Before mercury, my blood used to fill thermometers.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A friendship between college girls is grander and more dramatic than any romance. Lena Dunham's GIRLS, Season Two

The Spoiler-Ridden Gestalt Review of HBO's Girls, Season Two (2013)

Excuse the quality of the photos, but:

"I've always thought I'd be secretly really good at cutting hair!"

I remembered Hannah's episode twelve attempt to cut her bangs, which was interrupted by Adam's bed-intrusion, but I forgot how early this joke was set up. As of the first episode of this season, Hannah thought (however delusional those thoughts) she'd be good at all these things — writing, cutting hair, being an independent woman embracing a best friend — but by the end, she is forced to face her limits.

Hannah note (there is a reason her face alone is featured on the season's poster, and [I say] nothing that isn't about her is relevant to discussion of this season): I loved the examination of Hannah's state throughout this season. She tries to unclutter her personal life and rebuild in the debris-ridden aftermath of her breakup with Marnie. She goes on a drug bender that is supposed to be an escape as well as celebration of her first shot at publication (as well as being the reason for her shot at publication — it's a celebration upon which its own existence is contingent, which is pretty stressful) that ends in her confronting Marnie. I love the fact that this catharsis does not result in anything and is as myopic as their confrontation from season one. When she can't even enjoy the triumph of her first publication, Hannah fantasizes about escaping the things she really wants only to be handed the thing she wants the most — a book deal — with the caveat that she write it in a month. She tries to assume a new life with Dr. Joshua and was confronted by the limits of her dreams, ruining her ability to even dream an escape from their pressures. She tries to get away again with Jessa, with whom she shares a significant bond, and is confronted with her failure as a friend. All this contributes to the rollicking return of her OCD that successfully obstructs her from making any progress on what she actually wants. In that context, it makes sense that the season climaxes with her taking solace in Adam's arms. Her imagination is strong enough to accept Adam as a stand-in for Patrick Wilson. This season was all about the "dark scene" in Hannah's head.

Instead of re-examining the criticisms/observations I made about season two while it was on, I watched it fresh — the first time since it aired, all in one sitting — in order to chart Hannah and Marnie's relationship. Even when they were not explicitly involved in each other's scenes, the way their stories echoed each other was central to this season and its strongest facet.

Episode 11, It's About Time: It's just like, I watched Midnight in Paris, and I thought, I was like, I could do that.
It's about being nice: The parallels between the scenes between Adam/Hannah and Marnie/her mother. Both are debating the meaning of words and what it means to be nice. Adam tells Hannah loving someone means you don't need to be nice all the time. Marnie's mother hopes she and Marnie can be friends, but she's worried Marnie is as gruff with her friends as she is with her. "I talk to my friends way worse than this," Marnie says. When Hannah is nice to Marnie, telling her they're still close, she is maintaining a distance, avoiding confronting how rotten their relationship is. Hannah is similarly avoidant of Elijah's boyfriend, George, who she ejects from her party by pretending to leave with him, then depositing him on the corner and running away. He accuses her of being a bitch, and she says, "I'm a sweet girl." Adam doesn't mind if Hannah doesn't call him her "boyfriend" as long as he is her boyfriend, Marnie can't refer to herself as "fired" even though that's what she is — this paves the way for Ray to hint that there's a side to him besides the awful side he demonstrated last season, when he expresses frustration with Shoshanna over the use of emojis to communicate her feelings. He wants her to say what she means.

Last season, Ray was glimpsed pretty narrowly. Each piece of evidence of him supported the idea that he was nothing but a terminal grump. He only seemed like he could be more than that when he interacted with Shoshanna, and even though he does deliver her the sweet remark about her strange frequency that leads to their encounter in bed, the real consummation of their relationship was withheld until now. Unlike the other characters, sex was not going to serve as the real consummation of a relationship with Shoshanna. Not for any matters of "virtue" or other anything but because Shoshanna has standards and rules that encompass and exceed sexual matters, that empower her when she acts in accordance with them. Shoshanna was vulnerable about being a virgin, but her state of mind in this episode make perfect sense: the matter of her first time has been settled, and now she checks in with herself emotionally, spiritually, etc. The fact that Ray is prepared to be measured according to her standards is the real consummation of their season one flirtation, and it was extremely satisfying to see that in the first episode of this season.

Also, Adam begging Hannah to stay and watch "Bagger Vance extras."

Episode 12, I Get Ideas: Paradise wife.
What you do with what you have: I love the way that Hannah's wearing a sleeping bag — and a diaper, maybe? — talking about how she's ready to move on from Adam and have a safe, responsible boyfriend is juxtaposed by Marnie being turned down for a job because she looks, in her Anne Taylor suit, so put-together, not scrounging for what she can get, ready for bigger and better things. The first episode established their mutual difficulty — their matching tiger tattoos, if you will — with calling their conditions by the right names. This episode establishes where they are diverging: Hannah looks like a mess but she's ready to get what she wants. Marnie is maintaining her uncracked facade, but she's falling to pieces. So Shoshanna tells Marnie, use your appearance to get a job! And Jessa reminds Hannah, you're not truly in a good relationship unless he respects you as an artist! Because Hannah's attempt to attain this results in her breaking up with Sandy, her post-Adam rebound, she is unavailable to acknowledge that Marnie's embrace of her appearance as a career move is using what seems like an obstacle as an asset. From here on out, Hannah keeps blocking herself.

Episode 13, Bad Friend: We're in the night kitchen.
It's just for work: Since Hannah paused the development of her romantic life, her energy is thrust enough into her career to get her first writing job. It is through Marnie's career detour into her pretty-person-job that her romantic life experiences some traction, albeit in the tiny, smeedgey form of artist Booth Jonathan. Hannah uses the episode's romantic conquest (Laird the addict!) for work, and Marnie's art-world career aspirations are tied up in her interest in Booth. In the fight between Hannah and Marnie that brings them together at the end of the episode, Hannah tells Marnie friends don't do things that intentionally hurt others. This blow-up lacks the catharsis of season one's Marnie/Hannah argument because Hannah has done nothing to Marnie — she hasn't talked to her, hasn't provided her any insight into their breakup last season — explicitly to avoid hurting her. There is a whole lot of nothing transpiring between them, and yet Hannah is still moved to air her disappointment in Marnie for hiding hurtful facts from her. I love the quiet evolution of their friendship between the fits and stops of their careers and romantic lives. In this episode, these paths are bedecked by some of my favorite set pieces this season: the Andrew Andrew club scene, Booth Jonathan's Duncan Sheik installation, Hannah's coke shirt, the "look at the doll" scene. This episode achieved a great synthesis of plot and story by having both fun and momentum, which is a balance the season as a whole struggled to strike.

Episode 14, It's a Shame About Ray: I think I just feel how everyone feels: like I have three or four really great folk albums in me.
This was not a dialogue, this was a monologue: I like the way Shoshanna started the season by providing a harmonious contrast to Hannah and Marnie's turmoil while Jessa's isolation demonstrates the way these figures are all, essentially, alone. Hannah, Marnie, and Shoshanna attend a dinner party together while Jessa goes to dinner with her new husband, Thomas-John's family. As the character's talk, their conversations reveal what they have been ignoring. Talk of Ray's living situation leads Shoshanna to realize Ray has imperceptibly moved in with her. Talk of buttstuff leads Marnie to realize she has unavoidably persistent feelings about her ex, Charlie. The opportunity to talk at all leads Thomas-John and Jessa not to the realization that they're fooling themselves as much as how that delusion has reached its end. These realizations move Shoshanna and Ray to declare love to each other, move Marnie and Charlie to reopen their wounds, and move Jessa and Thomas-John to stop playing in a wonderfully dark scene. There is so much in Jessa's monologue, where she makes assumptions about what a loser Thomas-John is, that reveals who she is as a character: someone who looks at people as things she's doing, and feels likewise like a thing that is done. Hannah also admonishes Charlie for calling Marnie a cunt without understanding her own unresolved feelings for Marnie. Even though it is a shame the Hannah/Jessa vein doesn't twist into the show's arm for another few episodes, the wait is worth it, both for what comes next and for the episode's end, when Jessa and Hannah sit together in a bathtub, being hilariously honest about how gross they both are, but mostly just sitting in silence.

Episode 15, One Man's Trash: Everything that you appear to have.
This is the time when you give people space: The small things I like about episode fourteen are completely overwhelmed by what a good episode this is. The biggest missteps in season two occur when Hannah is somewhere other than the center of the narrative, and this mood-piece demonstrates everything Lena Dunham — and Girls — gets perfect. It follows logically that Hannah would want to isolate herself from her friends after the previous episode's parade of revelations. She winds up falling into a parallel world, an incredible house in Brooklyn where she reflects upon what shape her dreams might take, what qualities might be broken inside of her. Her experience in the house, having a hazy tryst with a doctor separated from his wife, is so insular that Hannah fails to recognize even the basic details of Dr. Joshua's side of the experience. In true Hannah fashion, this episode is so much about Hannah and Hannah alone that she cannot allow for the slightest hint it that it might be about someone else teaching her a lesson. She wonders aloud that her pursuit of experience is overcompensating for a desire for love and security. This is a look inside how much Hannah blocks herself, and for as beautifully as it works on its own, it bridges lonely, embarrassed Hannah of episode fourteen with episode sixteen's life-changing news.

Episode 16, Boys: Her lost generation.
It's a really big deal: Hannah is commissioned to write an ebook, and she has one month to do it. I love that Little Women figures so centrally in an episode called "Boys," but as great as it is to see Ray and Adam's characters develop, keeping Hannah from the center does the show no favors. Even if it isn't riveting, the focus on Ray and Adam is justified, since Hannah's whole trip in this episode is avoidance and it reopens the file on Adam's myriad Hannah-feelings. While Hannah gets her book deal and the crushing pressure that comes with its deadline (and, unbeknownst to herself, while she is still inspiring tenderness in Adam), Marnie gets an invitation to a big party that Booth Jonathan is throwing. Marnie assumes this is a romantic achievement, but Booth reminds her that it's just business. When they need help dealing with these disappointments, they use the illusion of these new phases of their lives to widen the rift between them.

Cliches aside, I am disappointed Ray's encounter with the Staten Island girl was not a meet-cute. Since it's not, it ultimately served no purpose, which is disappointing in an episode that should have spent its time reorienting the Hannah/Marnie issue to the center of the story.

Episode 17, Video Games: This show is too well designed, too well to be held with only me in mind.
I manifested the solution: Hannah and Jessa go to see Jessa's father together. I love Hannah and Jessa together deeply, the way one constantly probes at the other's approach to self-delusion. This is another episode that disrupts the season's rhythm, but I can forgive it more than I can episodes fourteen or sixteen because I think Jemima Kirke is stunning and the atrocity of a destination that is her father's house is one I recognize (as overwhelmingly as I recognize Hannah's anguish as their guest). Although the theme of self-delusion, as distilled in Jessa's stepmothers "life is a video game" speech, is so relevant to Hannah's book-writing folly, the episode's position feels like it is deferring the season climax. The story and plot balance problems are still present here, but I do love the sad way in which it dawns on Hannah that she hasn't been there for Jessa they way Jessa needs her to be. All this aside, this episode has a special place in my affections because I love the way Dunham and the other writers paint these characters, especially Jessa's hints at how negligent her family is. Allegedly, season three focuses very much on exploring the characters, and I am all the more excited for that.

Episode 18, It's Back: Literally the one thing I told you was not to ash in my mermaid.
Come back, come back, I'm all you've ever known: What's back: Charlie's hold on Marnie's energy, Marnie's hatred of Jessa, Shoshanna's dedication to doing her thing her way, Adam's need for Alcoholic's Anonymous, Hannah's parents, and Hannah's heretofore unseen obsessive compulsive problems. Marnie's free fall into being an abject wreck begins as she realizes that Charlie has profited enormously from the dissolution of their relationship by developing an app inspired by her. While Charlie has harmonized work and romance and Adam enjoys an idyllic date as a result of his stop back in AA, both Marnie's and Hannah's professional and romantic failures are fully on display in this episode, with Hannah's dissolve crescendoing with her confession to her new therapist (Bob Balaban!) of her OCD's severity in one of my favorite scenes in the show. The power of Hannah's OCD is, however, diminished by how much of Marnie's failure to grow is evident here.

Episode 19, On All Fours: You can be my white Kate Moss tonight.
The nadir of the whole cycle: A visit to Hannah's publisher exacerbates her OCD and its attendant misery while Marnie seizes the spotlight at a party for Charlie's company (to provide the most TV Guide copy description of the episode possible). Marnie's flailing, when compared to Hannah's, looks like falling upwards for once, and her preference for appearances is setting up to put her "ahead" at the end of the season. During the dark night of Hannah's soul, she runs into Adam, in whom she inspires his own meltdown. The way the characters get under one another's skin provides the greatest narrative thrust the show's had, at this point, in episodes, even though this feels like part one of episode twenty's part two. It still has scenes like Adam and his girlfriend's dance to Fiona Apple and, god, nothing compares to this:

Episode 20, Together: I'm gonna write a whole book in a day.
Will you get out of me?: Hannah meets her limit. She cannot stop trying to write about her relationship with Marnie, which her publisher already warned her not to do and has contributed to her inability to finish the book she was given a month to write. Meanwhile, the moment Marnie gets to sit down and have brunch with Charlie, Marnie invokes Hannah by saying "this" is what she's always trying to tell Hannah: brunch with the person who "decided on you" is what you should chase. The reunion of Charlie and Marnie would have meant (you can't convince me otherwise) total backtracking for Marnie's character if Chris Abbott (who plays Charlie)'s abrupt departure did not insure that Marnie must recognize it AS backtracking, which she now must. And even without Marnie there to make her feel like garbage, Hannah forgoes finishing her book to invite Adam back into her arms.

It isn't season one, but this season did work better (for me) as a whole than when viewed episode by episode. For how much plot this season has, it really served to magnify and illustrate in meticulous detail who those people (Hannah and Marnie) that had that blow-up fight last season are, where they are headed with respect to one another, how one succeeds where the other fails and vice-versa, which ends, then, with all of these things made plain, but with the story, seemingly, back where it started. Jessa and Shoshanna are in the inverse of their season one circumstances: Jessa has left and Shoshanna is free of love-concerns and ready to have fun with adult male blonds, but Hannah and Marnie are still avoiding each other just like they were at the beginning of the season. The skills with which they avoid their own problems, though, have been significantly worn away.

In two weeks, I'll start watching season three. It'll be intense, but I'll just have to ride it like a pony or I'll get a haircut:

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