The 'Girls' Gut Check: But What Does Peeing by the Railroad Tracks *Mean*?

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Five Atlantic staffers sound off on whether the portrayals of their generation's quirks in the seventh episode of Season Two of Lena Dunham's HBO show ring true.

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HBO

Girls went on another off-site adventure this week, this time to visit Jessa's dad upstate in Manitou. Jessa, convinced that a scrambled text message from her mostly absent dad is a sign that it's time for them to reconnect, dragged Hannah northward, where their country vacation included some tense family dynamics, an uncomfortably fresh lunch, and the backwoods equivalent of a wild night out, complete with very fast blind driving on a rural highway. Then the holiday abruptly ended in Jessa's disappearance with only a note left behind.

Below, a panel of millennials from the Atlantic staff—Lindsay Abrams (editorial fellow for the Health channel), Eleanor Barkhorn (editor of the Sexes channel), James Hamblin (editor of the Health channel), Chris Heller (social media editor), and Ashley Fetters (editorial fellow for the Entertainment and Sexes channels)—discuss dirty hippies, urinary tract infections, and friends as buffers among squabbling families.


"We're not like other people," says Jessa's dad. But don't the flaky, charming, dirty-hippie Johanssons fit into a stereotype themselves? How surprised were you by Jessa's background as revealed in this episode?

JAMES: When Jessa's dad leaves her and Hannah at the store—that sort of person, who's repeatedly broken promises and lost her trust, is who I'd expect as her parent. Yo-yo parenting, in that they get really close, then really far.

ASHLEY: I really can't justify why, but I half-expected Jessa's parents to be rich and WASPy and frigid.

ELEANOR: YES! I thought they would be rich, too. It could have something to do with how Jessa talks. (Yes, I'm an American who assumes everyone with a British accent is fabulously posh and wealthy). But I think it's more about her sense of entitlement and invincibility—she reeks of rich girl.

LINDSAY: It seems like the real problems are between Jessa and her mom. She brings it up here when asking her dad why he didn't stand by her through all of that, and she's alluded to it before. So why didn't we meet her, instead?

CHRIS: Probably because Ben Mendelsohn looks bad in drag.


"You're the cushion!" We've all tagged along on friends' visits to their families and helped defuse some of the tension. Did Hannah's interactions with this bunch of strangers ring true?

LINDSAY: I've been on both sides of this, and for the most part I've found that bringing a rando along is the best way to force families to make nice. Maybe Hannah and Jessa are just too close for the cushion strategy to work—I'd never act the way Jessa did toward her dad in front of a friend, but I've also never taken a bath with my friends. At least, not recently.

ASHLEY: Ha. Yes. The half-amused, half-terrified "K, not sure what to do right now"-ness in Hannah's chat with Jessa's stepmom felt all too plausible, and the city-country awkwardness at the lunch table when Hannah gets all angsty about eating the bunny after playing with it definitely rang true. My parents both come from farming families, but raised my brother and me in the suburbs—so the cuddly-pet-becomes-entree horror really happened to me at a family gathering when I was a kid. I would like to remember having handled it politely and discreetly, but I probably did what Hannah did.

ELEANOR: The cushion concept is somewhat puzzling to me, as I imagine if my family were as difficult as Jessa's I wouldn't want outsiders to see it ... but I clearly have a lower threshold for being embarrassed than Jessa does. Hannah's behavior made sense on some level (it IS totally annoying when people are late to pick you up from the train station; I, too, would feel uncomfortable eating a rabbit I'd nuzzled a few hours prior), but she was just so strikingly rude to complain. Another reminder of how, as James put it a few episodes ago, every character on this show is a giant walking id.

CHRIS: I love that description. Having a cushion is a great, if only because it adds an ironic wrinkle to family spats. When somebody else is watching, that argument about politics suddenly seems as silly as it probably is. (Being the cushion can be fun, too, with the right family.) Neither Hannah or Jessa is well-suited to do these things.


Another field trip: How'd we think this episode compared to other changes of scenery for Girls—like when Hannah returned home or had a sex weekend with Patrick Wilson? Do we want to see more episodes like this?

CHRIS: I'm not foolish enough to think that Girls has an identity crisis, but I think it's rapidly approaching the point where it needs to decide what it wants to be. Should it continue to thrive on chaos? Should it take a turn toward the introspective? Does the comedy inherent in its basic premise—young people in New York figuring out how to be adults—still apply?

At the risk of repeating myself from a few weeks back, Girls needs to address the same issues that Louie did between its first and second seasons. That show is funny, but I wouldn't call it a funny show anymore. The sooner that Girls decides what it wants to be, the sooner we can forget about the episodes that didn't work—like this one.

LINDSAY: I agree. It made me laugh a few times, but I don't usually walk away from the show feeling so terrible—this episode in particular put a really bad taste in my mouth. As for the scene change, it mostly seemed like an excuse to introduce some oddball characters that could be played for guffaws, but their world never seemed real enough to justify a whole episode spent away from Brooklyn and the rest of the characters. The other, just-Hannah episodes felt like a different show, but in a good, innovative way that allowed her character room to breathe. This just felt like a lot was missing.

"I don't usually walk away from the show feeling so terrible. This episode put a really bad taste in my mouth."

ELEANOR: I LOVE that Girls lets us see the characters' families. Sex and the City made a big point of never showing us any of the girls' parents, which I found odd and unsatisfying. If you care about a character, you want to see where they came from. And if that means setting a whole episode in Manitou, NY or Lansing, MI, so be it. I agree that this particular episode wasn't as well executed as it could be, but I appreciate it nonetheless for the hint it gave us of Jessa's origin story.

ASHLEY: I, too, am pretty pleased that we're finally seeing more of what makes Jessa the way she is. Up until these last few episodes, Jessa's been one of the less fully developed characters on the show—and for me, she's always failed what Willa Paskin at Salon so excellently calls "the Julie Taylor test," in which a viewer tries to imagine a character's inner thoughts.

I agree that the idea was better than the execution, but this episode at least intended to go to a place where Jessa felt things, where we got to see her feelings and her better judgment duking it out. Apparently that place is Manitou, New York, and I'd say even if getting there took the show on a weird detour, the side trip was worth it for that.


Feeling the burn: Uh, what was going on with that UTI plot line? Is Lena just trying to gross us out anew or what?

ELEANOR: I didn't find this plotline particularly gross. Urinary tract infections are incredibly, incredibly common among women. I know this to be true anecdotally (women talk, especially when they're in pain). But it's also true statistically: According to NIH, a woman's chances of getting at least one UTI in her lifetime are more than 50 percent. So it would be weird if one of the Girls characters DIDN'T have a UTI at some point.

ASHLEY: Yeah. Hannah's urinary tract infection scenes were unsettling, and yes, a little bit gross. But they did pay apt tribute to how gross and unsettling urinary tract infections actually are. Props to yet another bluntly honest portrayal of real people's bodies on TV, I guess!

CHRIS: Wasn't it an obnoxious portrayal, too? Hannah's phone call with her parents at the end of the episode seems to acknowledge this, but it still left me thinking of it as a punchline searching for a joke. It's good to be honest about people's bodies. It's one of the many things I enjoy about Girls. I'm just not so sure of the intent here.

JAMES: Exactly, which is what made me think it might tie into something in an upcoming episode. Until then we can continue to consider what Hannah's "UTI" means.

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