Before mercury, my blood used to fill thermometers.

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.

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