Before mercury, my blood used to fill thermometers.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

This show is too well designed, too well to be held with only me in mind.

In my boundless lack of perspective, I failed to recognize how a clear shot at success as a writer is what Hannah doubts she really wants - at least more than security and love - in episode fifteen and then gets in episode sixteen. I like that, as in life, there are no definitive statements justified by momentous occurrences: Joshua is the most significant thing, the book deal is the most significant thing.

Things turn on a dime here, too.

Girls, Episode Seventeen, "Video Games"

I. Yes, no, I don't know

The first exchange in this episode, as Hannah and Jessa wait at the Manitou train station - a small shed with a map, with a river on one side of them and rural eternity on the other - is about childhood anxiety. While Hannah just suffers from the anxiety, Jessa has experienced the nightmare Hannah evokes, and when Jessa tries to bond, Hannah pounces on her casual "oh, I hate that," with the shock that Jessa's actually endured what Hannah just fears. This evokes so economically what a substantial part of their friendship has been built on: Hannah gives vent to Jessa's disgust with and sorrow for the worst parts of her life, thinking she has found someone who understands, but her reality just occupies Hannah's terrors, which Hannah blames herself for cultivating in spite of a very nice life. It's what's gotten them on this streak of slow-burn disappointment where Jessa, who has the superhuman capacity to put up with things that are less than ideal, has yet to sever ties with Hannah because she holds out hope that even if there isn't total psychic understanding, there's still love. But that is contingent upon Jessa believing she's worthy of it, which is too much.

When Hannah says she hates it when parents are late to social events, exposing even the potential for perceived neglect and dysfunction in her home life, Jessa concurs, but it's only really bad when you're molested. Hannah breaks from her rant to ask Jessa if she really was molested or if she too is just giving vent to fears. Jessa says yes/no/maybe, just like Hannah did in episode fifteen when she told Joshua that she told her mom her babysitter touched her.

I am a tough customer when it comes to the way admissions of trauma are portrayed on screen. It's hard to say something bad happened, and for how very authentic it is to hedge an admission in doubt, life will do that for you, unfortunately. Still, if Hannah or Jessa said outright that they were abused, it would provoke a whole series of consequences with that as the central motivating factor: the abuse they experienced passively, not them as assertive adults. This moment really resonated with me because it is realistically how people get to know each other - Hannah probably would have preferred that Jessa tell her that in tears, in a big speech like the one she gave to Joshua. She's probably never told Jessa about what happened to her because she's never gotten to deliver the news the right way.

I love the unique rhythms with which Jessa presents herself to Hannah and Hannah to Jessa. The plain Jessa lives on - that nothing has meaning or significance unless she forces it - all those blunt, declarative statements. She doesn't trust anything to that extreme - the subtlety with which her character is created is astonishing and so easy to miss underneath the veneer of "traveler," "free-spirit." Jessa is always trapped in the rigor of creating her own reality to compensate for the failure of the real one that would have her dealing with the fact that she was abandoned by her parents, she's still reeling from her abandonment by Hannah in and around her abortion, and more horror that happened/didn't happen/maybe it happened. Petua, Jessa's father's girlfriend, tells Hannah that life is a video game, she's just like Hannah trying to tell Jessa about her social anxieties. She has no room to speak.

II. Let's dead this

Jessa's father reminds me of the father in Melancholia, not just because of the accent - it's the total lack of stability, the absentmindedness. It is very easy to fill in the blank - Jessa's mother - with someone bitterly, excessively cruel. In fact, her parents are probably very much like Thomas-John's, just several shades more horrifying.

It took me a minute to snap out of my disappointment regarding the way the secondary characters were painted in this episode. Even those with the briefest appearances made remarkable, self-contained impacts last season, while Petua and her son, Frank, feel diminished to easy symbols of seminar-going hippie-weird and socially-backwards turtle-neck-wearing-weird. But they are in service to the story. It's a new way for Girls to use characters, and it's a more typical way. They are purely a way to bring out things in and about Jessa and Hannah, which is very television, as opposed to the real-world way the characters interacted with or failed to respond to the real people that populated the last season.

In Petua's initial discussion with Hannah, she declares her "the cushion." Hannah absolutely knows what this role is like - she even yelled at Marnie in episode thirteen about how sick she was of being her cushion, although she didn't use the word - but here she tells Petua this is new for her. I think Hannah's probably divorced what being a friend to Marnie is versus what being a friend to Jessa is, even though the moments where she blurred those lines and just allowed for the level of intimacy that both Jessa and Marnie ONLY enjoy with Hannah, it was for the good of all.

Jessa tells her dad Thomas-John said, "Let's cool this." Then he said, "Let's dead this." She speaks idiosyncratically with her dad. Jessa does not perceive herself as worth love, but she can recognize that she is worth work, and that's what she understands and is comfortable with, and in that, she's a lot like Adam. And Hannah is accepting of her brand of difficult.

Last season, Jessa's most developed relationship was with Jeff, the father of the girls she babysat. He was a flaky, preoccupied dad who, in lieu of getting to know Jessa well, projected onto her, and the extent to which this has widened the hole that caused her marriage to Thomas-John is made clearer by this example of how she and her father interact. On some level, he tells her, you wanted the marriage not to work, just like Catherine tells Jessa that she does what she does on purpose to avoid being who she really is. Both points of view are patronizing mistakes.

III. The most noble thing a woman can do

In their filthy room - the set dressing is mind-blowing to me here, it is exactly the condition of the beach house I grew up visiting; I can feel the moisture in the air - Hannah and Jessa talk about boys. Hannah can't tell if it's appropriate or not to be interested in Frank, and I like that she defers to Jessa on what qualifiers she should use in judging his attractiveness. And I love how she doesn't truly heed what Jessa says.

Jessa finds a Penthouse from '79, very much implied to be Jessa's father's. Her casualness about it suggests that this is by no means the first or even one of a few times Jessa's found her dad's spank bank. A brief aside about emotional incest: what Jessa says here and what she tells her dad later while they're on the swing-set together seem to contradict one another, but all the dots are here to be connected. If Jessa grew up finding these magazines and probably other things to which her dad devoted considerable time, then she would perceive the women who populate them as doing something positive for her dad, and that's why she believes they do a great service - "the most noble thing a woman can do" - and it's something Jessa can't do. She can't be what those women are to her father, but the pressure is there psychically because, A) I'm sure Jessa does not have the perspective (who does? Who should? Nobody should) to recognize this and tell her father this so they can clear the air, so it's all sitting inside her, B) it sounds outright incestuous, but that's because there is no alternative: she doesn't see another way to love and be loved, C) her father has really abandoned her, making those stakes seem even greater: for all we know and for all they've communicated (and, like Jessa said, communication with him is so sparse, she took a garble of numbers and letters to mean "come see me"), him telling her she could be more there for him could have sexual implications. Again, that doesn't mean he's ever abused her, the audience isn't provided that information: the audience is provided with more than enough information to conclude that they certainly don't have even the makings of a healthy relationship. There is real damage here.

The little joke that comes between the end of that scene and the beginning of the next maintains the absurd, anguished theme. I love how the humorous moments correspond with the overall emotion of the episode. Hannah's bladder is on the fritz from a UTI, and the shame of coping with it is analogous to Jessa using dinner conversation to call her dad out on his abusive behavior. "I don't remember everything about the old days, but if you said I did it..." he says. Of course, "I did it and I'm sorry," is desired, and it isn't momentous at all. Petua takes over the conversation a second later, detecting none of the significance in what Jessa's trying to say, making it even less important. And - projection alert - I'm sure Jessa's account of things has been called a lie by everyone close to her, so "if you say so" is even less kind than usual.

IV. Hungry all the time

This is the second time Hannah's been told to grow up over dinner and the second time Jessa's told someone to grow up this season. Both those incidents came from episode fourteen, and in reviewing that, I explored how both grow-ups serve different purposes for the speakers. And I recant what I said in that review, now that clarity of mind is returning to me. Marnie tells Hannah to grow up when she actually states the condition of their relationship: Marnie double-crossed her, and Hannah is mad. That unprecedented "here's what's going on" provokes Marnie into telling Hannah to grow up. Marnie demonstrated in last week's episode that she is so committed to what SHOULD be going on that she cannot face reality at all, and telling Hannah to grow up is just the same as be the way you should be, be someone that doesn't get double-crossed when I do what I want to do. I feel much better - everything is right when I'm disgusted with Marnie. Jessa's "grow up" to Thomas-John also follows a statement of fact, but I do believe Thomas-John was diminishing and misreading Jessa's motivations and her anger was fully justified.

This "grow up" comes when Hannah realizes aloud that the rabbit they're eating is the pet rabbit Petua was cuddling earlier. Hannah can't bring herself to eat it, to play the video game where devouring what you care for means leveling up. It's an empty symbol and the kind of thing I bet Marnie would find profound.

V. Video games

Frank's best friend Tyler, a lacrosse-playing poet, comes to whisk Frank away from this scene. Even though it is noteworthy that, once Hannah and Jessa are invited to hang out with them, Jessa's declining in favor of spending time with her dad is met with the fact that her dad has not cleared his schedule in spite of her visit (an echo of Hannah making plans for herself on her parents' anniversary in which they planned to include her, I like this assertion of boundaries instead of the unrealistic assumption of them), it contributes to the overall picture of their relationship yes, yes, but whatever: whatever to get Hannah and Jessa in a speeding car with two boys, doing whippets!

I LOVE their whole conversation, the sheer glee that erupts in Jessa's recklessly suicidal move. Alongside this escalating joviality is Hannah's reactionary refusal of the whippets and her bolting from the car as soon as it's stopped. Even though Jessa yells after her, Frank pursues her and he informs her that her reaction is the completely "normal human response." Although her rant is peppered with hypochondriacal Hannah-isms and Hocus Pocus references (Thora Birch FTW),  Hannah is sticking up for her refusal to play the video game, to pretend like what's happening isn't what's happening.

What's happening is called into question immediately after she says this. Frank kisses her, and first of all, LET ME TELL YOU: when she asks him, "Are you eighteen?" and he says, "No, I'm nineteen" - I LOST IT. This might be my favorite moment in the show so far. It's so alpha of Hannah, it's so unseen on television, it's such a genuine concern. I haven't had to ask a boy that since I was twenty-one, and Hannah is my age. She makes out hard with Frank while Jessa and Tyler have a searching conversation about depression that ends with her asking him if all the guys on his lacrosse team are intimate with each other. I forget what review I was reading where the reviewer was particular disappointed in the way this little moment ended so abruptly, but it's a high school question and Jessa did allude in the first few minutes of the episode that school might have meant a lot of awful things to her. In her way, and on whippets, I think she was trying to feel out sympathy: wryly.

Hannah's discovery that Jessa and Tyler just talked while she and Frank canoodled provokes some frustration and rage. Jessa chastises her for having sex with a child. Hannah defends herself, saying that was what she thought they were doing. "I wish you would have told me...I thought this was fully a sexcapade." After Jessa's "grow up," Hannah tried to have "continuity" with her, tried to get in the video game, and it was a fail.

In bed together, Jessa admits that she's feeling very badly, and when Hannah does try and comfort her, Jessa says, "Don't talk about our parents like they're the same kind of parents." There's no more forcing and creating empathy where there isn't. Jessa is through. She told Hannah to "grow up" and play along at dinner. But Hannah skipping off in the night to have sex with Frank - just like she skipped off to have sex with Adam instead of helping Jessa through her abortion - drives the nail in. That is something that is very present - the audience isn't reminded of it because, as in life, those reminders don't hang on the walls, but seriously: Jessa traveled from Indonesia, if you recall - "I was in Bali and I was shucking pearls there, and then I met a surfer...he really liked me," she said, not enthusiastically - and she did not go to either parent. She went to her cousin, to whom she is not close, in New York, to see Hannah, to see her friend, who did not know how to have here there any more than her father does here. She told Hannah to "grow up," but Hannah has a full life she's living - unskilled though that living may look, tactless as it often is - but Jessa sees here that she's the child, she needs a lot. She would probably enjoy Hannah authentically growing up to the extent that she can care for her. There is hope for that, at least, because her parents can't. Her dad can't.

Jemima Kirke delivers her lines swinging in the opposite direction of Jessa's dad. I lover her line delivery, I love the blunt force of her personality. I hope I'm not mourning it's loss with this episode. I really hope I'm not.


VI. I'm covered in filth from going through your garbage

Lili Loofbourow pointed out at Dear Television how Frank confronting Hannah with his vigil, drinking lemonade, mirrors her imposition of herself on Joshua two episodes ago. I think Frank's level of weirdness and dysfunction is probably the level on which Hannah perceives herself as functioning and demonstrates how severely she underestimates herself. He tells her she used him and he defends his interpretation of the event has sex when she denies that that's what it was. It's not possible to have the discussion of virginity they have here without the specter of Shoshanna occurring to the viewer, as well as Jessa's claim that helping a boy into sexual maturity is "the most noble thing a woman can do."

I wonder if Hannah saying she wants baby food at the store is an attention-getting move, or if she eats baby food.

When Hannah and Jessa walk home from the grocery store where they are abandoned by Jessa's dad, Aimee Mann's "How am I Different" plays and provides a small, powerful pause for Jessa. Once they're back and packed up, Hannah emerges from the bathroom - her UTI is back - and finds a letter: "See you around, my love."

Hannah winds up back on the platform, alone, not unlike the aftermath of Jessa's wedding, the last time Jessa "left her." Here, she calls her parents, and her dad answers with a warm, "Hannah banana!" Peter Scolari makes me feel as good when he says that as he makes Hannah feel. I love the way they talk to her, they jump on her when she tries to deliver a general thank you for being good parents, and they assume she wants something. I think, and maybe it will be confirmed for me next week, since they're coming to see her, that they've been let in on her job at Cafe Grumpy and current roommatelessness and are helping her out financially again. When she says she feels "there's a hammock under the earth" that protects her, it reminds me of her monologue in the first episode and her story about her friend whose lack of support from her parents resulted in "two abortions, right in a row - and no one came with her!" She is grateful for the ability to mess up, and even the hot-cold tone of her parents' responses to her outpouring of love can't diminish that. Hannah ends the episode with a pre-verbal, very childish, shrill moan of anguish as she tries to relieve her UTI-ridden self. Being the grown up or the child is one thing; knowing what to be to whom is of a greater significance.

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