Before mercury, my blood used to fill thermometers.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Girls Season 4, Episode 3: "Female Author" - Maybe it's finally something more serious.

This week's episode made it seem like "Triggering" did not need to exist. I was disappointed by "Triggering," so much so I did not even want to address my feelings about the episode, but "Triggering" did serve a purpose: it demonstrated how, even though going to Iowa is Hannah's first decision she has made in the service of her dreams since she told her parents in the pilot that she thinks she could be the voice of her generation, that decision will not immediately justify itself and will yield as many trials and as much humiliation as her attempts to compromise on her dreams. Hannah is desperate for a sign that she has made the right choice by going to Iowa, since Girls in its entirety is about how Hannah does not have the equipment to trust herself. The fact that she has clung to her dream of being a great writer when she defers to her parents and Marnie about the majority of her other decisions is evidence of the magnitude of that dream. In "Triggering," Hannah has found no indication that she made the right choice. But the whole episode felt slight. Of all the episodes written by writers other than Dunham, though, "Female Author," the first credited solely to Sarah Heyward, is my favorite.

Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Girls, Episode Thirty-Five, "Female Author"

Last season, Orange is the New Black's presence in the world could be felt within Girls, not only with the criminally (woeful trombone) brief appearance of Danielle Brooks, but with Jessa's "Females Only" sequestration and pseudo-solitary confinement. Jessa did not go to prison and her time in rehab was voluntary, but that parallel was there. To emphasize how much Jessa is not incarcerated but behaves as if she is, locked into some fatalist sentence? To demonstrate where the stakes are for Girls' characters compared to Orange is the New Black's characters — that is, lower in every way? I bristle at the show diminishing the characters. Worse than being critical, it questions why the viewer has invested at all in those characters.

I bring that up because two weeks ago, I had one of the worst weeks of my life. I worked from seven in the morning until two a.m. the following morning every day and had to deal publicly with some, yeah, triggering issues. All of which I dealt with by keeping Broad City on the entire time and prioritizing dance breaks. But "Triggering" made me vulnerable enough to refrain entirely from talking about how the episode made me feel. And that is why I write these recaps on my blog in the first place!

Between "Triggering" and "Female Author," the effect of Broad City's existence is palpable. That made the video chat scenes both here and in "Triggering" hit even harder. Hannah has none of the effervescent, neon, screaming affection for or from her best friends, Marnie and Jessa. When Jessa shows Hannah her ass, she is not promoting intimacy between them, she is being evasive about how close she has gotten to Adam in Hannah's absence. Of course, that is the point Girls is making. Broad City's Ilana and Abbi are like voices in one another's heads. Hannah doesn't trust the space in her head to let anyone else in there.

In the course of their vchat, Jessa misidentifies Iowa City's Mennonite population as Amish. I am touchy about that joke, but if some Mennonites flaunt their knowledge of Jemima Kirke to some Amish folks as a means to brag that they can watch Girls and operate televisions, that would make it worth it.

Jessa is the only person in Hannah's life who consistently inquires about her writing, notably in "Vagina Panic" and "I Get Ideas." She is not necessarily supportive and has wielded this vulnerability of Hannah's to unsettle her in conversations. Hannah, unknowingly, unsettles Jessa right back by inquiring about Adam, with whom Jessa now attends AA. Enter Jessa's ass, which Hannah concedes is a quality ass (but is it the ass of an angel?).

Hannah's disconnection from her friends and the dream she thought awaited her in Iowa is contrasted by Elijah. The show is riding his wave, and his aside with the Iowa undergrad at the party in "Triggering" was my favorite part of that episode. He is still hanging out in Hannah's house and now has his own life on the periphery of Iowa City's writing scene. While Hannah defers to other people when it comes to what she should do and what she should want, then waits around for recognition that never comes, Elijah tries to make every situation he gets into seem like the ideal situation in order to conceal how jaggedly he is crashing and burning. This is the second time he's wound up squatting with Hannah in as many years (I think the life of the show has spanned almost three years so far?). He painted an absurdly warm version of traversing New York in "Iowa." He was mistaken for Blake Lively's husband in "Triggering." And when he tells Hannah — while he relives his undergrad glory days by taking "whimsical" photos with a film camera (Jenna Maroney's pronunciation) — she should quit the Iowa Writers' Workshop, that is when Girls is everything I love it to be: the most broken and unreliable source possible tries to teach Hannah a lesson, and because Hannah does not trust her experiences and instincts, she tries to learn that lesson and falls into peril. Because Hannah really needs to listen to herself. Instead, she listens to Elijah, who was an unpaid assistant to a curator of dance when they reconnected in "All Adventurous Women Do," and who now describes quitting dance as the biggest relief in the world, since trying to succeed at that distracted him from living life whimsically.

Fresh from this exchange with Elijah, Hannah chides her classmates about being so old and jaded that writing about a blow job has saddled her with the label of the 50 Shades girl. When DeAugust says that blow jobs can be literary, Hannah calls him out hard for listing only male — Roth among them, ugh — in his spontaneous listicle of literary blow jobs. He calls her hysterical. Hannah proceeds to tear everyone down with aplomb, call for honesty, and crawl away — just like Abbi in Broad City when a mother in a waiting room made the assumption that she was a mom, too. That is not too different from what Hannah is experiencing. She would like some honesty, preferably from a source other than herself that she can imbue with more authority, to just tell her frankly if she is doing the right thing.

Also, I had no idea before today that Andrew Rannells is in his mid-thirties. Acting!

"Female Author" balanced Hannah's story excellently against Marnie's and Jessa's, and while Shoshanna only got one scene, it was everything to me. Shoshanna has a lot of characteristics in common with a good friend of mine, which endears me all the more to the character. This friend is also job hunting and wildly unspooled by the stress of everything that involves. Her attempts to sabotage herself through a mixture of antithetical honesty and over-literalness is cathartic because the whole process is such a performance. So when Shoshanna goes on her interview for a job in trend jewelry at Ann Taylor Loft, secures a job offer, and talks her way out of it by saying this was just a warmup for the job she really wants and is supposed to get, it was goddamn uncanny! Shosh is driven not by the need to appear at all times to be the perfect girl — that's Marnie's mission — but she is driven by the pursuit of perfection and the confidence that she can embody all the things Sex and the City tells her she should be. If this season tasks Shosh with finding confidence despite her life not conforming to those expectations, I might find it in me to forgive Girls for erasing all the effects of "Beach House" from the episodes that followed it last season.

Marnie continues to demonstrate that validation from men, regardless of what she is even doing to receive that validation, is her number one priority. Even though this takes the form of some relatively un-vibrant scenes, I do like what Girls is doing with Marnie right now. She is supposed to be the kind of girl who stars in a show, not Hannah. But she cannot operate within an even slightly chaotic environment. The second one piece of her life went out of place, Marnie flew into bits. She only cares about keeping her image intact at all costs, and that is a significantly greater priority for her than actually repairing the damaged parts of her relationships or her career. In "Female Author," she vents to Ray about Desi's persistent intimacy with her, refusing as ever to acknowledge that she's the mistress if they are going to end up together anyway, an outcome of which she is convinced. Ray's observation that Desi is selfish for not ending his relationship with Clementine and choosing Marnie inspires Marnie to make out with him. This is a nice spin on the interaction between Hannah and Elijah. That is exactly what Marnie wants to hear and it appears to affirm her efforts with Desi, but consider the source. Ray's disfiguring misogyny was eroded by his admiration for Shoshanna. She changed him, but could not be devoted to the project of changing him. Ray's acceptance of this landed him in a limbo — he was successful, but only because he had wanted to impress her. The achievement was hollow. Then Marnie came to him looking for that disfiguring misogyny for which he was once so well known. Ray is so lost, in a different way from where the show first saw him but lost nevertheless, that any opportunity to teach Marnie something makes him feel better.

This episode features another great entree into the annals of Marnie being unable to tolerate one thing departing from her vision of how it should be. When she and Desi successfully play their demo for some executives — of who knows, a label? An app? — who are excited about them, their assumption that Marnie and Desi are a couple moves Marnie to pause the meeting and ask for a cigarette so she can take a break.

Desi asks Marnie what the deal is — and calls her "Bella," which is so manipulative, I love it! — and Marnie's response is perfect. They can't be intimate anymore, she says, because no one thinks of Marnie when they think of Desi. She might be censoring her feelings, but that is among the Marniest things that Marnie has ever said. She does not want him to be faithful to her. She wants everyone to recognize them as a couple. He reminds her that he told her this was the arrangement, disowning responsibility for Marnie's pain and making her think it is her fault for consenting to be with him sexually while he remains with Clementine. It is the same kind of situation Hannah's old boss Rich got her into — I'm going to grope you, so you have to tell me if the groping bothers you because if you suffer in silence, I told you I was going to grope you, so don't be upset when I grope you. When Desi insists that Marnie go out and find what she wants, Marnie insists that she knows what that is and he won't give it to her — and I love that she is right. All she wants is to be the girlfriend of someone who meets her mystifying criteria for desirable boyfriendhood.

As enjoyable as all the other threads of "Female Author" are, Jessa's is the most intriguing in terms of where it takes her character and story — as well as Adam's. They are a lot alike. Hannah is attracted to both of them for the same reasons, although Jessa is a great deal more vulnerable to her than Adam is. The two of them go to AA together, where Adam says he wants to throw all of Hannah's fridge magnets away and stop talking to her about nothing on the phone just to talk to her every day because he has to. Jessa empathizes with how useless it is to talk to someone who's not there, but Jessa also goes out of her way to see those people she wants to see. Hannah is not someone she wants to see right now, since Jessa views her exit to Iowa as an attempt to abandon her. While they talk shit about Hannah, a dude comes by and gets all over Jessa for cigarettes, and she alludes to having let the dude make out with her one day. This allusion to Jessa's sexual availability is rhymed by her attempt to ask Adam about someone he is seeing as they walk down the street together. Adam is evasive, denying that this relationship to which she alludes is anything consistent. While they bond over sober birthdays and Adam's infidelity, Jessa urinates in public, attracting the attentions of a police officer. He fines her, she refuses, and is arrested, as is Adam when he tries to intervene. This is the second time Adam has been arrested on Girls thanks to one of the main characters.

Once Ray springs them, Adam dismiss Jessa as manipulative and a bad influence, to which Jessa opens up and admits what dire need she is in for a friend that will not leave her. Jessa does need that, and the idea that that friend could be Adam! I'm excited! I hope this bears out. I think time with Adam will make Jessa see how inhumanly he treats Hannah. More than any other aspect of Girls, I am invested in Hannah and Jessa's relationship. Just one shallow step below that on my Girls priorities is seeing anyone — I'd like it to be Hannah, but anyone really — recognize and appreciate that Adam does not see Hannah as a human being and does not act in her best interest. Let this be it!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Girls Season 4, Episode 2: "Triggering" - Shannon, Jeff, Jonesly, Ranchiny, Nagasaki, and Cher.

My Own Private Iowa.

Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Girls, Episode Thirty-Four, "Triggering"

In Iowa, open and green, Hannah discovers the amount of money she spent on her Greenpoint apartment can secure her a house, a great deal of empty space in which to be alone. Hannah spends an amorphous amount of time wandering through the new landscape and having faltering, fractured interactions with others.

When Hannah attempts to lock up her bike outside a class, a classmate corrects her behavior: this is Iowa; no one locks their bikes here. The teaching of lessons! It's back! The girl is not interested in figuring out who Hannah — the fact that she is Hannah is irrelevant. She is not undergraduate-young, she does not know what do to: she is a first year, and her classmate's ability to determine that demonstrates her second year status.

In a video chat with Marnie, Hannah brings up something she first referenced in "The Return," which is how everyone from New York should move to spacious and sleepy midwestern towns and "start the revolution." Marnie is barely listening her and devotes all her energy to deflecting the questions she thinks Hannah will ask her regarding Adam's wellbeing. In retaliation, Hannah points out that Marnie is making a scarf for Desi and getting too invested in their affair.

Marnie refuses to call it an affair, despite the fact that an affair is what she and Desi are having. Marnie maintains that people do not understand and are therefore uncomfortable with whatever it is she and Desi have. This was comforting to see — Marnie, from the pilot on, has been obsessed with naming things. Marnie can avoid trying to figure out and having to really examine a relationship or situation if she can put a name to it. She wanted to hastily apply boyfriend-girlfriend terms to herself and Booth and Charlie in season two because, in both situations, there was nothing there, but if Marnie said they were boyfriend and girlfriend, then there had to be something there. I love, therefore, any time someone throws this preoccupation in Marnie's face, like the way both her former boss and her mother refused to let her use the word "fired" in reference to herself when she was actually being fired.

Marnie also patronizingly recognizes the way Hannah eating grapes as a snack is just her coming around to the behavior she always knew Hannah was capable of — this while Marnie's life is in shambles and Hannah is in a world famous graduate institution, in a house that took her four minutes to tour Marnie via video.

A great deal of time is spent on Hannah negotiating the void she inhabits in Iowa City. Much of her property is a "dead zone." After her conversation with Marnie, during which Hannah mentioned their freshman year, where their friendship originated and blossomed, Hannah goes to the student store where she cannot repress her envy for an undergraduate she perceives as living off her parents' money. The cashier humiliates her for her barely-intact credit card. While attempting to connect to even just the memory of Adam, a bat makes itself known in Hannah's house, driving her onto her lawn. Locked out, she dives in through a window and falls asleep in the bathroom.

A lot of coverage of Girls is justifiably preoccupied with the veracity of Hannah's time at Iowa, but I would rather consider Iowa as the manifestation of everything that plagues Hannah and what she fears, more so than most of the other situations in which she has found herself. That is the only way I can approach the workshop scene, anyway. I love Girls the most when its characters are compensating for their unwillingness to address a problem by saying something else, often something more revealing. The function of everything Hannah and Jessa say to one another in their conversation about "the supposed-tos" in "Vagina Panic" has nothing to do with what they say.

But the writing workshop scene was extremely straightforward. After her classmates are painstakingly courteous to classmate DeAugust, it is Hannah's turn to read from her work, which she prefaces by warning her classmates that the content might be triggering. Hannah does not anticipate, of course, how triggered she will be by their criticism, which concerns her resemblance to the character in her story — invalidating her craft as a fiction writer — and the way the sexual humiliation the character experiences consensually diminishes real experiences of abuse.

I spent the latter half of 2014 reading every piece of writing about Girls published on the internet, so I may be sensitive to the on the nose quality of the criticism Hannah gets here from her classmates, clearly echoing what people have written about Girls. Besides that, there is the function of this scene in Girls' story: Iowa is the first thing Hannah has done for herself in the service of her dream since she told her parents, before retracting it, that she thought that she might be the voice of her generation. She has tried to manage the expectations of her parents and Marnie, writing for money even though she is not proud of the work and getting her fuck buddy to be her boyfriend. It took three seasons of that for Hannah to come around to how no one was going to support her, so she had to be her own champion. Which, Hannah barely has the equipment to do that. She is a dead zone.

I am disappointed every time viewers are given the opportunity to evaluate Hannah's writing — I would rather that never be left up to viewers to decide, whether or not Hannah is a good writer, because the point is that she wants to be great and is trying to figure out how to be — but I do like how Hannah's choice of subject matter is her ongoing confusion about Adam's treatment of her. The paragraph she reads ends with a remark about how the character is "free" in her "choicelessness," having resolved not to say no to see what she inspires in the man she is with. Adam's inability to see Hannah, to really look at her as her own person, works for Hannah when she wants to act without consequences — because he does not care anyway. But as of "I Saw You," Hannah is reminded of all the times Adam's inability to see her compromised their relationship: he did not appreciate how she wanted to prioritize her writing in "She Did" and wanted to end it there.

When Hannah shuts up and lets Adam fuck her, it is one of the only times she is free of the expectations of others (her parents, Marnie) that swarm her life otherwise, but there, she has to confront her expectations for herself. And I love how that is all the more complex after four years — if it was as simple as Adam is a sack of shit, it would not be compelling or understandable that Hannah is still mired in his course, thick fapping. But humiliation does something for Hannah, Adam's charisma and insurmountable oddness are worth all the screen time they are given.

All of this is present in Hannah during her first days in Iowa. When it starts to look, in the workshop, like another place where people will try to administer lessons to Hannah in order to position themselves in a better light — not in the service of helping her achieve what she wants — she reaches out to her friends and her parents and is, again, not heard. Shoshanna and Jessa, watching Scandal, cannot figure out what to do with Hannah's collect call from a pay phone (Hannah's cell phone was either enclosed within her stolen bike or pitched into the creek she claims to have been walking around with a cast of imaginary friends). She does get a hold of her parents, and to say they react halfheartedly to Hannah's suicidal ideation is an understatement.

I get that Hannah wears on her loved ones, but it gets me down when the show is not there for her. I am hoping that De August, who defends her in the workshop and tells her to disregard their classmates' criticisms, can be a real ally to her. Those tangential relationships with even semi-supportive men have never been fruitful, though, so it hurts to hope.

But Hannah's not really alone in the house! Elijah arrives to cheer her up, and Hannah consents. "Let's forget who we are." I wrote about Elijah last week, how he is a means for the characters to refresh and reevaluate the way they see themselves and each other. Hannah hopes to forget who she is, but that is even less possible with Elijah around. He has known her as long as she has known Marnie — in fact, he contributed directly to their relationship dynamic when he seduced Hannah into dancing to the Scissor Sisters, pulling her away from a terrified Marnie at an undergraduate rager, much like the one they go to in this episode.

All of which is to say, Hannah cannot forget who she is, and the things that made New York difficult will make Iowa difficult.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Girls Season 4, Episode 1: "Iowa" - We try to inject it with meaning, but all we have are days.

I cried twice. I'm so happy to see these characters, I love where this season opener finds all of them, and I'm so happy to not have to read every last critical take on these episodes. I am going to play with forthcoming reviews, but here is a look at season four, episode one, within the context of Girls in its entirety:

Top: Girls season one, pilot; bottom: Girls season four, "Iowa"

Girls, Episode Thirty-Three, "Iowa"

The story of Girls started with Hannah having dinner with her mother and father. She thought they were there to congratulate her on pursuing her dream of being a writer, but they were there to alert her to the fact that they were not going to be supporting her financially anymore, and that she would have to turn her unpaid internship into a paid internship or look for a job.

"Iowa" starts with Hannah having dinner with her parents, over which they congratulate her on her immanent departure to the Iowa Writers' Workshop. The fact that it took an institution recognizing what Hannah knows to be true — that she is a writer — for her parents to be proud of her and demonstrate the level of support she desires galls Hannah (Hannah Helene Horvath). The fact that her parents severed their financial ties made it seem to Hannah like they felt she was taking them for a ride with no intention to make good on her professed desire to write. Of course, they had no reason to believe that Hannah was not taking them for a ride: at the time of Girls' pilot, Hannah had never championed her dream. Throughout the first season, she continued to defer facing how much she wanted to write by trying to do what her parents wanted her to do — get a job — and what Marnie wanted her to do — get a boyfriend.

Hannah's had a more difficult time with jobs, but she does have a boyfriend, Adam. The fact that Marnie, who in season one kept insinuating that Hannah's energies were better spent on relationships than her dream of being a writer, then rejected Hannah's achievement because Adam was not an enviable catch was almost the last straw in Hannah and Marnie's friendship.

Adam does a miserable job at hiding how disappointed he is that Hannah is leaving New York for Iowa. Following his frustrated toast at the dinner with Hannah and her parents, he and Hannah catch a commercial he did — for depression medication — on TV. Adam is sore about how he had to accept the job despite the fact that it did not correspond with his values as an artist. As long as Hannah has been involved with Adam, he has had the voice about his art that she does not have about hers because he does not have to accommodate the people in his life (including Hannah) the way Hannah has to accommodate the people in hers. Adam has the room not only to minimize and reject the projects in which he takes part, but he can also boast, like he did to Hannah in "Weirdos Need Girlfriends, Too," when he told her, "I'm really good at acting and writing." When he got his Broadway opportunity last season, he justified alienating himself from Hannah by telling her that when she hits her stride with her art, she will understand what he is going through — meanwhile, that had already happened in "She Did," when Hannah explained to Adam that she wanted to slow down the pace of their relationship because she wanted to focus on her writing. The big wake up call for that was her reading in "Leave Me Alone," in which Adam refused to support her.

So, yes, Adam deserves to stand in the rain and look pitiful! He warns Hannah that he does not want any drama, but it all comes from him!

Cut to Desi, motorboating Marnie's ass. Desi was introduced last season as Adam's version of Marnie: his friend that Hannah finds unpalatable. After a seasons-long fall, the proudest achievement Marnie could claim by last season's finale, "Two Plane Rides," was that Desi, who is in a relationship, "kissed the shit out of" her. He is still doing basically that, but is that still something Marnie is proud of?

Shoshanna's anxiety problems are succinctly explained by the first appearance of her parents, Melanie and Melvin Shapiro, who make Shoshanna's belated graduation from college — without any fanfare or brandishing of her Aunt Eileen's flag — all about their competition over Shoshanna.

This rhymes with the next scene, wherein Jessa climbs up to Beedie's apartment with snacks, speaking affectionately and familiarly to her, only to find Beedie's daughter, Rickie, ready to eviscerate Jessa for assisting her mother in a suicide attempt. Rickie, played by Natasha Lyonne (in no pants!), marks the second occasion in which Jemima Kirke plays opposite an Orange is the New Black cast member — Danielle Brooks was in the first two episodes of last season — and I hope it evolves into a trend (pre-OITNB Selenis Leyva played opposite Lena Dunham in Girls' first season, too). Rickie shames Jessa hard, not only for her cooperation in Beedie's attempted suicide, but also for not having her shit together in a monologue that calls back to the one Katherine Lavoyt delivered to Jessa in "Leave Me Alone." Where Katherine's talk at Jessa was condescending, essentially urging her to get herself ready for a relationship, Rickie doubts Jessa is capable of getting to that point if she is not there already.

When Beedie appears, she agrees that Jessa should go, but when Jessa implores Beedie, "Tell me you love me more than her," Beedie does! This was the first part that made me cry. Jessa has really wanted this kind of concrete affirmation from an adopted family member as long as she has been on the show, and now Beedie's given it to her. This is one of my favorite moments on the show, ever.

So neither Jessa, Shoshanna, or Adam are in great shape to join Hannah in watching Marnie and Desi play a jazz brunch. Desi's girlfriend, Clementine, surfaces to confirm that Marnie is still trying to harvest self-esteem from the trash-scape that is Desi's infidelity. In this, Marnie and Jessa are alike — they both thrive on being chosen over others, even superficially, and being seen as a clearly superior alternative.

Marnie's mother is back. I wish she had never left.

When Hannah points out to Jessa that Jessa skipped their one opportunity to hang out alone before she embarks for Iowa, Jessa floats her sass. Hannah retreats to the bathroom for one of her mirror pep talks, like those in "The Return" and "It's Back." Hannah reminds herself that Jessa being mean to her demonstrates that she is doing the right thing by moving on. Jessa breaks Hannah's ritual of repeating her phrases eight times and insults her OCD while she does it. She calls Hannah a hypocrite for demanding that she come back to New York. Now, it seems like Jessa is referring to coming back after her stint in rehab, but in that instance, Jessa called and asked for Hannah's help coming back. I think she is referring to her arrival in New York from the pilot. When she came to New York then, she was pregnant and without any other means of support, and Hannah's parents had just cut her off financially, Hannah was too overwhelmed to actually help Jessa. I think Jessa thinks Hannah still owes her one for this, and Hannah evacuating for Iowa seems to Jessa like the kind of thing she herself would do to avoid having to repair a mistake.

Elijah, who is a member of the main cast this year, then joins the jazz brunch. Let us consider Girls' use of Elijah: her first appeared in season one's "All Adventurous Women Do" to detonate Hannah's long-held vision of herself as the one he never got over. He appeared next in "Welcome to Bushwick" to occasion a similar revelation in Marnie. His encounter with Hannah during "She Did," at Jessa's wedding, led to his becoming Hannah's roommate for the first third of season two, in "It's About Time," "I Get Ideas" and "Bad Friend." Over the course of he and Hannah cohabiting, Elijah shit talked Hannah with his boyfriend, George, then cheated on George with Marnie, then revealed his tryst with Marnie to Hannah over a cocaine binge that got him booted from the apartment. He did not reenter the titulars' orbit until midway through season three, in "Beach House," when he, Elijah's crush, Pal (played by Danny Strong, or little Danny Siegel from Mad Men), and his friends joined Hannah et al for a party, during which Hannah saw how poorly Pal was treating Elijah.

Elijah was therefore swept back into Hannah's life as a respite from Adam, remote from his ascendant Broadway career, and Marnie, remote from her shame-spiral. He was in almost the entire rest of season three, demonstrating his envy of Adam's career in "Incidentals," power-clashing with Hannah in "Role-Play," accompanying Hannah on a visit to see Patti LuPone (and then being the site of her shame as LuPone anticipated how miserable Hannah and Adam were to become) in "I Saw You" (an even more apt title considering how Elijah witnesses Hannah's shame), and joining everyone to see Adam in Major Barbara in "Two Plane Rides."

In addition to being a flesh and bone bon mot, Elijah is a means for other characters to refresh and reevaluate their approach to themselves and one another. As a character, he does deserve to gain some more narrative autonomy. His involvement with both George and Pal — the latter of which Elijah spies at the jazz brunch — had gradients and revealed aspects of Elijah's character, but he still exists solely in relation to the other characters. That condition was the source of tension and what brought Elijah alive in the first season, but he has since waded into that role, which is really something for a show where most of the characters are driven by or reacting to the expectations of those around them.

I said I cried twice, but the refrain in Marnie's song for Hannah — "goodbye, friend" — did knock the wind out of me. It isn't a good song; I know it's not a good song. But it's the single available glimpse at Marnie's feelings, maudlin and flattened to platitudes though those feelings may be. Her inability to get anymore specific than that is what I find moving: she has treated Hannah so poorly because Hannah refuses to try and emulate her — and signed their friendship's death warrant when Hannah started dating Adam only to hook up with the no-more-desirable Ray later — so she cannot articulate her love for Hannah or her respect for her choices without admitting that she was wrong.

Marnie is in such a bad headspace that a heckling child propels her onto the sidewalk, crying, where Elijah tries sincerely to rally her, advising that "this business is not for sissy bitches." Both Elijah and Marnie have used Hannah to sustain delusions and then blamed her for not seeing through them, and they are fascinating together, particularly when it comes to their shared dream of performing. The fact that they have both actively and passively failed to support Hannah in her dream reveals how vulnerable they are when they talk about theirs. I would love to see more moments with Elijah and Marnie this season.

Meanwhile, last season made me weary of Ray and Shoshanna. One spies the other in a crowded space, one approaches the other, wooden dialogue ensues. Unfortunately, Shosh's encounter with Ray at jazz brunch was no different. Shosh does demonstrate her awareness of how she manipulated herself into wanting him back last year, but I'd rather see that awareness in motion than hear about it. Now, I have complained about exposition on Girls before, and have since come around to understanding how important a character's explanation of something is, since it usually functions to show how skewered a character's perception is about that thing. This still bums me out, because there is no other redeeming facet of Ray and Shoshanna's nearly-identical conversations other than to illustrate the evolution of Ray, which is sufficiently visible elsewhere. Shoshanna is one hundred percent responsible for that evolution, and I think their constant flat encounters really undercut that.

After a night of Adam humping a distracted Hannah very quietly, and Hannah reminding Adam that she is all to aware of how terrible he is on the phone — and communicating in general — since there was a time when she liked him and he ignored her, Marnie arrives. She gets there before Hannah's parents, even, to share coffees and finish packing Hannah's belongings. Marnie helping Hannah compress her suitcase becomes Hannah holding Marnie. I could not keep it together for this.

While she packs Hannah's parents' car, Marnie cries. "Iowa" ends in a reconfiguration of the opening scene of "She Did," where Hannah and Adam helped Marnie move out. Marnie helps Hannah move out, confronting how sad she is to see Hannah go and willing to show it, while Adam pretends to sleep.

Hannah's parents talk about her like she is not there, while she sits in the back seat on her way to Iowa.

Also, I would rather not dwell on it when writing about her work,
but I think Lena Dunham is devastating and I love
the different weird moods of her hair in this episode

Every moment in this episode was used and used well, every moment was loaded and contributed to the story, all the characters' actions corresponded with the where the previous season's latest events left them — "Iowa" was one of my favorite episodes, if not my very favorite episode, outside of season one. I hope it is also hope the next episodes do not erase the momentum of each previous one, which was season three's downfall. So much happened in "Beach House" that was entirely erased by "Incidentals." After being central to "Females Only" and "Truth or Dare," Jessa did not get a line in "She Said OK," which also ended in havoc-wreaking that went nowhere in "Dead Inside." There is some precedent for episodes including catastrophes of no consequence, like Adam's arrest in "I Get Ideas," and that is really disappointing — Girls deserves better than to be the show you watch to see which stories bear out and which vanish.

Friday, January 9, 2015

In anticipation of Girls Season 4, what Season 3 did and undid

Girls season four starts this Sunday, January eleventh, and I am going to write about it again. Before I do that, here is how season three left me:

Let's do this. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO
  1. I watched Girls season three as it aired and wrote about each episode.
  2. It made me so upset!
  3. To clarify: in writing responses to those episodes, I enjoy tangling with Girls' narrative complexity and whatever feelings it provokes in me. The endeavor started as something to keep me writing about a single topic on a fixed schedule, and I had a lot to say in response to Girls' pilot — I thought it was an absorbing piece of writing and it was relevant to my experience, and the intersection of those phenomena was noteworthy. But writing about Girls in this space is something I do for me, because I love to watch the show.
  4. In watching season three, I felt like Girls stopped believing in Hannah. I felt like Marnie's story was underdeveloped. Jessa's appearances were atonal and upsetting. Shoshanna did not do anything.
  5. Over the summer, I wrote a book about Girls' first season (I'm editing it now and looking for a home for the book).
  6. I read every last critical response to the show that I could track down on the internet. I re-watched the first season many, many times over three months.
  7. I gained a new appreciation for and understanding of what kind of narrative groundwork Dunham and her co-writers laid for the characters — some of that was still undermined by seasons two and three, but I came around to seeing the necessity in some moves that initially struck me as regressive.
  8. For instance: I was appalled to learn that, had Christopher Abbott not left Girls, Marnie's season 3 arc would have been all about her erratic behavior and the ultimate dissolution of her relationship with Charlie, with the YouTube video of her "What I Am" cover and the grilled pizza incident presumably happening on screen. But in considering what Marnie's story has been about since Girls started, I see the logic behind that decision (although it still seems for the better, to me, that Abbott's departure forced Marnie to move on). Marnie's story has been about how she — before the events of Girls took place — was the ideal subject for a sitcom about a girl in her twenties: she is classically pretty, she had a job in her field, she had a fat, funny best friend whose misadventures through her own maturity into vivid relief, and the only thing amiss in her life was that her boyfriend, Charlie, loved her too much. In the first season, Marnie's relationship with Charlie ended (more significantly, though, her relationship with Hannah ended), and in the second season, her career fell apart (and although she put her energy into recouping Charlie's interest in her, she was too vulnerable to try to deal with the loss of Hannah). Marnie cannot function if anything is wrong with the way her life looks, and season three saw her reacting to that more extremely, getting obsessed with status in a supremely delusional way (moving from her mother's couch to Manhattan, wearing a diamond bracelet and shaming Ray for assuming it's a haughtier brand than it really is, quitting her job at Ray's Coffee Shop because "fancy people" want to work with her) and pursuing Ray because she knows he is vulnerable, even though she does not like him. Finally, when she makes out with Desi, she is as full of pride about that as Hannah is about getting into Iowa because male affection is the bedrock of Marnie's self-image. It played out in a way that was not really riveting to me, but I think that's because Girls is critical of what Marnie sees as big life events. They are frustratingly boring, but they are also the kind of big life events that depictions of young women in movies and television establish are the big life events to anticipate and desire.
  9. Hannah's mission in Girls is to correct the imbalance between who she wants to be and who she is, and the primary obstacle she faces is prioritizing that over keeping up appearances with her family and friends. In season one, Hannah started off knowing she wanted to be a writer and comfortable in the illusion that she would become one because that's what she wanted, and then found herself having to work for it. But every time Hannah talks about her aspirations, they are strictly literary: despite the fact that her work with JazzHate and GQ seems, superficially, like they are contributing to her goal, they are compromises that I did not originally recognize. By season three, she has done the Marnie thing and decided getting back with Adam was a triumph enough to erase bombing at her book. I am still not convinced Hannah making up the story about her "cousin" — that she ripped off of Caroline's made-up story about Adam — or Hannah's real cousin's accusation that Hannah touched her inappropriately were necessary. I think the writers were prone to punishing Hannah in season 3, and I hope they allow her to genuinely triumph in season 4.
  10. Speaking of inappropriate touching: Lena Dunham has not stated that the exchange between Hannah and her cousin, Rebecca, was based on anything in her own life, but in Not That Kind of Girl, Dunham recounted how she alienated herself with her invasive interest in her sister, Grace, who she did not see as separate from herself until they were much older. The chapter on Grace in Not That Kind of Girl includes the mention that Dunham, when she was seven, investigated Grace's vagina. Dunham cites it as an example of mortifying behavior; Grace maintains that she does not appreciate people saying she was abused when she does not view Dunham's actions as abusive. When I wrote about the season three episode "Flo," in which the exchange between Hannah and Rebecca takes place, Gina Abelkop rightly called me out for calling Hannah a monster for being a sexual child. The issue that I have with the scene is that Rebecca is hurt, is serious about how she feels hurt by Hannah, and once the exchange is over, Rebecca's statement is dismissed. It doesn't relate to any scene that comes after it. It is one thing to make a joke out of childhood behavior that you find embarrassing. It is another to make a joke out of someone saying they were violated without their permission.
  11. Shoshanna is not on screen as much as the other characters. I do appreciate how she entered Girls with so much confidence in her approach to the world and how that buoyed her through her relationship with Ray — for whom she had feelings, but who ultimately did not live up to what she wanted for herself — and how, since Ray's departure, she's blamed her life not going well on their breakup because she is moving on to another phase of life that intimidates her. But her scenes in season three do not illustrate that superbly — even though their purpose makes sense, those scenes are not rendered with any of the vibrancy of the quick strokes that rendered her such a spectacular character to watch in the first season (and for some beautiful moments in the second) and they all add up to the clunky, disappointing plea she offers Ray in "Two Plane Rides" to get back together. It seems like there's nothing behind it, because there was hardly any content to Shoshanna's season three scenes.
  12. I maintain that the scene between Shoshanna and Ray at Hannah's birthday in "She Said OK" is the worst scene in all of Girls. How a scene between Zosia Mamet and Alex Karpovsky could ever be so limp wounds me.
  13. I would have liked to have seen more Jessa in season three — which seems unreasonable, considering how Jessa was all over the place in season three, but in an even more insubstantial way than she was in season two — and in a far, far more insubstantial way than she was in season one. In season one, Jessa went from needing an abortion (that she didn't need, then), getting embroiled in the life of a sad dad, and bounding into marriage with a truly delusional dude. Each one of those experiences primed Jessa's emotional readiness for the next one. She had no lines in "She Said OK," barely existed in "Beach House," and yet had two plot lines with highs and lows crammed into the beginning and end of the season. It did not strike me until the third season how Jessa's mission is to fit herself into families (even when she goes to see her friend Season and gets shut down when she asks to hold Season's baby), with her sexuality being at once the factor that undermines those efforts and the thing she defensively yields. The best and most poignant of these instances is still the Lavoyt family from season one: she was not so much trying to be part of that family as she was fascinated by Jeff, who, as an unemployed dad, could have been caring for his daughters, but instead, his wife was paying Jessa to do it. She was interested in how Jeff didn't fit into his family because Jessa did not feel she fit into her own family, as the season two episode "Video Games" demonstrates. Her friendship with Jeff falls apart when he meekly, humiliatingly propositions her, and she reacts by throwing herself headlong into manipulating horrifying acquaintance Thomas-John into marriage. When that blows up, she goes back to the well of her suffering and sees her dad, who treats her like she is invisible, and when she turns up in rehab, she is ready to wade into an uncomfortable, ambiguous father-daughter masquerade with fellow rehab-shirker Jasper (Richard E. Grant/Withnail). Even though their relationship is not what Jessa wants, she does need to feel like she's a part of someone's family. But when Jasper's actual daughter comes to remove him from Jessa's influence (at Shoshanna's behest!), there is — so disappointingly — no fallout! And the story Jessa is maneuvered into afterwards, being adopted as the artist Beedie's assistant/daughter, is given virtually no consideration. They meet, it is implied they get close enough for Beedie to ask Jessa to help her commit suicide, Beedie attempts suicide under Jessa's watch, and Jessa rescues Beedie when she decides she wants to live. There was nothing on the toll this might have taken on Jessa — I'm really hoping that's something viewers get in season four.
  14. I also appreciate anew how Ray started out in season one as a means by which to demonstrate how Hannah et al can do themselves harm by listening to a guy try to teach them something. He wound up sleeping with Shoshanna in order to teach her how sex should be had, and as of season two, she — by the force of being herself — had taught him a whole new way to approach himself and his problems. I love how, in season three, Marnie goes looking for old Ray, wanting to be taught lessons and treated like a stupid girl, and for a moment, that is reassuring and attractive to Ray, but ultimately Shoshanna has helped him. And, because she is no manic pixie dream girl, Shoshanna suffers a real fallout from the end of her relationship with Ray. I think it was rendered ungracefully, but I like the fact that Shoshanna has great reserves of strength and confidence but also anxiety and insecurity. She can talk herself into bad places.
  15. I did not feel like Adam's sister, Caroline, was effectively integrated into the plot of season three at any moment, but I love the sight of Gaby Hoffman so much and I do love the idea of she and Adam Driver interacting, but I thought their shouting matches overwhelmed the potential for scenes of greater intensity.
  16. I thought Adam's season three business was perfect. He and Hannah started out affectionately resigned to each other but struggling to deal with that new level of intimacy. Because Hannah did not make him get a job, Adam was able to prepare for and secure a Broadway role. The groundwork has been laid regarding Adam's acting ability — and Adam Driver can sell it, anyway — and the way he treats Hannah, assuring her that she will understand when she gets what she really wants while, since season one, he has treated any occasion when Hannah prioritizes her writing as a betrayal. And so, of course, when she announces that she is going to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he is terrible.
  17. I still resent the way "Incidentals" completely undermined the impact of "Beach House."
  18. But more than that, I am looking forward to seeing these characters again, especially for how season four looks like it will mirror season one, putting the characters' "progress" into perspective. Is the critical lens through which Girls' writers see Hannah going to continue to undermine her mission as the protagonist (to write and succeed despite the expectations of Marnie and her parents)? Will Shoshanna have real scenes again? Can Ray's verbal lasers be resuscitated, even if he is using them for reasons besides shaming and harassing women?
  19. For instance: Hannah starts out the season having "a congratulatory dinner with her parents" just like in the pilot (with Adam this time) and Shoshanna ruins a job interview the same way Hannah did in "Vagina Panic." Also, Beedie's daughter comes to displace Jessa from another of the families she has tried to construct. Also, Marnie — who made Hannah's life hell when Hannah chose (or tried to choose) art over a career and a boyfriend (after Hannah got a job and started dating Adam, that still wasn't up to Marnie's standards, and then Marnie praised Tally Schifrin and the way she prioritized writing, and that is what led to her and Hannah breaking up) — is now, her career a bust, angling after a boyfriend by making art.
  20. This is extraordinary: "In the first season, Lena’s hair covered her ears and so I would use a lot of jewelry that had an inside joke built into it or picked up on a theme in the script or was a funny."