Girls, Season 2: "On All Fours"

By Phillip MaciakMarch 12, 2013

Girls, Season 2: "On All Fours"
Last week on Dear Television:


“Shit Together, or The Coming of Natalia”

Dear Television,

LAST WEEK, Jane pointed out that Girls has developed something of a plot problem. Season one, as Jane says, felt “timed, propulsive, and finally satisfying,” while this season has felt like more of a mixed bag. Partially, I think this is the result of a kind of self-recognition that, even in the more coherently plotted first season, the show’s best and most resonant moments — Hannah’s striptease in the pilot, Marnie’s tantalizingly electric first encounter with Booth Jonathan, Marnie and Hannah dancing on their own, Hannah’s beach cake — were exactly that: moments. While the first season was admittedly tighter, it was by no means as invested in seriality as it could have been, and so the show has taken its second season as a license to explore more bottle episodes, more withholding of main characters — to gravitate toward episode-length moments. Where set-pieces had previously anchored plot points, we’ve had to recalibrate our viewing to read set-pieces as things in and of themselves, reflecting though not necessarily propelling the show’s narrative.

If the series had gone full-Louie, however, that would be one thing. But it didn’t. As a result, I think we all feel rightly jarred by the past few episodes that seem to be resurrecting dormant plots — as is the case with Adam’s alcoholism — or materializing wholly new ones — as is the case with Hannah’s barely hinted-at OCD — and making them the propulsive focus of the show. As such, now at the penultimate episode, it feels like we’ve been watching our regularly scheduled six-episode season interrupted by four ruminative — if often masterful — webisodes.

But, in lieu of offering a full-on disapproval of this season’s herky-jerky pacing before seeing what the whole thing looks like next week, I’d like to turn to one of the most intriguing late-season resurrections — the Adam plotline — and one of the most compelling left-field additions — Natalia. Evan mentioned last week the not-recognized-often-enough fact that Adam Driver is a phenomenal actor. The AA monologue last week was one of a number of great acting moments in the episode and one of the best in the series. Evan aptly compared Driver to John C. Reilly, which I think is really right, but, increasingly, with his uncomfortable muscularity, his alternately dead and soulful eyes, and his twitchily intoned line-readings, he is making me think of a young Christopher Walken. (Not to mention that Amy Schumer says he looks like an “old-timey criminal” this episode.) In any case, so much of the success of the first season as a plot-driven one (if we choose to think of it that way) rested in Driver’s ability to make us surprise ourselves by caring about what happens to him. If that season was, as we’ve argued, about a slow-burn revelation that Hannah is a monster, it was also about the slow-burn revelation that the monstrous, naked Adam is a human being.

So, after Adam’s somewhat painful absence this season (I would trade every line Ray has ever uttered for one of those bottle episodes to have been exclusively Adam-based), he’s back. And it’s not a coincidence that he returned full-force in the episode entitled “It’s Back,” if we think about “it” as something that might signify both Hannah’s OCD as well as the central romantic relationship of the first season.

But, as we’ve now spent two episodes with Adam’s story, it’s becoming clearer that his return to the scene is maybe less important/interesting than the arrival of Natalia. Last episode, Marnie gives us a trademark Girls monologue about how, despite appearances, she’s got her “shit together” while Charlie is a mess. If anything, the rhetorical focus of Girls has always been the difference between being a mess and having one’s shit together, and the self-conscious management of one’s place on that spectrum has been something of the show’s central problematic. Not to mention the punny double resonance that the show is about a group of couples who are shit, together.


But, as all of this swirls around, and we endeavor to determine whether the overnight app millionaire or the self-sufficient magician’s assistant is the one with the shit together, in walks Natalia. Natalia’s outfits match without seeming overly planned, she perceives the model of dating-as-embarrassment as something that’s beneath her, she is the “kind of person whose friends get engaged,” and she knows exactly what she wants. She’s sexual and sexy, willing to do things, but knows and is willing to say the things she doesn’t want. And she is apparently willing to contemplate leaving a relationship when she feels disrespected in it. I think it’s very possible that Lena Dunham has shown us a character who has her shit together.

In the second season of Deadwood, all of the characters are embroiled in their usual hijinks, and the town is beset by the arrival of a man named Wolcott who goes on a murderous rampage that sets the town on edge. But, at the end of the season, the real crisis arrives in the form of that man’s employer George Hearst. If Wolcott’s violence was part of the town’s landscape, Hearst’s arrival is a sundering of that landscape. It’s hard for me not to think of Natalia as this season’s George Hearst. We’ve spent a season of television ruminating on the idea of maturity within this expanded but still insular group, just the way Deadwood’s second season had dealt with the contours of evil within its own local geography. Little did our band of merry hipsters know, but there is such a thing as a young adult in the world, and she is not cool with crawling around on your filthy floor.

Natalia has, in other words, served as a convergence point for the show’s themes — sex, maturity, responsibility, friendship — while also bringing all of the show’s understandings of those things to crisis. After she lists her do’s, don’ts, and be-careful’s to Adam, he says, “I like how clear you are with me.” For Adam, this woman is a refreshing change of pace — he’s titillated and impressed because, as is often the case, we run from the kind of person who hurt us. But then Natalia says, “What other way is there?” She is, it turns out, as clueless about the kind of way-of-being that Adam and Hannah occupy as he is about her life.

This moment of sexy consent and possible emotional growth is, of course, contrasted with the devastatingly uncomfortable amateur porn clip that closes the episode. The episode sets up this quasi-date-rape as perhaps somehow related to Adam’s drinking, but it seems like a cop-out to credit it as an effect. This is how Adam treated Hannah. This scene has played out before with her, and she has felt just as violated and just as disposable, but she has been willing to have it be the foundation for their intimacy. Clumsy fake BDSM and unsatisfying intercourse are not just acceptable, they are the hallmarks of adulthood.

The issue of consent here is obviously at the forefront, as many different think-pieces have already chimed in this week, but the issue of where this sex falls in the Girls Bad Sex Spectrum is also at issue. Why does Adam revert here? Nostalgia for Hannah? A desire to ruin something good? A desire to show Natalia something? And what does it mean that this scene ends with a money shot, maybe the most graphically sexual image to appear on HBO, including Game of Thrones and Deadwood itself? Perhaps more so than Girls has done, the shot of Natalia on the bed, post-coitus, is designed to reveal to us the shuddering disconnect between imagination and reality, between the image of this in Adam’s head and what it actually looks and feels like. To echo a refrain from Dear Television earlier this season, this is what it looks like for Adam to get what he wants.

Everybody this episode is relapsing — Hannah, Adam, Marnie and Charlie — and, likewise, the show itself is rejecting Natalia like a foreign organ. Hannah and her sisters have been having awful, internet-porn-influenced sex for two seasons now, and critics have alternately cheered and derided this representational choice. I can only hope that this particular gamble — the presentation and degradation of a human being who has her shit together — can lead us to something. I’ve got reservations about the plotting of this season, but, regardless of its pace, this show has been heading toward a reckoning for two seasons the same way that Deadwood was. What we have praised and others have critiqued is the fact that this show is not accidentally insular. It wants, at its best, to show us something about the culturally inbred lives of these people in New York City. We can all feel now that the introduction of Sandy at the beginning of the season was a feint in this direction but ultimately a red herring. I think it’s possible Natalia is the reckoning of Girls. As an empathetic viewer, I hope she gets out of that grubby apartment. As someone who, despite it all, believes that Girls is taking us somewhere, I hope she stays and lays waste to the place.

Kid, put some pants on,



LARB Contributor

Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in SlateThe New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.


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