Before mercury, my blood used to fill thermometers.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Girls Season 6, Episode 1: "All I Ever Wanted" - It's a boundaryless hinterland of sexuality and emotion.

Considering I had to stay up until 3 a.m. recently in order to find the time to dye my hair, I'm not saying I deserve any accolades for maintaining this commitment—I have dawdled on a draft about BinderCon since November (since when writing about any good fortune felt morbidly absurd). But still:

Girls, Season Six, Episode Fifty-Three, "All I Ever Wanted"

The show Girls is all about what Hannah wants and, superficially, the premiere of the final season seems like she gets it. Hannah gets published in the New York Times, gets a job offered to her for her shtick, and meets an idiosyncratically tender, dashing guy on assignment. Girls has shown the audience over and over since 2012, though, that that's not what Hannah wants, but because Girls lives in the same universe as its critics, it appears to the people around Hannah and to the audience that she is forever squandering and dodging the steps to, according to the other characters, adulthood, and to the audience, narrative momentum. At crucial dramatic moments throughout the show, Hannah went back to Adam, she quit her job at GQ, she quit Iowa, she broke up with Fran, she quit teaching—because those breaks were, in the first place, illusory. Hannah's relationship with Adam was casual until Marnie encouraged her to feel insecure about it and make him commit to her, then judged Hannah for how strange he was and how strangely he treated her. Her jobs were all things she has performed begrudgingly, since she makes the distinction in the pilot between working and dedicating herself to her writing. In passing, GQ and Iowa seem like working as a writer, but Hannah pursues both for positive feedback from others and some confirmation that she is doing something right. Hannah does not trust her voice at all and the people around her tell her what to do and how to feel about her decisions, either because they feel free to because they're assholes, because that's part of who they are and can't help it, or because they think this is an appropriate way to express their investment in Hannah's life. Hannah's mistake is that she listens, but she listens less and less, and that is the real arc of her character, not "having it all" in the form of a relationship, a career, and money. The inciting incident in Girls was Hannah declaring what she wants and everyone shutting her down. The rest of Girls has been Hannah going "what would you rather I do instead?"—and no on except Marnie actually cares, but they all feel free to tell her, mostly in order to project their own anxieties, furies, and desires onto her. One of the reasons Ray's arc is so compelling is that he has pulled back from this: he started out thinking of Hannah as someone who needed to be taught a lesson, and his purpose was to teach her, and his experiences have since awakened him to the fact that he has enough to learn himself, and Hannah has to discover things the same way he has to. That's one of the reasons Hannah goes so berserk when Ray stops judging her. It doesn't look compassionate, it looks as cruel as it feels, like he has abandoned his investment in her. So Hannah went right for an act Ray would sharply and woundingly tell her she was terrible at.

That's what makes the opening montage so poignant and harsh: all the people in Hannah's life read her Modern Love column. They are absorbed, they smile, they react to it. Since Marnie sees Hannah as an extension of herself, Marnie celebrates it as if it's a victory for her. Jessa won't read it, since it's an adaptation of Hannah's Moth monologue about losing Jessa to Adam. Adam reads it and shakes. This is what Hannah said she wanted to do in the pilot, and everyone told her to worry about her relationship/career/money. They have been irritated, angry, and disappointed with her for the past half a decade, and here they are finally happy with her, impressed by her, respecting her, unnerved by her capability (Shosh, though! "That's unladylike"—Shoshanna lives to police the adequacy of other women because she thinks it is a good, strength-giving thing to be as good as possible at being a woman, and Hannah is on the exact opposite side of that spectrum of feeling). It came as a result of the one thing Hannah did not quit crumbling in her hands: one of her friendships. Her friendships come off to the audience like the things she needs to quit, but Hannah's priorities are friendship, writing, and wearing what she wants. It's not more or less self-flagellating than being committed to relationships, career, and money. But it's enough that even the writers have had a hard time staying on Hannah's side throughout the run of the show, so ingrained is the impulse to punish someone like Hannah, who has privilege and access to what women are supposed to want.

"All I Ever Wanted" sees Hannah get something she wants—she's done right by herself, written and submitted something for a prestige publication, done something the achievement of which no one can deny. But one of the things that has kept Hannah spinning is that she does things for other people. However halfhearted and dismissive their judgments of her, she strikes back by absurdly, exaggeratedly trying to meet their standards, showing off how ill-equipped she is to do so, focusing on any entertainment factor the spectacle might have—and while they don't care, they don't change their behavior and leave her to make her own decisions, either. That's happened so many times, it's how Hannah's programmed. It's also prevented her from evaluating and carefully considering what it is she wants, because she's so busy reacting to what other people want her to want. When Girls started, Hannah wanted to write. Does she still want that?

The only thing "All I Ever Wanted" really addresses, with regards to that question, is that she still does not want a job, although with genuine support she might begrudgingly do the job she now has. If her tryst with Paul-Louis, the surf instructor, informs her of anything—in the end she is still enjoying his company, despite the revelation that he has a girlfriend to whom he is committed to going back to when they are in proximity to one another—it is that she wants the kind of consideration and support he provides. Taking that back to Brooklyn with her is a better move than staying in Montauk because it seemed to her like that's what he was suggesting he wanted her to do. But after she suggests this, Paul-Louis is quick to assert that he only wants Hannah to do what she wants to do, and the fact that this comes with affection, unencumbered by expectation, is something Hannah may have only learned that she wants because of the events of the past few years. What the story winds up doing for Hannah is objectively better than what it does as a story. It hits a lot of the same beats that "Queen for Two Days" did last season, with Hannah surrounded by older women who can afford to pay a lot of money to prioritize their desires by ceding determination as to what those desires are to corporate destinations that convince them that declaring their desires is also work and also what they need a break from. It does mine Hannah's defense mechanisms more clinically than that episode, which was a tiny bit more of a romp (by Girls's standards), exploring how Hannah's only means of resisting these kinds of activities, where she can't assert what she wants, is to flake out, quit, and exercise her agency by trying to get aid for a perceived violation against her body. It seems dramatic and babyish and, duh, calls attention to her body, all of which provokes people into writing her off, which is exactly what she wants. She wants to not be on people's radars. She wants to do what she wants to do. This mechanism is like an infantile shriek, demonstrating how basely bananas it is that so much is done to relieve people of their agency. It doesn't merit a rational response. But when Hannah does this by faking an injury to get out of activities at an expensive surf camp, it comes off as stone-cold petulance, because that's the joke—of all the things one may have to do in life, no one has to be at surf camp. But Hannah's lack of agency stalks her everywhere, and the laid-back atmosphere of the beach throws into relief how, even when no one is actually making her do anything, Hannah has internalized this powerlessness. Other critics have observed that when Hannah leaves Paul-Louis to get a draft of her article together and cry, she is demonstrating how her ambitions as a personal essayist puts pressure on her to create tension between herself and what's in front of her, for her to act in opposition against whatever she's doing, but I perceive it as less of a self-conscious quality. One of the things that move Hannah as an essayist, as far as I can perceive it, is that she does not react to everything like she is supposed to. What others find fulfilling, she doesn't. What others dismiss, she can work with. This is demonstrated a lot on the show, but so is Hannah's consciousness of what makes the kind of essays she wants to write and the value of accruing experience. In this case, though, she does not want to incongruously insert her isolated, indoors-dwelling, physical-activity-hating self into surf camp. She wants to cry in her room alone, in a "Sundays-in-high-school way," because she is not having the same experience as everyone else, not just wanting what others want, unable to feel like her agency is being compromised, feeling wrong.

Hannah has the space to gain some clarity about herself in this episode because she largely spends it alone or with Paul-Louis, who makes himself into a vehicle for Hannah to learn a lesson instead of a new set of expectations to which she must be accountable. Everybody else is back in New York. Adam and Jessa are settled into the kind of relationship he and Hannah enjoyed in the first season, with shades of "Weirdos Need Girlfriends, Too" in their mostly-nude sharing of yogurt in the middle of the afternoon. There is no place for Ray in the apartment he had taken over from Adam in season three. He can't stay with Marnie in her Manhattan studio because, unbeknownst to him, Marnie has no intention of wrapping things up with Desi. Marnie can't turn off any potential spigot of love. The way Hannah scraps things, Marnie clings to them, appearing equally stalled out. Christopher Abbott, who played Charlie, seemed to have left the show when it became clear Marnie and Charlie would never leave each other's orbit (ergo Charlie would never seem to grow as a character), and that didn't make narrative sense. But Marnie never leaves an opportunity to feel loved on the table, and it worked out that Abbott's return as Charlie last season gave Marnie a glimpse at the possibility that maybe chasing the loves of these men didn't give leave her with the life she wants. But Marnie doesn't think anything is wrong with herself, and no one in her life but Hannah is there to urge her to consider she isn't doing right by herself. Because she won't let Ray all the way in, he goes back to Shoshanna's, where she was embarrassed to realized he'd moved in without granting her the process of initiating that level of their commitment back when they were dating. In this case, she makes space for him, and they get along with the affability and deference of two people who have helped each other and learned a great deal from each other. As a viewer, I don't need them to get together, and I hope this bodes well for them recognizing each other as the excellent, supportive friends they are. They respect and see the best in each other and they are very similar. Shoshanna raised Ray's standards for his own behavior and taught him to draw strength and satisfaction from improving yourself, and Ray, if nothing else, validated Shosh's feelings and opinions and intelligence. She did much more for him, and that vitally course-corrected Ray's dedication to lashing out, shaming, and finger-wagging lessons aggressively at Hannah and Marnie. That Marnie still wants Ray to do that—shame her, correct her, judge her—is something I do hope the show acknowledges on its way to a resolution for that pair.

I don't reserve hope for anything else, I'm just preparing for the end.

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