Reminder: Adam in Girls Is a Sleaze

Our roundtable discusses "Role Play," the 10th episode of the HBO show's third season.


This week's panelists: Spencer Kornhaber, Ashley Fetters, and James Hamblin

Kornhaber: “You have an old idea of who I am.”

That’s Adam in the final moments of tonight’s Girls’ episode, telling off Hannah for a roleplaying ploy predicated on the notion that—Adam’s words, again—he’s “some angry fucking sociopath who wants to meet older women and intimidate them into having sex.”

Hannah’s shocked: “I was just doing sex the way you want to.” Adam then shocks her again, revealing he’s planning on moving out from their apartment for a while to focus on his career.

That scene shocked me as a viewer, too. But in a good way. One popular knock on Girls is that it’s a show about characters who are fundamentally hopeless—in every single episode, they prove yet again that they’re terrible, narcissistic, immature people with no chance of growth. Looking back at the season that’s almost finished, though, we can see that Girls really does want to explore the question of whether people can change—and in Adam's case, has done it in smart, subtle ways.

Adam “old idea” comment shows that he clearly believes he has changed. But really listen to what he tells Hannah. It’s not that he’s no longer into unusual, demeaning sex, per se—it’s just that at one point, it was a way to cope with his alcoholism. Falling in love means he doesn’t need that kind of thing anymore. So it’s not that he’s been cured of his kink; it’s that his life situation has shifted.

Similarly, when it comes to career he tries to have it both ways: saying he has changed, but also that he hasn’t. “It feels amazing to finally care about something”—finally, a.k.a. for the first time. But he also says he always cared. I hear that as meaning he always wanted to care about something.

A few weeks ago, Chris wrote that Girls’ “real message about adulthood” was that “a single revelation cannot generate maturity.” That’s absolutely right—as portrayed on this show, developing as person is a start-stop, forward-then-backward process. But it’s a process towards what? Perhaps not towards becoming someone different, but becoming, accepting, and embracing the person you always were deep down—whatever that means.

Marnie still isn’t sure who she is. But she, to her credit, is trying to figure it out. Of course, that means debasing herself by hanging out with ever-more-ridiculous people who, if nothing else, project strong, concrete identities: Ray, profound man of books; Desi, profound man of guitars; Soojin, successful woman of galleries and electronic music and froyo.

Jessa, though, has spent all season—really, all show—trying to ignore the question of what she’s going to do with her life. Jasper provides a distraction; the way she disparages him the second he leaves the room shows he’s nothing more than that. But at dinner Jessa learns about, and Jasper’s reminded of, the person beneath his druggy affect: hound trainer, muffin buyer, etc. “Fuuuck,” Jessa sighs, and you can tell that we might at last be at a turning point for her. Rehab in the season premiere was a joke. But when Shoshanna tells Jessa she looks like a junkie, and she replies “I am a junkie,” that feels serious.

As for Hannah: She generally seems pretty self-aware these days, even if she’s puking on herself at bars with coworkers. What she has misjudged, though, is Adam. “He’s one of the best people I’ve ever known,” she says during her bedroom Chipotle chowdown with Elijah. Two episodes ago, when she told Adam she wants the best for him because she loves him, Adam replied “ditto.” But again and again in this episode, Adam placed his own concerns over Hannah’s—asking questions about his costume instead of the night she spent with Joe, pretending like he hadn’t really invited her to rehearsal, and, eventually, using Hannah’s well-intentioned (if bizarre and momentarily dangerous) seduction plan as a chance to tell her that her career and feelings are less important than his. Whether he’s changed or whether he’s always been that way, in that moment, Adam’s unmistakably a bad guy.

Or am I being too harsh on him? With Adam moving out, will he and Hannah continue to grow apart from each other—or have they, in fact, not been growing at all? And should we start shipping for Joe and Hannah to happen?

Fetters: I’ve been an Adam skeptic for a long time. An Adam hater, even. For example: After he reunited with Hannah in last season’s finale, I wrote, “Adam and Hannah are a happy ending in the schadenfreude-y way—the way you feel happy when two awful people who are awful enough to deserve each other finally get together and start ruining each other's lives rather than everyone else's.”

So maybe if anyone’s guilty of having been too harsh on Adam, it’s me. Because this season, I’ve found myself rooting for him more than I ever have before; weird as he still is, Adam started to behave like someone who had a sister he cared about, a girlfriend he cared about, and a job he cared about, all of which are huge developments from the last two seasons. Sometimes I think back to the moment when I arguably hated Adam the most—the disturbing scene in “On All Fours” with Natalia—and it’s startling every time to realize this is the same character.

In this episode, though, I did start to see some old Adam resurface. As you mentioned, Spencer, the lack of concern over Hannah’s drunken whereabouts the night before smelled like first-season Adam. And his bizarre alternation between voraciously appreciating and totally disapproving of Hannah’s role-play idea did send some characteristically unfair mixed signals. (Though, let’s be honest, any message other than an emphatic “Take off that wig, I want you just the way you are” would have probably invited confusion of some sort.)

But his decision to move out didn’t strike me as “Ugh, typical selfish Adam.” It actually struck me as somewhat understandable.

Yes, certainly Adam’s abrupt way of telling Hannah he needed to move out for a while should have been handled better. The best possible version of Adam would have been honest with her while he was in the process of making that decision, rather than after he’d already made it and made arrangements to live elsewhere. And yes, the way he told her did suggest he’d put his needs ahead of hers.

But the show would never give us the best possible version of any of its characters. And in fairness, what it did give us was a peek at why he might feel like he can’t live with her and be in Major Barbara at the same time.

Right at the beginning of the episode, Adam’s on the couch trying to memorize lines, when suddenly Hannah’s trying to distract him with her freshly showered naked body. They both end up frustrated. Hannah’s frustrated by her boyfriend’s rejection of her, while Adam’s frustrated that he rejected his girlfriend and that he’s not getting work done. I get the sense that the show is about to touch on another very grown-up dilemma, this one being the tension between professional commitment and personal commitment: Adam is still the most important thing in Hannah’s life, whereas Hannah is no longer the most important thing in Adam’s.

Jim, what’s your read on this? What’s eating Adam Sackler? Is this the end for him and Hannah—and would that be a good thing, if it were?

Hamblin: Eleanor isn’t here right now, but when she and I talked about the end of this episode, she was certain that it meant Hannah and Adam were breaking up. Not like they’re bound to, but like Adam’s temporary move out is just a very thin veil, and we’re to understand as viewers that Hannah and Adam are done.

I didn’t get that. What I did get is that Hannah is not the most important thing in Adam’s life. But I guess unlike you, Ashley, I never thought she was. Adam is so the most important thing in his life. He just leans on Hannah as if she were when it’s convenient.

Hannah did a thoughtful, selfless thing in setting up this weird night for Adam, and he was ignorant and unappreciative and hostile. Maybe this is a good opportunity to say again that Adam is just a real sleazy dude. He sometimes endears himself to us as viewers when he does things like bang on the car radio to make it turn off even though everyone else is enjoying the song, which is funny, or when he tells Elijah how he hates the idea of the Broadway scene Elijah clearly adores, or when he’s just never pleasant unless he needs to be. If a guy did that in real life, I don’t see why people would ever choose to be around him. Do they, even, in this case? Has anyone besides Hannah ever chosen to be around Adam, or is it just one of those conveniences of TV that you can put the grouchy weirdo, who would actually never leave his apartment, in lots of scenes?

I think we’re to expect from Hannah and Adam a relationship of fits and starts. Not just because it makes for good TV, or maybe just because it makes for good TV, but it’s true to the idea Spencer’s talking about. These characters can change somewhat. They can get jobs and sort of mature in a traditional outward sense, but they aren’t going to change fundamentally. They’re still going to be intensely self-oriented and see the world always only through their own eyes, just looking toward slightly different things. It’s not necessarily a cynical view of things. When I was little I thought all adults had this innate sense of decency and self-possession that I’d somehow grow into, but now I feel like they really don’t. We’re all kids in bigger bodies who now like spicy food and dress up and go to work. We’ve got a particularly abhorrent group of characters here, but they’re telling this universal story about the intractability of humans’ natures. Or whatever, it’s a comedy.