Every week for the fourth season of HBO's comedy-drama Girls, Megan Garber, David Sims, and Joe Reid will discuss the joys, travails, and screw-ups of Iowa student Hannah and those she left behind in New York.
Megan: "Female Author" finds Hannah making the shaky transition from Iowa-as-novelty to Iowa-as-way-of-life, and she doesn't seem to love the change. She keeps missing Adam (and trying to act like she doesn't). She refers to her new home, with only the slightest hint of irony, as a "one-horse town." (Oh! And she does this after Iowasplaining to Jessa that it’s “actually kind of offensive” to confuse the state’s Mennonites with the Amish.) She also has a pretty severe case of writer's block—or, as she tells Jessa, she’s in a “pre-writing phase.” Which, since the whole point of her being in Iowa is to write stuff, and also since Hannah is Hannah, becomes a matter of existential anxiety. Hannah isn't using “her gift,” she complains to Elijah. And when so much of your sense of yourself spins around the axis of professional aspiration … what happens when your talent begins to elude you? What happens when the “voice of a generation” can’t find her voice?
That’s a rich area to explore, but the episode doesn’t do its exploration with much nuance or dexterity. Instead, we get a lot of exaggeration and caricature—not just with Hannah and her “gift,” but with the other characters, too. At one point Adam asks Jessa, "You think I can throw out Hannah's refrigerator magnets?" Jessa replies, "This whole thing is why I hate relationships between white people." Oh, and at another point Elijah—at the "poets' party," which yeah—explains his decision to take portraits rather than selfies: "I thought, 'What would happen if I turned the camera around?’” he explains. “It’s been a real epiphany for me.” I know the line is poking fun at him and selfie culture and all that, but still: Oooof.
To me, the most compelling element of the episode was its treatment of the friendship between Jessa and Adam—and, especially, the inversion of traditional gender roles it represented. Jessa relieves herself in the street—something made scandalous, if not illegal, only because she’s female—and passing cops happen to catch her in the act. She's given a ticket—then, when she tears up said ticket on feminist principle, is arrested. Adam threatens to end the friendship because, specifically, he’s sick of Jessa’s immaturity and selfishness. This whole series of scenes would be standard fare were the pair’s genders reversed; as it was, though, it felt fresh. And it offered a nice insight into how Jessa and Adam, as characters, are growing—together, and apart from each other.
It also made a nice contrast to Marnie’s aggressively gender-stereotyped relationship with Desi (could anything be more cliché than the mistress who’s fruitlessly hoping for more?). “It was fucking strange, man,” Desi tells Marnie of her behavior at a business meeting she came close to ruining. “Don’t call me ‘man’!” she replies. To which he responds, giving her what she asked for and more: “Bella, what is going on with you?” Oh, and then there’s Shosh, who, after an extreme display of newfound BFFery with a female exec at Ann Taylor LOFT, embraces the male stereotypes of confidence and bluntness. (This was, she brazenly tells the woman who has just offered her a job, simply a practice interview.) Shosh could work on her low EQ, but she doesn’t care: She wants what she wants. And what she wants, she makes clear, is very much not to help design LOFT’s new “cardigan story.”
Anyway. Am I being too hard on the episode? Not hard enough? What do you guys think?
Joe: I'll start with Shosh since the quicker I can get her out of my mind, the better. My real, honest question about her is: Was she always this way? I know at the start of the series her entire character description was "the one who likes Sex and the City," an in-joke avatar of intra-network branding. But I have to wonder if there was ever a solid plan for making Shoshanna a real character. As it stands, Shosh exists in two modes: 1) as absurdist relief from anything that might feel too rooted in the real world, and 2) as a writers' crutch whenever any emotional truths need to be verbalized bluntly. The problem is, Hannah's on the spectrum enough that Shosh's bluntness feels redundant, so all we're left to hold onto is scenes like the one at the Ann Taylor LOFT corporate HQ, where a robot dressed like Parker Posey from The House of Yes handles a job interview in a way that zero human beings ever would.
That's my Shosh rant for the week. Time to speak positively! Sort of. Adam Driver and Jemima Kirke are so far and away the best actors on this show, so pairing Adam and Jessa for any length of time would feel like a gift in any episode, much less one that foists this much Shoshanna on us. It's fun to watch as Adam and Jessa, these two complete bundles of pure chaos, seem to calm one another. Or at least are able to be more honest with each other than with other characters. When Jessa admitted that she needs Adam's friendship at the end of the episode, it was a genuinely affecting moment. Getting there, however, via this particular plot ... ? "Too soon" is kind of a jokey phrase, but I'm not sure how else to describe my feelings watching Jessa and Adam, the picture of Greenpoint white bohemian privilege, get "harassed" by the cops. I know the show isn't asking us to pity them, and Ray shows up to bail them out and upbraids their selfishness in what seems far closer to the voice of the show. But even if the point is to make fun of that kind of privilege, I still circle back to "too soon." It was too hard to find the situation charming or funny when my mind kept getting pulled out of the show.
I'll be brief about Hannah before I kick off to David, but I wanted to talk about that roundtable of insults that our main character delivered to her workshop group. I'm not going to lie and say that watching Hannah dig herself deeper and deeper doesn't hold a perverse kind of charm. And I'm glad the show resisted the temptation to turn Hannah's truth-telling barrage into a moment that brought her closer to the group. But man did that scene just highlight what a collection of one-dimensional types the show has surrounded Hannah with in Iowa. Girls gets in trouble when it starts to mistake memes for characters, and that scene completely embodied why I'm not loving the Iowa stuff thus far.
David: Well put, Joe. The problem with that scene, though it was enjoyably written, was that it felt without real consequence, because these aren't real characters. There's no way this would've ever happened, but it might have been a fun experiment for Girls to really toss its old problems in the garbage and set season four almost entirely in Iowa. That way, the ensemble of the writer's workshop might have the chance to be characters with some depth. Instead, they're like an array of Dunham's online critics, only rarely existing to make salient points. Hannah's over-the-top takedown was really just about Hannah, and it seemed to mark some conclusion in her Iowa journey that hasn't at all been earned. She's only been there for two episodes, and she's already burning every possible bridge? This is part of a larger gripe I've always had with Girls—it has no idea how to structure its plot arcs and often races too quickly into payoffs that could've been devastating, if they'd had some time to percolate.
My bigger-picture problem is that Hannah's Iowa arc has way too much to do with Adam. Now, Adam might be my favorite character on Girls, but I'm still routinely infuriated by how much the show seems to revolve around his inscrutable moods and incredible power over Hannah. If this whole Iowa plot ends up hinging on Hannah's inability to let him go, it's going to feel like an even bigger waste of time. The season has done an okay job of quietly referencing Hannah's anxiety over her disconnection from Adam, and quietly building up some mystery as to what he's exactly doing (I liked his cryptic conversations with Jessa this week). But you increasingly get the sense that this is actually the dominant motivation for Hannah's struggles. As it was in the last season. And, basically, the seasons before that.
Staying on the Adam train for a minute, I liked Driver's work alongside Jemima Kirke in this episode, but the whole fracas with the cops just rang false to me and escalated bizarrely. Why would Adam throw himself at a cop just because his friend is being arrested? For all his silliness, he's at heart a sensible person, and the whole scene felt engineered so he could rant at Jessa later. Of course there's also the optics of a subplot about two annoying white people mixing it up with the NYPD to no consequence (the poor timing of which is not the show's fault, but still). Regarding the resolution and Adam calling Jessa out on her behavior—why do Adam and Ray so often serve as the ultimate truth-tellers on this show? And why is Adam repeatedly invested with so much authority when he's just as much of a screwup as anyone else?
Regarding Shosh, I think the problem there is definitely that she was a less-defined character at the start, and so much of her early story arcs revolved around her virginity and general life inexperience. Now, the show is just repeating some first-season plotlines with an extra soupçon of Shosh silliness, and her arc feels warmed-over. Her big scene would've been my least favorite part of my least favorite episode of the season so far if not for Marnie's interminable drama with the worthless Desi, but at least we may be turning a corner on that one if she sticks to her guns.