly rival Tally Schifrin asked if she had an agent, Hannah responded, nonsensically, “No, I don’t have an agent. But I have a boyfriend.”

Haglund: She also ended her fight with Marnie by saying, “I’ve got a boyfriend and you don’t, and it’s as simple as that.”

Dan Kois: I am more than a little bewildered by the ladies-of-Slate’s dismissal of Hannah and Marnie’s friendship. It’s true they seem poorly matched. It’s true they don’t have a lot in common. It’s true that it’s hard to see from the outside why they would be friends. But I don’t interpret all that as a reason to doubt the characters’ ties—I see those shortcomings as reflective of 95 percent of college-age friendships that carry on into the real world. We may move to the big city with the person who was just right for us to live with sophomore year, but that doesn’t actually mean we have anything real in common. It means we teamed up to face a monster—the future—hoping that someone would have our back.

I’m so fascinated by Hannah and Marnie because their friendship feels painfully real to me. And they’re at a crossroads—a cliffhanger, as the women noted. Some such friendships survive fights like this (and the differences that spawn them). Some don’t. The eventual fate of the friendship often has little to do with how outside observers might see it and much to do with the directions the two participants’ lives are headed. I could see Marnie and Hannah patching it up and Girls delivering, next episode or next season, a touching reconciliation. Or I could see Hannah and Marnie losing touch entirely—it would be a shocking move, and an unlikely one, but how amazing a dramatic choice would it be for Marnie to just disappear? To become another one of those lost people that Hannah has worried about this season, out of the world of the show entirely?

Surely this won’t happen. I don’t think Lena Dunham wants Brian Williams to hate her forever. But I like that this show makes me think that maybe it will.

Stevenson: Agree, Dan. Familiarity breeds contempt, and sometimes all the things that shouldn’t work about a friendship—the things you ignore—bubble up when proximity lasts longer than it should. I have no doubt Marnie and Hannah can stay friends the rest of their lives, reveling in each other’s differences over coffee or dinner once every couple of weeks. But they probably can’t live together ever again.

The Slate ladies chatted a bit about how sustainable the show is, whether the characters will find themselves and their internal conflicts will be resolved. One such conflict was resolved too quickly in this episode, I thought. The morning after Tally’s reading—at which Hannah is so envious that she hates Tally for having a dead boyfriend—Hannah immediately becomes self-aware with a rapidity that I’ve never seen from anyone under 40 (and, for that matter, from few people over 40). “Of course I’m not mad at her,” Hannah realizes, “I’m mad at me.” Ha! Hannah would go on resenting Tally for years before she overcame that kind of deep-seated and professional jealousy. Especially if she really is a better writer than Tally.

Kois: But saying aloud “I’m mad at me” in no way precludes her still being mad at Tally! Seth, the new generation moves at lightning speed and can hate with an alacrity you and I will never know.

Stevenson: That’s fair. Maybe I’m blinded by my own hate, which stems from Hannah hoping that Tally will “reveal her true boring nature and start writing travelogues.” Hey! Some travelogues are only slightly boring, and even get nice reviews from one or two foreign newspapers!

Haglund: I think L.V. Anderson is exactly right that Tally is “Lena Dunham’s evil alter ego.” Hence those multiple references to Tally’s appearances on Fresh Air, a show that Dunham herself has done twice. That said, Tally was painted more cruelly than seemed entirely necessary or worthwhile. Did we really need to hear her say she wants to be so skinny that people think she has a disease?

And I hated all those jokes about how lucky Tally was that her boyfriend committed suicide. I don’t think any subject’s off limits for humor, you just have to be funny. And those jokes didn’t land. Though I do love Hanna Rosin’s idea that those jokes were Dunham’s swipe at the Rays of the world, who think death is the only worthwhile subject.

Wickman: Hannah’s overnight epiphany about her Tally-related anger wasn’t the only realization in this episode that seemed much too quick. Did any of you guys buy Jessa’s sit-down with Kathryn, her ex-employer? Even the soundtrack didn’t believe Jessa would sit quietly to soak up that speech: It had to silence her doubts with some swelling acoustic guitar music.

Stevenson: Kathryn seemed to touch a nerve when she surmised that Jessa is unhappy. But prior to this, had we gotten any suggestion at all that Jessa is depressed? I don’t think I’ve ever noticed a crack in her carefree façade. Not that the revelation is unrealistic—I know plenty of goodtime folks who have melancholy lurking within their tequila shots. But I’d have liked it better if previous episodes had managed to work a few hints of dissatisfaction into Jessa’s lust for life.

Haglund: Yeah, nothing really comes to mind with regard to Jessa’s hidden melancholia. And that gets at another challenge for Girls: adequately attending to all the subtle shifts in the characters’ lives. Hannah and Adam are the most fascinating characters partly because of how they’re written and acted—and partly because they get the most screen time. I think Shoshanna ceased being a cartoon in the Bushwick episode, but tonight she was picked up and dropped so quickly (what was the name of that online dating site she decided to use?) that her recent roundedness is easy to forget.

Kois: I wasn’t surprised at all by Jessa’s sadness. I find that lots and lots of good-times devil-may-care bon-mot-dispensers are dealing with some hidden sadness under the surface, and I guess that Jemima Kirke’s big eyes and shaggy sensibility had already tipped me off to that. And I guess I’m in the minority in really loving the scene between Jessa and Kathryn. That batshit dream that Kathryn had, about killing Jessa and eating her and shitting her out! And Jessa just nodding thoughtfully, as if this is a totally normal conversation to have! I even bought Kathryn Hahn’s unsolicited advice—it seems like just the thing an older woman would say to a younger woman in whom she sees a bit of herself.

Haglund: The dream description was fantastic. “Ones where I stab you? Over and over again? ... I think this means I’m still holding on to some anger.” And now that I think about it, we did get a glimpse of Jessa’s sadness a few episodes ago, when she told Hahn’s (soon to be ex?) husband about how she used to pretend she had a good mom.

Wickman: Still, this whole episode seemed off to me—it was easily my least favorite yet, even despite the usual array of hearty chuckles. There are two main suspects whom I’m considering for the blame. The first is myself. Over at the women’s chat, Hannah pointed out that this is the most Bechdel-friendly episode yet, with hardly any of the usual men or relationships or sex, culminating in a longer-than-ever third act that consisted of nothing more than Hannah and Marnie yelling at each other. If women hunger to be represented in the action, is it OK for men, however selfishly, to do the same?

But ultimately I don’t that’s what’s going on here. David mercifully wonders whether it’s a coincidence that Shepard directed the season’s two worst episodes: I suspect it’s not. Just look at the blocking and editing of that last scene, which Allison Benedikt pointed out. The exchange contained a whole bevy of revealing lines, but the way they were delivered was so tedious and leaden as to be almost unbearable. Cut to Marnie: MARNIE YELLING. Cut to Hannah: HANNAH YELLING. And then repeat, all set to 11, with no change in emotion—not to mention camera angles—for six minutes! And every cut was just a little too slow, like you got just a millisecond of each character waiting for “action!” Perhaps that helps convey how miserable and interminable these fights can feel, but I don’t think that’s the way to do it. (Under “fallacies,” scroll down to “mimetic.”)

Kois: OK, OK OK OK, OK, but what about the scene in which Adam walks into Hannah and Marnie’s apartment, goes into the kitchen, takes a jar of mayonnaise into Hannah’s room, turns on loud music, and a moment later climaxes while shouting “Fucker”? WHAT ABOUT THAT SCENE?

Stevenson: If Philip Roth can go to town with a slice of liver, why not mayonnaise? Though I sort of related to Marnie’s horror at the thought of Adam having a key to her apartment—even if I am in complete agreement with him when it comes to literary readings: They make me want to kill myself in a vintage car after swallowing a fistful of Percosets.

Haglund: Plus, like Adam says, “they have those stupid little crackers that are supposed to be cookies that are supposed to be crackers.” Yuck.

But readings are really just excuses for writers to get together and celebrate writing. If not for those, we’d have to wait for book parties, which may never come, and are usually not as fancy as the one Tally got. Writing’s a lonely life, and if Hannah ever gets serious about it, the show will have to struggle to portray that. One of the truer lines from this episode came when Hannah tells her—slimy? or just encouraging? the Slate women decided both—mentor Powell Goldman that she didn’t email him after reading his book because he was probably getting lots of those emails. “Hot tip, Hannah,” he says. “No one’s ever getting enough of those kinds of emails.”

Wickman: I didn’t find Goldman particularly slimy, but I do think we were supposed to wonder whether he and Hannah are interested in each other. Do you guys think those two have a future? Marnie tells Hannah he’s “the kind of guy I’ve like always pictured you being with,” and I don’t know that she’s wrong, but—no offense to the always great Michael Imperioli—I think that would be terrible for the show. Goldman just isn’t as interesting to me as someone like Adam. Maybe his dusty blazers and frosty hair are just a bit dull for this show. And haven’t we already gone there with Jessa’s goatee man?

Stevenson: Yeah, I didn’t see any hints of the Powell Goldman sliminess the Slate women seemed to intuit, either. Maybe with the “the whole world’s just looking for a bathroom” girl, but certainly not with Hannah—he seemed to genuinely like her writing and want to help her, with no ulterior motive.

Haglund: Another thing from the women’s chat I wanted us to discuss: New resident Girls­-skeptic Allison Benedikt knocks the show for not depicting enough out-and-out jerks, for eventually complicating all the significant characters. Allison says plenty of other smart things about the show, but this struck me as totally wrong. Sure, there are total villains out there, but they’re rare. It’s crazy to criticize a show for having characters that are too complicated!

Wickman: Right. There are people who are “just assholes,” but even those assholes aren’t flat. The Wire took a similar approach, and ultimately its method of constant back-and-forth humanizing became almost predictable—but even The Wire eventually gave us a Marlo, and I suspect Girls will soon give us the same, if it hasn’t surreptitiously done so already. (Booth Jonathan?)

Stevenson: This is how you welcome Allison into the conversation, David? I know all the dick moves. Don’t be a dick. (Sorry, letting out my inner Ray. I agree: Even when people are douchebags, over time they grow on you and become your douchebags. I think it was Stevie Wonder who said, “There is good and bad in everyone.”)

Kois: David! Allison did great! It just really poured out of her. I really admire the effort to do something that’s not really natural to you.

Haglund: Ha. That reminds me: Girls is very smart about how dickishness is not always wrong, and niceness is not always right. Marnie was at her worst when being nice to Charlie, whom she didn’t really love, and Adam’s “I do what I feel like” philosophy, while decidedly limited, also suggests the self-knowledge he has and his peers lack. This is more interesting than just showing the nice sides of mean characters.

Wickman: Guys, maybe we shouldn’t waste our time chatting about some silly TV show. How about the plight of the giant panda bear? How about death? Yeah, how about death?

Haglund: I’m having such a good time. I’m gonna have to leave soon.

Stevenson: It’s been fun waterbirthing our truths together.

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

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor 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. 

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