THIS WAS AN APT WEEK for Girls to air an episode about counting! (It was also the eighth episode of the season, of course.) The revelation of Hannah’s obsessive compulsive disorder, which has not, as far as I can recall, been mentioned or foreshadowed in any previous episodes [I stand corrected; see comments below], nonetheless felt completely in character. Various moments from earlier in the series — Hannah’s continual revision of her tweet in “All Adventurous Women Do,” her anxious approach to garbage disposal in “One Man’s Trash” — present themselves rather differently in this context. Above all, her complex relationship with her parents (which Phil and Lili discussed so eloquently last week) feels even richer now: from the very first episode Dunham has been daring us to think of Hannah as “spoiled,” which she may well be, but the enabling, overprotective attitude that her parents (and her father in particular) take toward her helps us to understand how this codependence has come about. (“I hate it when you look so concerned about me,” she tells her dad in the episode’s final scene.)
It also helps us understand her as a writer. We talked a lot during season one about the representation of Hannah’s creativity, and Jane made the following remark:
Hannah doesn’t strike me as such a writer. There seems to be less waiting, or hand-wringing, between her acts and their recording. Instead, Hannah’s a note taker. She takes notes. In real time. For her book. Dunham, as well, comes off as a bit too ahead of the game … Her life is happening and she’s going to put it out there as it does.
The “no filter” sensibility that Dunham has exemplified in her life and art might be a way of dealing with the terrors of composition that an artist with a disease like Hannah’s faces. How do you even sit down to make a piece of art after you’ve experienced something as horrible as what Hannah describes to her new therapist (played by Bob Balaban) at the end of this episode? (That scene with Balaban, by the way, is one of Dunham’s best acting moments so far.) Well, maybe you don’t sit down: maybe you cultivate a mode in which you “put it out there” and let your viewers, critics, Twitter followers, and internet recappers sort it out. This is not to say that Dunham’s work is sloppy or messy or ill-considered, but that a major part of it seems to involve giving up control over herself: precisely what OCD prohibits. (That Dunham ceded control of this watershed episode to another director — Jesse Peretz — and two co-writers — Steve Rubinshteyn and Deborah Schoenman — seems significant, too, in this context.)
Another plot in “It’s Back” also deals with issues of control and delegation. Charlie has, in the words of Ray, “basically become a bourgie nightmare” by dint of selling his “Forbid” app, which outsources self-control to a computer program. “People are really responding to software that protects them from themselves,” Charlie tells Marnie when she visits his startup office, “or other people.” (The app is, of course, inspired by their relationship.) We’ve talked about Marnie’s attraction to venture capitalists before, so it’s not surprising that this development drives her crazy, especially when their conversation is interrupted by the office next door “doing a lipdub thing for their YouTube channel.” (The song, fittingly enough given Marnie’s obvious jealousy of Charlie’s many attractive female employees, is Gucci Mane’s “All My Bitches Love Me.”) I liked this scene, but was less convinced by the encounter between Marnie and Ray at the end of the episode.
Finally, Adam, like Hannah, is also confronting an old disease: his alcoholism. Slate’s Alyssa Rosenberg has written recently about her ambivalence toward Adam, who seems to be equally “creep” and “good man in training”; the major innovation of this episode is showing us that he himself has some self-consciousness about this. He also understands more about what went wrong with Hannah than we might have guessed; his narration of the development of their relationship at the AA meeting gives us the clearest idea yet of why that relationship failed. “I wanted that chance to show someone everything,” he admits, which reminded me of a resonant line from Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?: “He’s just another man who wants to teach me something.” Hannah wanted Adam to be a learning experience, not a teacher. It’s interesting, though, to begin to consider Adam outside the framework of his clearly dysfunctional relationship with Hannah, and this episode was much more effective than “Boys,” the season’s previous attempt at rounding out his character.
I’m not the first to say this, but Adam Driver is a pretty incredible actor. He has some of the same qualities as John C. Reilly: an odd mix of macho intensity, nice-guy sensitivity, and clownishness. Back in the WordPress era, Phil observed that Michael Penn’s musical score can’t help evoking the early work of Paul Thomas Anderson, and I felt that particularly strongly in this episode, which begins with a wearily familiar electric piano and Mellotron shuffle. In particular, the story of Adam’s date with Natalia put me in mind of the extended courtship sequence between Reilly and Melora Walters in Magnolia. (By the way, that scene between Driver and Carol Kane was just about perfect — “That’s a very respectable height.” “I’m enjoying it, yeah” — somebody put these two actors together in a buddy comedy!)
All in all, this episode felt closer to season one than most of what we’ve seen thus far; a return to form, perhaps? But “form,” as the Hannah plot shows, has always been an open question for Girls.
Seriously, like, the fabric of life is just —
SEASON TWO OF GIRLS has been sprawling — and with this season about to end, the show can’t but incite comparisons between its first season and second. Season one focused on the fact of storytelling (Hannah’s and the show’s) and generated a narrative that felt timed, propulsive, and finally satisfying; this season has done something of the inverse. The "flip it and reverse it" so famously touted by Hannah at Sandy has become a sort of argumentative, and storytelling, tactic in general for this season. Don’t like what you see? Hannah has an alternative — she’ll give you what you want (a black boyfriend) and more (he is also a Republican!). Season two has overturned the plot-arcs of season one: where romances were once cultivated and rewarded (Adam and Hannah) or gradually dismantled (Marnie and Charlie), they are now quirks or flings, like bits of a joke ("sexit," anyone?), no longer the heart of the story. Without relationships to tie our characters together — to get them to invest in their own stories — what’s Girls on the level of narrative?
The loss of romantic bonds is only one way to explain why Girls has become so erratic in its storytelling this season, which has been more experimental than its first — and so, one would suppose, more interesting, though perhaps less easy to watch at times. Plotlines have short-circuited, timelines have jumped with alarming irregularity, and characters seem to be inhabiting their own orbits that when any two cross (such Ray and Adam in “Boys”), they come off as odd — strange theatrical set-pieces that we’re not certain how to read. These bits never last long (one character usually exits, or sexits, midway) and they rarely continue, making them seem all the more lacking. Eat the cupcake, then quickly hide the trash. Are these storylines making you thirsty? This is still okay, especially if you approach Girls as television that is a little more bizarre or difficult to contend with, but nonetheless I can’t ignore the simple fact that, this season, I’ve had to readjust my expectations episode to episode.
The characters on Girls have grown apart since season one — Marnie and Hannah’s relationship, or really Hannah’s relationship to everyone, being the most prominent example of this – but the show hasn’t yet found a way to contend with such drifting except to keep characters circling around one another through narrative devices such as the awkward dinner party, or simply the awkward party itself. Of course any television show can’t cycle through characters each time a relationship runs its course, but this week especially highlighted what happens on a show when the original cast of friends increasingly become strangers.
Evan’s comparison of “It’s Back” to Magnolia was apt not only for the clumsily endearing dates, but because this episode too was stuffed with separate plotlines. (The influx of guest stars — Bob Balaban, Carol Kane, Judy Collins, Shiri Appleby — emphasized this.) In addition to the buzzing plots were the dubious timelines (How did Charlie build his start-up in under three weeks? Oh, Hannah’s parents have arrived!). Top it off with character traits that, while hinted at before, hit us with sudden panic that we might wonder if we’re half-dreaming the episode ourselves. While I thought Hannah’s OCD added to this episode — especially to give us that dialogue with Balaban, and the harrowing subway ride home with her parents — others found it understandably jarring. All this newness and potential too-muchness is okay too, if we feel that this kind of experimentalism is going somewhere, and while I have no answers to that, I enjoyed the episode because it seemed to emphasize what the show had been doing formally throughout this season. Relations come and go, relationships start and stop, and at least “It’s Back” was celebrating this in a zany, almost slapstick, manner. Was this episode embracing the crazy excess of having many, many plots that don’t go anywhere? I suggested so much in a Twitter conversation and Judy Berman responded with two comments that struck me as crucial to understanding how we watch television and Girls in particular:
So far, Girls can almost do whatever it wants — give us a surreal and steamy bottle episode, sure! — without much scrutiny from viewers as to where it’s all heading (it’s a bottle episode for goodness sake). But this is because viewers have placed a lot of faith in the authorial intent of the show. We trust that it knows where it’s heading, that it has an end — this is a kind of credit that will make a show’s looser, sloppier moments go a long way. The moment one loses faith in the fact of a show’s intention (and what show has had its creator’s intention interrogated to such lengths as Girls?) the more we have to face what exactly it is, or isn’t, doing. What do we see? Is “It’s Back” a return to form, as Evan suggests, or is it simply a testament to its formlessness? If this is serial television, though, how much can we stand stand-alone episodes?
Well, it’s genetic, which is sort of the ultimate your fault,