Before mercury, my blood used to fill thermometers.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Girls Season 3, Episode 9: "Flo" - I didn't mean to make your life ridiculous and about sex.

Apologies necessary.

Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Girls, Episode Twenty-Nine, "Flo"

In the first episode of this season, Hannah incurred a warning about Adam from Adam's ex, Natalia, regarding his dangers. No fears of Hannah's about Adam's abusive behavior played out, though. Instead — which I perceive to be in a choppy way, although I want to reserve judgment about that until the end of the season when it can be viewed as one piece — this season has been a lot about what Hannah perceives as her own drawbacks, what Adam risks by being with her: her dangers. A lot of what could be reductively referred to as Hannah's trademark awfulness is positioned this season for Adam to evaluate. But the point of view remains anchored with Hannah, who is dually on the mission to both pose fair warning to Adam and convince herself that as toxic as Adam may be, her alternatives — Jessa, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Elijah — are worse.

This snapped into place for me in this episode. Hannah and Adam's relationship had become one of the weakest aspects of the show, since it is so easy for a whole scene to lean on Adam Driver. His character was not "progressing" much — like Jessa, his affectations were becoming a punchline, and for the biggest thing to happen to his character this season from which viewers see legitimate action as a result (his unstable sister just disappeared, and even their intervention yielded no new information or surprising outcome) is his procurement of a Broadway show which is convenient and only remotely something I can go along with as a viewer because Adam Sackler is almost as good an actor as Adam Driver.

This episode starts with Hannah getting summoned by her mother and her mother's family to her maternal grandmother's deathbed. When she packs up, the conversation between she and Adam give an excellent idea of what a large part of Adam's world Hannah occupies in a more mundane and sweet way than his pronouncements about what would happen to him if she died.

Hannah's aunts join her mother in making monumental things happen in tiny, tiny glimpses. "They're very misshapen people," Hannah's mother says about her sisters. Everyone in this episode exemplifies the best of Girls' minor characters.

Her mother insists that, in order to send off her dying grandmother with good feelings about a figure as divisive as Hannah, that Hannah lie and tell her that she and Adam are getting married. Since her grandmother isn't long for the world, her mother says, there will be no harm in the marriage never coming to fruition. That this sort of thing — not, say, a lie about Hannah's book coming out — is what her mother thinks her grandmother wants to hear throws Hannah visibly. Hannah terminated her relationship with Adam in the first season because she wanted to focus on other things, not the care and feeding of a relationship. The second season found Hannah understanding, if hazily, the ways in which a relationship might contribute to her care and feeding so she might function better as a writer. In this season, nothing is settled, she still feels split, and spotlighting how logical it would be, now that they live together, that Hannah and Adam get married, calls up an ambivalence that has driven Hannah from the start. But what will come of that?

To jump ahead — because I don't want anything interrupting what I have to say at the end of this review — after being forced to consider marriage, and even with Adam readily playing along, seeming to agree that this is a good idea, Hannah is advised against the decision by both her grandmother and her mother. Marriage, her mother says, should be on her mind, but not to Adam. The episode ends with the observation that advice can't be taken without some skepticism — "people aren't always right" — although the example Hannah gets to work with falls through her hands.

My favorite aspect of "Flo," though, is Hannah's cousin, Rebecca.

Mark Schafer/HBO

Speaking at least of mannerisms and at most certain biases, Rebecca resembles so much one of my closest friends that, after less than a minute of her action on screen, I just lost my shit. More of Rebecca! My kingdom for more of Rebecca! She believes what she is doing is so efficient and effective that Marnie would devote her heart and soul to her and make dates to trash Hannah with her with renewed and vital glee. Rebecca is in medical school and cannot understand why people keep querying her — who is becoming a doctor herself — what it's like to be up to the stethoscope in hot doctors-to-be, despite the fact that any onlooker would be easily compelled, after mere minutes, to try and figure out what is wrong and how many voids need filled in this person. Against Hannah's, Rebecca's myopia is a total contender. Dressing Rebecca as a career-minded go-getter reveals another reductive, easy means by which viewers judge Hannah. But Rebecca's every snide jab about Hannah's self-involvement comes from a point of view that perceives Hannah — who is living her own life to such the extent that the viewers of her story are just now, after three years, learning of Rebecca's existence — has laid claim to parts of Rebecca's life to which she was not entitled. And I'm not talking about the molestation, which I will get to.

When Hannah makes a joke — a joke about herself, but a joke for Rebecca's benefit — Rebecca reads it straightforward, earnestly believing that Hannah is, in fact, excited about Rebecca's chosen professional pursuit for the sole reason that Hannah looks forward to texting her, at all hours, with medical queries. This is slight, but I love this exchange because this is how reviewers respond to this show. They take gestures that have been endowed by the writers with so many dimensions and ignore what nuance is there and instead stack them up as evidence of how awful Hannah, Jessa, Marnie, and Shoshanna are. Critics who do that miss the joke. And the watered-down writing this season has caved to that critical bias and become, as a result, there to fuel popular perceptions about the characters, which has been extremely, extremely disappointing.

And not unlike those viewers, after misreading Hannah and aggressively condescending to her, Rebecca makes a date for drinks with her. The way she explains her logic — that she is on an extremely tight schedule, but she assumes Hannah isn't — is such a stunning non-answer to Hannah's questions (why would Rebecca want to get a drink with Hannah), it definitively proves that Rebecca's self-absorption is worse than Hannah's. Hannah can converse, even when she feels unable to venture outside of her role to have a really generative, real conversation — she can still converse, which Rebecca can't.

Upon first viewing the scene when Hannah's mother and aunts divvy up their mother's drugs, I thought they were claiming them in the same manner they claim their mother's heirlooms. Also, I wish Rebecca's mother was the character that actress played on the Wire so those shows could occupy the same universe.

Because Adam did not receive the news that Hannah's grandmother, according to her mother, would be happy to know that they are to be married with a ready, impassioned response, Hannah hangs up, feeling weird and unhappy to have had that conversation. I love it, and I love that when Rebecca explains her relationship — she sees a guy one night a week, and otherwise he has other girlfriends — Hannah says that's horrible, even though Rebecca finds it convenient. That was Hannah and Adam's arrangement in season one!

Hannah and Rebecca's conversation about whether or not Hannah is funny does make a great imagined dialogue between Girls and its critics, although Rebecca is such a great character, I am not inclined to look at her as purely an avatar for those voices. Particularly not in light of the molestation, which I will talk about now.

In the most clearheaded bout of communication with Hannah, Rebecca explains to Hannah that her animosity towards her comes not exclusively from the time Hannah told her why she would never see her father again — which, Hannah argues, she would have discovered anyway because he insider traded, not the biggest moral conundrum Rebecca could have been left to untangle. That's not where the animosity comes from, Rebecca tells Hannah. She introduces the subject very frankly as she drives Hannah home after their bar date: when Rebecca was seven, Hannah made her fondle herself. Rebecca uses a euphemism, which Hannah latches onto as a means of shaking Rebecca's credibility. She says Hannah told her she had learned a "cool new trick" and they should both lie under the covers and touch themselves. Hannah vehemently denies this accusation. This follows a remark Hannah made at the bar where she includes "being molested by the same person," is an element of a bond she wishes she shared with her platonic ideal of a cousin. This could be from a book, as a lot of other facets of the perfect cousin relationship as Hannah describe it seems to be, but this also marks the third time Hannah's mentioned molestation as an element of her past. Hannah divulges to Dr. Josh in "One Man's Trash" that she told her mother that her babysitter touched her inappropriately, for which Hannah was accused of lying. In "Video Games," when Jessa mentioned getting molested by a substitute teacher in an off-the-cuff generalization about how awful it was to wait for her parents to get her from school, Hannah was eager to share a similar experience, but Jessa shut the conversation down. Both of those scenes were great examples of how catharsis is rarely curated in real life. When Marnie had something to get off her chest, she wanted to have a very special episode about it. Jessa introduced the possibility of catharsis to Hannah but withdrew her responsibility for whatever Hannah might hand her immediately, so they were both left standing there with a sense of, "all right, guess we're not doing that right now." When Hannah told Dr. Josh, she did not like his response — the experience he had to share, she felt, had nothing to do with hers, and he clearly could not handle the facts she just handed to him. I love the fact that Rebecca brings this fact up on a drive, where Hannah can't leave. Objectively, it is another great example of how catharsis does not function in life the way it does in film and television. Having a face-off with an abuser may lead to nothing. They may just deny what they've done, remaining unmoved by the accusation. Just as often as it's not, catharsis is one-sided. Marnie has a lot to say to Hannah, still, and Hannah really has nothing for Marnie now. These kinds of confrontations are among my favorite things about Girls: the way it examines the way people communicate. But —

Speaking not objectively for more than a minute: sexual abuse. As a viewer, I can remain neutral about a character who is morally lacking, frustrating, and maybe not someone I would want close to me in the real world, which is such a mundane observation it's barely worth making. Regardless of the context, this accusation posits Hannah as such a monster that I am freaked out. Not by Hannah, who is not real, but by the writers. Bruce Eric Kaplan wrote this episode alone — he also wrote "Video Games" (see above). Other people may very well feel differently about this than I do, but there is no way, to me, you can have a show about a character who has committed an act of sexual violence, introduce it, and expect it to disappear without insulting your audience deeply. I doubt much will be made of this again, especially considering how narratively dissonant this season has been. I really hate this. I really don't like it. I can't even be articulate about it. And it is not purely the emotional manipulation of dropping such a fact about the protagonist viewers have been following for three years now, but as a narrative move, it looks tone deaf and unsympathetic to the point of being so alienating I can't even —

Hannah puts her hand over Rebecca's while they sit in the hospital together in a gesture not unlike her leading Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna in a microdance after their collective vent in "Beach House." But where that gesture seemed to shift the perspective back to their friendship's potential, this was weak and evasive. Rebecca is a brand new character and possibly isolated to this one episode. Hannah "doesn't want to fight" with Rebecca so she...forgives Rebecca for being angry at her for molesting her? Ugh.

2 comments:

  1. hey kari,

    i am interested in your reading of hannah as a monster re: her and her cousin touching themselves as children. in the car scene, rebecca mentions that hannah- the same age as her- brought this activity up as a sort of play (which may or may not be derived from any molestation hannah's character may have experienced as a child) that she wanted rebecca to participate. while it is absolutely possible for children to abuse each other, i think it's really important to note a) the weird, not-oft-talked-about sexuality of/between children, which involves all kind of weird play that children are not entirely clued in on while they participate in it and b) it doesn't sound like it was exactly coercion to me, but rather a moment of, or memory of, some discomfort on rebecca's part, which is totally valid, but does not necessarily point to hannah-the-seven-year-old being a monster.

    the reason i bring all this up is because i, and many other people i know, engaged in some kind of sexual play as kids, and while one child was usually the instigator, it didn't make the other child or children victims. these are just a few experiences, and we can't know (at least not at this point) what the exact perameters of hannah and rebecca's situation was, but i do want to make room for a reading of this as potentially speaking to something other than outright abuse/the monstering of hannah.

    xox gina

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    1. You are completely correct! I'm really glad you bring that up. I would have read this scene differently were it not for part of a larger trend of, as I read it, the writers losing faith in Hannah as a person. The "monster" remark is based on this accumulation as it's taken place primarily over the course of this latest season. But my guard is way up when it comes to people making claims that are denied — now that I work at a newspaper I can never ever get away from triggering content, and that definitely weighed on my viewing of this. I prefer your viewing and agree vehemently with that as a valid reading of the scene, but my faith in the writers' faith in Hannah is so fractured.

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