Girls: Hannah Goes to Iowa (Finally)

Three Atlantic staffers discuss "Triggering," the second episode of the HBO show's fourth season.


David Sims: We talked a little last week about Lena Dunham's propensity to self-satirize on Girls, often to the detriment of actual entertainment. It makes sense that Hannah's first week in Iowa would make for an episode filled with intense reflection and deprecation on Dunham's part—but that certainly came at the cost of any narrative momentum. "Triggering" mostly felt like a mood-setting episode for Hannah's fish-out-of-water experience in Iowa: she rents a gigantic house for $800 a month, finds her fellow Writer's Workshop students are unimpressed with her "personal essay" approach to fiction writing, and has fun at a frat party with Elijah, who's tired of New York and decides to become her new roommate.

Adding Elijah to the mix is a smart idea, because otherwise Iowa would quickly begin to feel too soul-crushing. The title of the episode comes from the ridiculously self-inflated warning Hannah gives before reading her work aloud, inviting her classmates to quietly leave the room if they find her writing too emotionally devastating to handle. Instead, they mostly call her derivative—it'd be funnier if it didn't feel like Dunham was filling the scene with her real-life critics. Should we give her a pass just for demonstrating self-awareness? Probably the funniest, and most brutal example was Hannah insisting that one fellow student was impacted by her story because she must be a survivor of abuse. Her idiotic bluntness in the scene is apparent, but still, no one's really calling Hannah on her faults, just laughing and eye-rolling.

Pretty much the whole episode is Hannah in Iowa getting into various mishaps: her bike gets stolen because she's told not to lock it, she loses her cellphone, and she silently pines for Adam, while insisting she's already let him go. One scene that really worked for me was Hannah's collect call to her parents, where she reels off a string of increasingly surreal fake friends she's made ("Nagasaki, Cher…") and asks if it's normal for her to be contemplating suicide (her parents are too busy with their Scrabble game to really notice, which felt to me like winking commentary on Hannah's propensity for dramatics). The episode worked best just as an exploration of the weird childish world grownups enter when they go back to grad school; the specifics, I'll admit, mostly had me yawning.

Joe Reid: I agree with you, David, this did feel like an episode that was more structurally important to the season than an end in and of itself. But it was certainly an improvement on last week's misfire. I watched this episode a second time before sitting down to write this review, and I was all ready to talk about how great it was that we got an episode with just Hannah and Elijah and none of the other girls. I'd forgotten about the token Marnie FaceTime scene, as well as the scene where Jessa and Shosh don't pick up Hannah's collect call. Needless to say, they didn't make an impression.

One of the things I often find a little puzzling about the show is that Hannah is easily the best character among the four leads, even if she's objectively not very likable. She's maddening, but she feels real, and her motivations and storylines have an internal consistency to them. Which, sadly, places her a few giant steps ahead of the unrealistic, neglected, dumped-upon women who comprise the show's central quartet. As awful as Hannah generally is, a half-hour of her and Elijah blazing a path through Iowa suited me just fine.

Elijah is such an invigorating presence on this show. I don't even end up playing the "Is he Good for the Gays?" game when he's on, mostly because the behavior of any of this show's characters obviates any kind of respectability questions. Andrew Rannells is really funny, and Elijah brings out Hannah's extroverted awfulness, which is always a nice change of pace from her introverted awfulness.

Two other notable things about this episode: Saturday Night Live cast-off Brooks Wheelan was very funny as the bookstore clerk who gave Hannah a hard time about her mangled credit card. Also, for as much crap as I give Hannah about being a monster, she reacted to having a bat in the house in approximately the same way I would've.

Megan Garber: I agree with both of you guys: I ended up being really meh on this episode. On the one hand: Stuff happened! But also: The stuff was kind of boring! The pivotal scene, the actual workshop part of the Writers’ Workshop, was almost painful to watch. (No, actually: it was definitely painful.) Hannah’s extremely earnest trigger warnings about her extremely earnest writing. The sourness and smugness of her fellow students. Those students’ discussions of Hannah’s privilege and, according to one of them, her “lack of sympathy towards the male perspective.” Hannah’s initial refusal to go for drinks with her fellow students (the excuse: She wanted to “metabolize” their notes). Her decision to react to all the criticism—to make her presence felt, even when she wasn’t allowed to speak—by crunching loudly on potato chips. Oooof.

I did like that scene, though, as a nice—if, again, horribly, squirmingly awkward—crystallization of the debates we’re having right now in the culture at large: questions of identity, of who gets to speak for whom, of the definitions and limitations of privilege, of the extent to which “trigger warnings” are valid in the first place. There can be a kind of nihilism to those discussions, sometimes, and the workshop’s version of it, with all its terse references to feminism and sexism and so many other -isms that are merely implied, captured that perfectly. In all its (horribly, squirmingly) awkward glory.