Before mercury, my blood used to fill thermometers.

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."

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