The Girls Gut Check: 'Just Because It's Fake Doesn't Mean I Don't Feel It'

Four Atlantic staffers sound off on the fourth episode of the third season of Lena Dunham's HBO show.


This week, death happened upon Girls. Hannah's editor, David Pressler-Goings, died mysteriously, and his body was later found in a river. David's death prompted a range of responses: Hannah wondered what this meant for her ebook, Adam was appalled at her insensitivity, and Jessa and Shoshanna had a conversation of their own about their experiences with loss—which led to Jessa's discovery that a friend of hers who had tragically died a few years before hadn't really died at all.

Below, The Atlantic's team of millennial Girls-watchers—Education editor Eleanor Barkhorn, Health editor James Hamblin, social media editor Chris Heller, and Entertainment editor Ashley Fetters—responds to questions raised by the show's depictions of grief, online media, and the flighty nature of maturity.

Progress, or not so much? We’ve talked before about how Hannah’s shown more maturity than usual this season. Still a valid assessment after this episode?

ASHLEY: Sadly, no, I don't think so anymore. It takes maturity to recognize when you are not the most important person in a situation; that's one thing that separates adults from toddlers. And it temporarily looked as though Hannah had learned a few grown-up lessons about how to think of other people besides herself. But then suddenly she was spouting bullshit about how the worst part about David's death was that nobody told had her what was next for her ebook now that its editor had died. Yikes.

JIM: I’m not sure this is about maturity. Empathy can be learned or lost to some degree, but were we expecting Hannah to grow out of self-absorption between her mid-twenties and mid-thirties? I think that’s just her. The show is turning so dark; taking these characters who started off as paragons of cosmopolitan hipness and showing them for empty vessels unraveling under the same detachment that initially endeared them to us as cool. The message is becoming that it’s actually cool to be empathetic and feel things and not be Hannah or Jessa.

Hannah is the same self-absorbed character in this episode and season as she was before. This was just an episode where other people called it out. Every character being to some degree above average in the realm of self-absorption is a trope of this show; one for which I think it was criticized initially but has since owned. Or maybe it was owning it all along, I don’t know.

CHRIS: That’s a great reading of the show, Jim. The contradiction between how these characters think they act and the reality of their actions dominates almost every episode. I think there’s more to Girls than that message, though—we shouldn’t ignore the writers’ affection that peeks out, suggesting Hannah and company are more than cautionary allegories.

I’m not so sure this is just about empathy. “Dead Inside” pulls a bait-and-switch with Hannah. In the first three episodes, she inched toward professional success, a healthy relationship with Adam, and personal stability. For a person who nearly deafened herself last season—or anyone else, for that matter—that was progress. Now, much like the OCD reveal that led to the Q-Tip incident, we’ve discovered a bleaker corner of Hannah’s psyche. Did any of you suspect that she lacks empathy? Or that her self-absorption is so powerful, she cannot grieve a death? I didn’t, which is a big reason why I hated this episode. It wasn’t a surprise. It was an invention.

ELEANOR: I think you guys are being unfair to Hannah! Not everyone grieves the same way. I didn’t view her actions through the mature/immature lens. To me, they just felt real. No matter how old or stable or with-it you are, death is shocking. This is especially true with professional acquaintances. One of the most affecting articles I read last year was “What Happens When One of Your Co-Workers Dies,” in the Billfold. It gets at the fact that we take our colleagues for granted. We expect them to be there every day. And when one day one of them is gone, it’s deeply unsettling. There are millions of ways to respond, and almost none of them is the “right” way.

“I lost a friend today.” Have we ever known someone who dealt with a death in this performative way Hannah does, or in the ways her friends do? Is it grieving, what Hannah does?

ELEANOR: Oh, man, Hannah. I was with her for most of the episode. I’m also someone who takes a while to process emotions. When something terrible happens, I also tend to focus on the logistical consequences (“wait, what’s going to happen to my book?”) right away rather than the emotional ones (“wow, someone I cared about is gone forever”). I thought Ray and Adam were unfair to criticize her for not feeling everything right away.

And when, in the final scene, she finally does start to express her sadness to Adam, I felt a certain validation. Yes, some people need a few days before they get upset, and that’s okay! When she launched into the fake cousin Margaret story, I was a bit disappointed. I was sorry to see her being so transparently manipulative. Still, I do think Hannah was grieving, in her own way.

JIM: I agree and know how it can take a while to process. Focusing on the logistical consequences can be a way to cope. It might seem outwardly cold, but it can also be productive. Another point is that as gaudy as it felt for Hannah to be talking about her book, the tension that Ray and Adam overlook is that book was her livelihood. That’s how she was going to make rent and buy food and live. Losing that isn’t a wholly superficial concern. Her focus there may be a way she shows maturity, actually—within that exaggeratedly self-absorbed frame that is her character.

CHRIS: It’s a false maturity, though, isn’t it? The opening scene says a lot about how Hannah fits into the world. The men and women in the publishing office, who also just lost their livelihoods, literally sprint around in a weepy panic. (Quite an exaggeration, I’ll admit.) Meanwhile, Hannah worries about her physical safety, then her financial safety. That’s what an adult is supposed to do, and yet, her reaction felt entirely innapropriate given the circumstances. Focusing on the logical aftermath of a death is a way to grieve; it’s not wrong to worry about yourself. Doing it without recognition or respect of others, however, is immature and potentially hurtful.

I went to a small high school in suburban New Jersey, with somewhere around four dozen students in each grade. When a friend died during my sophomore year, I remember wondering why some didn’t appear to grieve. They went to class and did their work as if the community hadn’t lost a bright, inspiring person. I didn’t realize until many years later that I was wrong. They grieved, too. They just did it by anchoring themselves to routine, saving any moments of reflection for their private lives.

So yes, I guess I know people who react to death in a rote, detached way. I don’t think this is anything close to how Hannah reacted, though. (Or how Jessa and Shoshanna did, either.) I’m not even sure I’d call what they do grieving. Hannah avoids or ignores any opportunity to process her feelings—and when it looks like she’s finally ready, she lies. Think about how she focuses on herself when she imagines Adam’s death. She can’t even grieve hypothetically!

ASHLEY: I think this is another “walking id” moment—as Jim put it last season, all the characters on this show are mouthpieces for their rawest uncensored sentiments. It’s not surprising or wrong that Hannah doesn’t feel anything but concern for her own situation in the wake of David’s death, because, as we’ve said, that’s sometimes a natural way to process a tragedy. And it's not surprising that she says so.

But it's worth putting out there that it's not her lack of empathy that’s so painful for me as a viewer. Rather, it’s that Hannah chooses to milk this sad event for her own benefit. She humblebrags about what a shock it was for her and her friends in the “literary community.” Ray looks concerned at the news and asks if she needs to go home, and she replies breezily that she doesn’t really need to because she’s not sad, but yes, she would like to go home, sure.

Of course, tastelessly making everything about herself is the general Hannah Horvath MO. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t thoroughly bummed out to see it unfold anyway.

The Gawker argument: Hannah says Jezebel is an important space for feminists to support one another and that there’s value in comment boards. Adam says sites like Jezebel and Gawker are run by “jealous people who make a living appealing to our basest desire to see each other kicked while we’re down” and that reading them “makes you one of the bad guys.” Who’s right? Is this a dumb argument between characters prone to arguing, or a commentary from the writers’ room?

JIM: I heard this as some thinly veiled rant, of indeterminate sincerity, mainly because it felt forcibly wedged into the narrative. It felt outside of the characters’ voices. Unless it was foreshadowing something, it was weirdly extraneous. Because, if it was commentary, why talk about Gawker as a New York gossip rag? It hasn’t been that for years. Why not call out TMZ or Perez Hilton or someplace that’s doing the paparazzo “kicking people while they’re down” thing? What point was this trying to make?

CHRIS: I agree. I don’t know why this scene happened and I don’t understand what we were supposed to glean from it. On Twitter, Lena Dunham wrote that Hannah’s opinion is “DEFINITELY sarcasm,” so I interpreted it as a facetious parody of the whole argument. Nobody is right and everything is terrible. Welcome to the Internet.

ELEANOR: One thing this exchange may foreshadow is a coming rift between Adam and Hannah regarding their professional goals. Hannah wants to be part of a world that reads Gawker and Jezebel and doesn’t feel especially bad about it; Adam thinks he’s above all that. I can see eventually Adam becoming fed up with Hannah’s desire for literary fame and success; or Hannah getting tired of Adam’s sanctimony. (I, for one, am already tired of Adam’s sanctimony.)

ASHLEY: That’s a great point, Eleanor. What this scene did do well was expose a very fundamental difference in ambition between Adam and Hannah. What she wants in life is to be part of something that Adam categorically looks down on. That seems… unsustainable. But I predict it’s Adam who’ll reach his limit first.

Casual cruelties: This was arguably the cringe-iest episode of the season thus far, finding most of its characters at their most mercilessly self-involved and awful. Did we like it?

ELEANOR: I can’t stop thinking about the Jessa/Season plotline. We’ve witnessed Jessa’s chronic cruelty and selfishness throughout Girls’ run. But this episode shows just how long she’s been a destructive force in people’s lives. A friend from high school faked her own death to get Jessa out of her life. That’s bonkers! But discovering this doesn’t cause Jessa to reflect or repent. After reuniting with Season and meeting her baby and nice-seeming husband, Jessa lashes out, “None of this is going to work out for you.” That gets my nomination for meanest thing anyone has said on the show so far. Cruel, spiteful, unnecessary. It’ll be interesting to see how the Jessa character develops over the rest of the season—if this is a rock-bottom period followed by some changes, or if she is going to stay this way for a while.

ASHLEY: Has anyone else heard that Taylor Swift song where she accuses an ex-boyfriend of being “so casually cruel in the name of being honest”? Weird that it’s Taylor who’s helping me sort out my feelings about Girls, but that reminds me of Jessa: We’re starting to see that under the guise of the Brutally, Hilariously Honest Friend is someone who may just be a jerk.

Overall, I didn’t like this episode. I don’t think it was the execution; I don’t mind that they tried something (introducing “death” as a concept-episode theme) and whether it worked is questionable. I think what I disliked was the content. I disliked watching Hannah’s extreme self-involvement alienate her from other people; I disliked watching Jessa dish out her casual cruelties like “None of this is going to work out for you”; I disliked watching Shoshanna talk about her friend’s death being a good thing because their friend group “was always meant to be a fivesome.” If there was a larger, more poignant point to be taken from all these, I missed it—so for me, it wasn't the most rewarding TV-watching experience.

CHRIS: I’ll go further, Ashley. I hated this episode for what it revealed about the characters *and* how the writers revealed those flaws. I like Girls when it tries adventurous concepts—"One Man's Trash" is one of the show’s best episodes—but “Dead Inside” missed the mark. An ambitious episode like this one should achieve more than hard honesty about its characters. By forcing reactions to David’s death, we learned that Hannah, Jessa, and Shosh are selfish and conceited. Did we learn anything about how the show’s creators feel about death, or loss, or grief? I don’t think I did.

JIM: We’re descending into allegory. Or ascending. Everyone is terrible. Except for one man. I speak of course, of Laird.

CHRIS: Just because he’s not real doesn’t mean we can’t love him.