|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Girls: "Video Games" by Lili Loofbourow, Phillip Maciak and Dear Television
February 26th, 2013
This week on Dear Television:
Last Week on Dear Television:
THE THING THAT'S ATTRACTIVE about Girls, the thing that I think so often allows us to be moved by even subpar episodes and engaged by a series that is so often disinterested in engaging us, is that the show is always sitting on the knife’s edge between pettiness and profundity. Whole episodes can go by — “One Man’s Trash” for instance — in which every moment is suffused with a kind of Mumblecore Malick transcendence before that particular magic hour is shattered by a shamelessly tone-deaf confession of need. Or, conversely, we can have an entire week devoted to a series of escalating tempers and diminishing stakes that is punctuated by a few stunning moments of naked honesty, as was the case with “It’s a Shame About Ray.” We often find ourselves, as spectators of this show, fumbling around in a desert of pettiness and short-sightedness and willful manipulation and sniping and Mean-Girlishness, but we know that occasionally things will get so petty and low that we’ll hit something profound and true. Sometimes a total lack of perspective can generate something like insight.
We can’t, of course, trust Hannah or Jessa or Marnie or Shoshanna — four of the least self-aware characters ever created — to seize upon those insights or even to not immediately ruin them, but we can trust the show to produce them for us now and again. I mention all of this because “Video Games” was an episode that really seemed invested in embarking upon a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride-style journey to map out the full spectrum between petty and profound, flaky and prophetic, the scatological and the eschatological.
The first thing about this episode that allowed us to access and have the opportunity to analyze the show’s wild vacillations between self-importance and actual importance is the extended time we get with Jessa. One lesson we’ve learned this season is that all of our heroines are living in somewhat fictional worlds. They have constructed existences for themselves as if in daydreams, adapting to changes in their actual environments — employment, unemployment, break-ups, etc. — with acts of imagination. Tensions are revealed when part of the fictional construct — Marnie’s relationship with Booth Jonathan, for instance — is exposed to its referent in real life. Echoing Lili’s theory from a couple of weeks ago, watching Girls is like reading an exact transcript of an event alongside a creative nonfiction essay about the same event on facing pages. The exercise becomes most interesting and instructive when the accounts don’t match up.
Jessa is perhaps the show’s greatest fabulator, if only because of the ambition and recklessness she shows in following through on her fabulations. The ladies all live in dream-worlds of different varieties, but Jessa really leans into hers in ways that could potentially damage her life, and the marriage to Thomas John was only the most extreme example of this practice. After her lecture last season from the serene, sorely missed Kathryn Hahn, Jessa misinterpreted the advice. Rather than attempt to realize herself as more than a collection of affectations and wacky experiences, she decided to rearrange the furniture in her apartment and simply adopt a more nominally adult set of affectations.
That hasn’t worked out, and, sorting through the wreckage this week, we see Jessa half-heartedly cycling through half-formed fictions about herself, mistaking accident for intention, crumminess for concern. Her father’s butt-text was a cry for connection. The most noble thing a woman can do is help a boy become a man. Her marriage failed because of a specialness she shares with her father — to say “we’re not like other people” as a defense and exaltation of emotional failure. But it’s this last self-deception that actually leads to something like a confession. At the beginning of the episode, Jessa is committed to valorizing and mythologizing what Hannah was able to see as a clearly unhealthy, emotionally damaging relationship with her father. She was united with him through their shared difference — as highlighted by Aimee Mann’s annotative lyrics — and so her father’s hurtfulness became a kind of communion between the two of them. But as Jessa drifts to sleep, she tells Hannah, “Don’t talk about our parents like they’re the same kind of parents.” What Jessa had characteristically identified as a kind of exceptional quality uniting her and her father against the world is actually, she comes to realize, a rather mundane quality that not only separates him from the world but also from her.
I’m not embarking upon this reading in order to offer a half-baked psychoanalysis of Jessa. Instead, I’m trying to isolate the kind of fugue-like pattern of deception and revelation that has been the prevailing structure of the show this season. Matt Zoller Seitz lightly suggested that “One Man’s Trash” might have theoretically been a dream. I don’t necessarily agree with that reading, but I certainly agree with the dynamic Seitz is addressing with it. From Booth Jonathan’s television box to his wine cellar to Joshua’s brownstone to Staten Island to the graveyard in Manitou, this season has been an odyssey through interstitial spaces in which the fictions these characters have erected for themselves have been brought to crisis. The point is not that Jessa has a bad relationship with her dad, it’s that there is a point at which even the most elaborately imagined stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our worlds don’t hold together anymore.
Hannah’s revelation on the train platform is a relatable one: the sudden rush of gratitude for good parents in the face of truly bad parents. At the end of this episode, Hannah calls her folks to tell them that she loves them, and in the context of Hannah’s almost shocking failure of empathy with regard to both Jessa and Frank this episode, it is a somewhat redemptive phone call in spirit. It is, for once, a shining instance of perspective for this character. And she delivers a typically Dunhamanian monologue — adapted from the one she gives to Frank in the cemetery — that feels and sounds and reads as actually true and actually somehow perceptive:
It’s a love letter, it’s an honest assessment of her own emotions, and it’s really quite a nice thing to say to your mom, all told. It’s also perched at that knife’s edge I made reference to earlier. She’s calling out of gratitude, but she’s also calling out of guilt, out of loneliness. All of the things that make up her neediness and selfishness in other parts of this show are boiled down to their most elemental, understandable levels. And by accessing that need for connection and that sense of disproportionate love and recognizing the enabling sense of safety that gives her, Hannah, for the first time on this show, advances something like a notion of her place in the universe. The same earth by the same god. These are the rudiments of a Dunhamanian theology — the hammock doubles as parental good faith and divine plan, not shielding her from danger but catching her whenever she falls. She moves past Petula’s third-rate Baudrillard explanation of existence that had panicked her earlier and finds solace in the real. Hannah recognizes that she owes her existence to something else. She recognizes, not that Life is an illusion in general, but that so much of hers is. And that’s more than we’ve ever gotten from her on that.
But, as is often the case, that small window of enlightenment passes. Hannah comes to a revelation but either can’t articulate it or misapprehends which part of what she’s saying is the actual revelation. She squats down to painfully pee and continues the monologue: “You’re in my heart forever, until I’m dead and maybe even after I’m dead I don’t know when I’m just floating in space and I’m so alone and nobody I love is even around.” Her words begin to sound disingenuous — petulant, or, like Petula — and what was a subtle acknowledgment of humility becomes a vulgar, crackpot theory of the afterlife. What was a moment of human recognition becomes an existential overshare, and the moment turns. (This is not the only scene in Girls this season that has attempted to do with words what Parker Posey does with her face at the end of Louie’s “Daddy’s Girlfriend.” Deflation.) This season is so much about how hard it is to sustain the fictions we write about ourselves, but it’s also about how hard it is to recognize and hold on to the truths we discover. Just because somebody is ill-equipped for something to happen to them doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen. Just because a revelation occurs doesn’t mean anyone will know it did. And just because you think you’re peeing alone beside a train track doesn’t mean you are. Alone.
This was never supposed to be a sexcapade,
I FEEL LIKE MY MIND’S been colonized by Jane’s account of the similarities between Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends and last week’s episode of Girls, “Boys.” You guys, I’m seeing doubles everywhere.
Richard Shepard directed both “Video Games” and “One Man’s Trash,” and it shows. Structural similarities abound. Take the way the beginning and end is handled: “One Man’s Trash” began with garbage and a semi-expository theorization of the word “sexit.” If, like me, you read Hannah’s departure from Joshua’s house as the definitive example of Hannah’s word, then that episode closes with a “sexit” too, but the thing goes unnarrated and untheorized, as all sexits must. It concludes with a curiously cathartic little scene: Hannah deposits a bag of garbage where it belongs, and that closes the bracket that’s been open from the beginning. “Video Games” borrows that framing gesture and also ends with the elements with which it began: a train station, a UTI, and Hannah wondering aloud about what it would be like not to have great parents.
We begin on a train platform with Jessa and Hannah waiting to be picked up. Hannah asks whether Jessa is sure her dad knew they were coming. “It’s like my worst nightmare as a kid, you know, being the last one to be picked up from like school or some social event and all these adults know about like your sad home life and your irresponsible parents,” Hannah says, in what turns out to be a devastatingly accurate description of Jessa’s childhood. The episode ends on this same platform. Hannah’s alone now, but she makes a phone call to her parents in which she thanks them for raising her such that she’s never really alone — never without a hammock (or a cushion). The apology goes off the rails in all the interesting ways Phil describes, but Shepard’s structure holds. Brackets: closed.
The parallels don’t end there. Like “One Man’s Trash,” this episode features a character prevaricating about possible sexual abuse in her past:
As in “One Man’s Trash,” a glass of lemonade is sipped by the younger of two characters in a scene that has sex as its subtext.
And as in “One Man’s Trash,” the episode revolves around a very specific kind of house shot in a very specific way. The counterpart to Joshua’s pristine brownstone is Jessa’s father’s house in “the country.” This house, which we originally see from a somewhat idyllic perspective, and then devolves into uglier and less flattering angles. When Frank accuses Hannah of using him for sex, there’s a painting of the house on the wall to her left, and a painting of the house on the opposite wall to Frank’s right. Both paintings reflect the original idyllic view of the house — the view we had when Hannah and Jessa first arrive. As Frank stammers through his conversation with Hannah, façade faces façade. Mirrors are everywhere. This house, like Joshua’s, is maniacally aestheticized, but in reverse: in lieu of Joshua’s gleaming surfaces we get rooms and beds covered in books and unhung paintings. Where Joshua’s shower makes you pass out from too much steam and cleanliness, Mr. Johanssen’s house is covered in untended tufts of hair (pubic and otherwise). If Joshua’s concern is efficient disposal of trash, Mr. Johanssen’s trash is his treasure. He literally carries his garbage with him. Where Joshua planned steak, Petula plans rabbit.
It seems to me, in other words, that “Video Games” is in some sense “One Man’s Trash” flipped, so that everyone but Hannah gets to be Hannah and Hannah gets to be Joshua: now she’s the one pursued sexually by a confused young thing who’s trying (and failing) to figure out what he wants out of life; she’s the one who watches him turn on her with embarrassing and unwelcome revelations, and she’s the grown-up yelling at the crazy kids to stop with their stealing Whip-Its and crazy driving. (Tyler and Frank might as well have been riding unicycles in fedoras.) “I don’t like using products in a different way that it was intended, okay, that’s just an area that’s hard for me,” Hannah says. (Did anyone else hear Woody Allen in that line?)
This context undoes the Sad Broken Girl narrative “One Man’s Trash” invites, and that’s all to the good. Girls is what happens when the world is overrun with Sad Broken Girls and they have to live with each other. In this fictional universe outside New York City, Hannah is emphatically not and cannot be the damaged party. She’s boringly well-adjusted and every word she says to Jessa in an effort to commune fails. “I thought that this was fully a sexcapade,” Hannah says to Jessa after having “sex” with Frank. “I thought you brought me on a sexcapade. That was fully just me trying to have continuity with you.” And we understand why Hannah would think sex with Frank would constitute continuity with Jessa — earlier that day Jessa had said, of the Playboy model, “these women should be really proud, because in a way, it’s the most noble thing you can do, just to help a boy find his sexuality, help a boy become a man, you know?”
Hannah ends up doing just that — sort of — but she doesn’t feel proud, and Jessa’s completely disgusted. What Hannah is missing, of course, is that Jessa has tried her whole life to help her father become a man, and failed. Hannah doesn’t like to miss jokes. She asks to be included when Jessa and her father are having that first pleasant round of familiarity in Cockney accents, but she can’t — as Phil says, there’s no room in there for outsiders, or even insiders, and when Jessa’s dad says, “we’re different, you and I,” that’s a lonely, lonely “we.”
But to insist too heavily on that reading makes it a Hannah-centric episode, which it’s not, or at least not exclusively. This episode is about Jessa too, generally the least accessible character on the show, and we learn a lot about her here. In particular, we learn what kind of storyteller she is. Hannah asks what happened to the five-year-old daughter of the woman her father left. We learn later that this is something Jessa minds intensely and blames her father for, but all she says is: “No one speaks to her. I wonder if her name is still Lemon.”
Here’s how she narrates her breakup with Thomas John to her father (reconstructed to the best of my ability):
Brief, blunt, and surprising. We don’t know whether this is the version she wants her father to hear, or whether it’s what she really thinks or what she wishes had happened instead of what did. What we do know is that it fits oddly with the scene we actually witnessed. Did she imagine that their escalating exchange could exist within the confines built into the marriage? That it would survive? Is this telling us that the shocked expression on her face when Thomas John says “How much?” is real?
It just might. And that shocking possibility — that the scathing contempt she shows Thomas John after he’s tried to buy her off isn't manufactured, that she wanted the marriage to last — puts some serious spin on that scene between Jessa and her father on the swings. Jemima Kirke’s acting in that conversation was so good — the crack in her voice when she says “everything,” the plaintive repetition of “I’m the child,” and especially, the lament over “how much shit I’ve taken because you never taught me to do anything else.”
I don’t have Jessa figured out — I was stunned when it turned out she unquestioningly accepts and approves of the family’s practice of killing and eating pet rabbits, not just because ew, but also because she sides with Petula, who she hates, against Hannah: “grow up,” she says. “It’s fucking food, and it’s fantastic.” This while Frank, in the background, mutters that he’s always hungry. It’s a hilarious scene in its dark, dark way, and the effect is magnified if we remember Jessa’s father saying, of the lawn, that Petula won’t let it die: “It’s a living thing, it grows, it lives. Fuck it. I know other things that are living and growing that don’t get treated as well as this fucking lawn.” That line is only funny in retrospect, when we find out Petula is a cold-blooded rabbit butcher. Remember the happy music playing when the car first drove up to the house? Remember when we first met Petula (the wonderful Rosanna Arquette) and she had that pretty bouquet of flowers in her hand and said, as any sane person would, “I’m sorry about your marriage”? Remember when things weren’t completely weird?
Jessa doesn’t. Hannah does. The learning curve from “you’re the cushion” to “life is a video game” is steep, and the show ends with Hannah perched on the ceiling looking at down at one of many horrible realities she’s been spared. Phil, I’m kind of bewitched by your account of “Dunhamanian theology,” defined as a flash of insight past which the Girls overreach, eventually looping humility and love back around into egotism. I hadn’t paid any attention to the way Hannah’s speech to her parents goes off the rails at the end, but you’re right: her mother, briefly moved, reverts to suspicion the longer Hannah talks and hangs up angry. But the anger is, in the large scheme of things, slight. The hammock’s there, and it’s an interesting metaphor for this particular kind of privilege.
All this neatly inverts Hannah’s epiphany in “One Man’s Trash,” of course — an epiphany that came just as suddenly and was just as short-lived. If there Hannah discovered that she just wants to be happy and worried that this desire diminished her artistic aspirations, here she discovers that she is happy — or has a chance to be — and that the possibility has value.
“Video Games” ends on that train platform. Hannah’s alone. She’s seen what it looks like to be the kid whose parents are irresponsible. It hasn’t changed things much for her, not really. She still has the UTI, she’s peeing in the exact same place she peed before, and she’s still yelling at her parents, but these are mistakes she can afford to make again. To the extent that taking out the trash represents the excretory function writ large, it’s interesting to think about Hannah’s mother’s complaint: she’s covered in filth from going through Hannah’s old garbage. And before Hannah can worry about being tossed out, eliminated, devalued or forgotten, Hannah’s father pipes in to say “don’t worry, honey, we’re not going to throw away anything that you need.”
We Were Very Happy About Your Marriage And Then Sad,