'Girls': What You Do With What You've Got

Lena Dunham and company are far too skilled to simply deliver something that lands right on the nose, as nuanced as an after-school special. Right? Somewhere between parody and reality there is Girls.

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As I remember season one of Girls, I (along with some others) started the show out with a feeling of pretty strong dislike. Mostly, it just made me uncomfortable. There were funny one-liners, yes, and the writing was better than a lot of other stuff on TV — it's HBO, after all — but was this a show and were these characters with whom I really wanted to share even brief amounts of my too-short Sunday? It turned out, though, that it got better. By mid-season (the party at which Shoshanna accidentally smokes crack in Bushwick, especially), I was hooked. And even the finale, which some people hated, I thought was kind of great. I did want to know what happened to these flawed, often unlikable characters. I cared!

Fast-forward to season two and all of our hopes, dreams, and expectations for those characters and their lives and also the growth of a show. The season premiere felt a lot like the end of season one: Different, but the same, with a slowly continuing arc of some sort, even as we see new relationships simply swapped out all too easily for old ones. (People as replaceable, I think, is a key theme in the lives of a lot of young twentysomethings living in big cities, especially New York, so this makes sense for Dunham to point out). But also, this show is a comedy. It's an HBO series, and it's not a documentary. As much as it should touch on real things relevant to twentysomethings much like the characters depicted within, those characters are not real. And Lena Dunham and company are far too skilled to simply deliver something that lands right on the nose, as nuanced as an after-school special. Right?

Last night's episode began with Elijah and George breaking up following Elijah's "three-pump" sex with Marnie. Elijah tells George, "I've always said I might be bi," and George retorts, "This just says so much about who you are right now. I just don't want to be with someone who's confused." The age thing, it turns out, is a problem, but only so much as Elijah doesn't really know what he wants. They break up; Elijah does his best to avoid telling Hannah that it has to do with Marnie, and though the dirt doesn't get spilled this episode, odds are high it's going to come out during the course of the season.

The Adam and Hannah "relationship" continues, Adam writing her a song and performing it shirtless, sending it to her via YouTube (later the site gets a name-check as the place to find out where to cut your bangs). He looks like he might be an ax murderer, creepy tools in the background of his apartment, and delivers lyrics to match: "You destroyed my heart. Thanks." Turning this into farce is Hannah's conversation about it with Elijah, as she lies in a zip-up sleeping bag-jumpsuit. Is Adam a "murderer in a sexy way," or a "murderer in a murder" way? Elijah thinks Adam won't kill her, to which Hannah responds, "You're saying you don't think he loved me enough to murder me." Maybe the next boyfriend will; a girl can dream! But it turns out that Sandy, the promising new love interent played by Donald Glover, is a Republican, and Elijah does not approve. Hannah says, "I've always marched to the beat of my own drummer, ever since I cut my camp shirt into a halter top." Later, we see Hannah and Sandy brushing their teeth together adorably in the bathroom and talking about his Republican leanings; we also learn she's done what should only be done with great caution: Given her new boyfriend one of her essays to read. He has not read it yet. This moment is not the last of that.

Marnie, meanwhile, interviews for an art job with a clearly horrible potential boss played by Laurie Simmons, Dunham's mom, who adds her hand to the spiraling downfall of Marnie-as-she-knew-herself by saying "I'm not sure I see you in the art world." "Where do you see me?" asks Marnie. "I don't know," Simmons retorts, demanding her fifth juice of the day from an assistant, who she also lectures pedantically on the art of tea-making.

The "happy couples" in the episode are Ray and Shoshanna, who are home in her bed when Marnie returns from that soul-destroying meeting. They're talking euphorically about bathing a pig, and Ray says, "I'd love to experience that emotion with you." Marnie, understandably, says, "I don't want to be around people who don't hate everything in their life right now," but of course, New York apartments being what they are, she can't really get away from them. They instruct her to get a job making the most of her looks, which, they clarify, aren't model-pretty, but are pretty enough that she could get a "pretty person job" and make enough money to have "fresh gel nails all the time." 

Elsewhere in Manhattan, Jessa is painting a horrible picture of her horrible husband, Thomas-John. The two are bantering about love — he's in his "paradise with his little paradise wife" — when Hannah shows up. They show off their matching tiger tattoos and it's all so very paradise, except a paradise that belies its own name. (Hint: When Hannah arrives, Thomas-John delivers the ultimate backhanded compliment, looking her up and down: "I'm always so impressed with what you do with what you got.") There is trouble in paradise you want to yell. Run. But Jessa is adamant about believing what she's decided to believe right now, and so tells Hannah, out in the perfect park, with the basket of perfect puppies that paradise Thomas-John has left his paradise wife as a gift, that everything is perfect and that Hannah overthinks things (more backhanded compliments). In one of the most insightful statements of the episode, Hannah tells Jessa of Sandy, "when we have sex, there's no part of me that I want to pretend doesn't exist." That could pass as a kind of growth. But when she adds that Sandy still hasn't read her essay, Jessa says that's crap: "If he’s not reading your essays, he’s not reading you."

And so, in the scene that's probably been brewing a long time (who could forget last season's criticisms of the show for its lack of racial diversity and "ironic racism"?), Dunham confronts Sandy, ostensibly about how he hasn't read her essay. But he has read it; he just didn't like it. “It wasn’t for me,” he says, attempting diplomacy. "But it was really well written." His problem is akin to commentary Dunham's gotten about her very own show: Nothing happens. It's all Hannah's little world, an echo-chamber of narcissism unto itself. "It's not for me." She says, "I’m so happy, if you just loved it, like everyone else does, it wouldn’t do anything. This opens up a dialogue." Touché!

The dialogue, like the gates of hell, swings open and it all comes out: She confronts him about his Republicanism and says some questionable stuff about black men in prison; he tells her she's fetishizing him because he's black; she tells him he's fetishizing her because she's white; she quotes a Missy Elliott lyric and then denies knowing who Missy Elliot is; she says, "I don't live in a world with divisions like that [i.e., race]"; he asks her to leave; she asks if he still wants to have sex; he says no. This is a crazy, awkward, whiplash-inducing scene, but the thing is, Hannah's not faking it — she legitimately doesn't know who the hell she is, or what she thinks, and so she's spewing pieces of what she's heard throughout her fairly unexamined life, and what she thinks she should believe. Whether Sandy knows who he is or not doesn't matter — he says his views are more complicated than Hannah wants to make them, but we never get at exactly what they are, because Hannah doesn't really ask. They break up. Though Hannah is clueless, Dunham, I think, does know what she's doing: She's opening the dialogue, showing her awareness through Hannah's ignorance, and indicting herself, too, as she indicts others.

The rest of the episode involves a tense conversation between Elijah and Marnie (Marnie wants to tell Hannah they had sex); a tense conversation between Marnie and Hannah (Hannah semi-euphemistically criticizes Marnie for her new job as a hostess at the fancy old-dude-enticing Wedgebrook Club); and a very tense conversation between Adam and Hannah, because Adam simply shows up at her place after texting "I'm downstairs," lets himself in with the key she gave him (never give anyone a key), and demands milk. Ax murderer concerns from earlier in the episode surface, and Hannah calls 911 and hangs up while at the refrigerator. She then musters the nerve to confront Adam, shoves him and repeatedly says, "Go away," and he's about to, when she calls him back, and then suddenly the cops are there responding to her 911 hangup. They take Adam away (after more tense, albeit hilarious, conversation) in cuffs because he has two parking tickets and a summons for public urination. "I just wanted him to stop texting me," says Hannah, on the floor of her stairwell, watching them leave. You can see her thinking, How did everything go so wrong? and maybe, like the viewer, What the hell just happened?

It's funny, it's sad, it's weird, it's awful, it's funny. You can watch this show like it's satire; you can watch it as if it's a devastating, damning statement about "today's youth"; you can watch it for dating advice (not advised); you can watch it for schadenfreude, to remember who you used to be and be thankful you're not that person anymore, you don't think. You can watch it because, as evidenced in last night's episode in particular, Dunham and her team are very funny writers, and watching TV is really about being entertained, and part of entertainment, sometimes, is letting it make you feel things, good or bad. You can watch it because you're writing a research paper comparing it to Sex and the City for your liberal arts school. You can watch it because you want to hate it. You can do any combination of those things.

It can be confusing to watch a show that doesn't tell you outright how you're supposed to feel about it, and faced with all those options, it can be hard to know how to watch Girls — and how to feel about it when you do — because its characters don't know what they want, either, through the half-false/half-real layers of themselves. The Girls characters have not reached the day in which they really know who they are, but if they had, the show would not be called Girls. 

The show's winners: puppies, the writers, Adam Driver (whose acting is impeccable), Laurie Simmons, HBO, and Lena Dunham.

The show's losers: Everyone else. For now.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.