This Week on Dear Television:
- "The Great Daisy," from Lili Loofbourow
- "Grace Notes," from Phil Maciak
Last Week on Dear Television:
"The Great Daisy"
BARRING LOUIE, which often splits into flash fiction, this episode was the closest thing I’ve seen to a short story that wasn’t actually a short story. I could almost see the paragraphs. Mary Gaitskill hovers in the background; in the foreground are Fitzgerald and J.D. Salinger circa Franny and Zooey or “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” The cinematography seemed particularly Salingeresque to me — there was that careful, quiet, sharp attention to what people do while talking and when silent. The attention the camera pays to Hannah peeling the orange while watching Joshua read the newspaper reminded me of Zooey in the bath, or Muriel Glass painting her nails. The dialogue is uncharacteristically spare, and each word carries much more than its usual weight. Hannah’s loquacity is tamped down here; that last shot of her, blank-faced, putting the trash into the right dumpster and walking away was intensely artifictional. (Hey, if Hannah can half-invent words, so can I.)
I’m relieved, because, unlike so many episodes of Girls, which sort of skate by on being neither fish nor fowl, this one felt, to me, hyperliterary. On that basis, I’m giving myself license to talk about the narrative practices I see this episode challenging and reproducing. They fall into roughly two groups: the first is a group of authors (usually male) who build stories around intensely aestheticized encounters with women; the second is a group of fictional subjects: the smart, broken, beautiful girls of fiction and nonfiction — the Zeldas and Esthers.
To the extent that a TV show can be said to have a generic mode, Girls usually borrows from the conventions of creative nonfiction, which more comfortably accommodate the show’s apparently “uncrafted” and sometimes provocatively grotesque aesthetic. But this episode takes its symbolism seriously; Richard Shepard’s cinematography registers an intense, almost aggressive obsession with aesthetics, with symmetry. The angle of the designer chairs in Joshua’s living room is almost-but-not-quite congruent with the angle of the piano lid. The pots. That incredible shot of Joshua and Hannah at the ping-pong table blocks the actual net from view, and hey, while we’re at it, there’s Patrick Wilson’s intensely perfect symmetry to consider. Ahoy there, female gaze!
The Nancy Meyers reference gets at the ways in which Hannah gets drunk on the delicious pornography of this normal version of extreme success. (She even passes out from it.) What does Joshua represent? A friend wrote this to me at 2 a.m. last night: “The shot of Lena Dunham whisping her hand along a row of the doctor's many dress shirts had the name 'Gatsby' at the tip of my tongue. Which makes it somewhat less happenstance that the name ‘Daisy’ is at the tip of his, or that an absent woman's oversized photograph hovers over that last cringe-inducing bedroom scene.” That seems right to me — and if Joshua is a modern Gatsby (who also added an extra syllable to his name, Gatz), then the American Dream is no longer planning for guests, it’s planning for steak. And making sure your cans hold only your garbage, and getting the exact fixtures you want, and feeling like a ghost while the party happens next door, at the “frat house” of unicyclers.
One reason the Gatsby and Salinger flavors rise to the surface and then feel wrong in this episode is that it feels both intensely anachronistic and cinematically quite specific. What jars most, I think, is that Hannah doesn’t match her surroundings; she isn’t Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums or Natalie Portman in Hotel Chevalier. But it’s still that story, the story of a particular kind of intelligent, odd, tormented, self-centered woman whose ability to fascinate or intrigue compensates for her unpleasantness. That Hannah is shot as unflatteringly as possible in this episode seems right to me: Dunham and Shepard are rewriting that story with a difference: the girl (be she a Daisy, a Zelda, or an Esther) is Not Beautiful.
That huge photograph over the bed in Joshua’s room, presumably of the absent wife (cue Rebecca), radically reinforces what feminine beauty means in this kind of story. Hannah at one point is silhouetted in the room, resembling the woman in the portrait, but again, she’s shot so anti-aesthetically throughout this otherwise hyperaestheticized episode (except, again, for the scene with the orange) that it constitutes a statement. To the extent that Dunham is interjecting herself — authorially and literally — into a storytelling tradition developed by Fitzgerald, Salinger, and Salinger’s cinematic son, Wes Anderson, she does so by breaking their habit of making their sad girls beautiful. She also rewrites the story so that Daisy, not Gatsby, is the unrequited desirer. “It’s not always the feedback I’ve gotten” is an important line. (One of Hannah’s most interesting characteristics is her ability to arrogate to herself a sexual power that other people deny her — and which she knows they deny her — until they assent to it too. But this episode explores the ragged edges and bruised chest of that performance.)
Ultimately, I read this episode as Dunham and Shepard insisting that this particular kind of story isn’t only the purview of the beautiful Daisies (or Zeldas, or Esthers, or Fridas, or even Sylvias): that there are unpretty Esthers having Daisy stories too, which badly breaks what we think we understand about the artistic woman (who, like her male counterpart, is a self-centered asshole). And how much less attractive the “broken girl” story can be when the girl in question isn’t pretty — how much quicker we are to fixate on her audacity, her selfishness, her unbelievable arrogance at saying, in response to beautiful Joshua’s “I want you to make me come,” “I want you to make me come.” Beauty is a currency here, and Hannah, in blurting out her sense of her own greatness, and proving herself a bad and selfish listener, is spending capital we didn’t think she had.
The fruit in the bowl in the fridge with the stuff,
LILI, FIRST OF ALL, I love the idea of Salinger-esque cinematography. It’s counterintuitive but really right, I think, to say that the most unadaptable — in both an artistic and a legal sense — author of the 20th century is also the progenitor of a signature visual style. Something less invasive than the aggressive camera of Cassavetes and less cruelly detached than mumblecore realism — it’s attention and affection both, something Fitzgerald imbues with a kind of covetousness but that exists in Salinger as spiritual awe. And, lest we forget, it’s an enormously privileged aesthetic, predicated on a particular type of access and a particular mode of leisure — the gaze of a particular class. So you’re especially right to pinpoint it here in this episode of Girls. That said, I’ll leave the literary to you today and do my best to weave it into the televisual.
Watching this episode, which, as Emily Nussbaum pointed out earlier today, is a classic “bottle” episode (limited cast, set in one circumscribed location), I was struck by both the gamble Dunham was taking by inserting it into the arc of the season and the uncommon relief, puzzlement, and gratitude I felt in watching it. Without going overboard, I don’t think it’s wrong to put this piece of television in conversation with episodes like Mad Men’s “The Suitcase,” Homeland’s “The Weekend,” The Sopranos’ “Pine Barrens,” and, in a different way, Louie’s “Daddy’s Girlfriend, Part II.” While not all bottle episodes, strictly speaking, these are all examples of television shows moving outside their ordinary narrative structures to invent different ways to access emotion. What’s great about these episodes is that they can function either as opportunities to drill down into a dynamic (Homeland and Mad Men) or opportunities to disrupt one (Louie and The Sopranos).
“It’s a Shame About Ray” was an episode in which we saw Hannah in full-on monster mash. She made implicitly inedible pad thai, she set up a dinner party that played out like an emotionally violent Agatha Christie novel, and she savaged — almost gleefully — most of the relationships we’ve been watching develop for a season and a half. It ended, however, with that gorgeous scene between her and Jessa in the tub. It was nostalgic, it was naked, and it was, above all, a grace note. Redemption is always lurking somewhere in Girls, and if those two did not find it in the tub, they (and we) at least remembered it can exist. That episode was also a piece of a heavily serialized narrative architecture. The meanness of Hannah was only legible as it unfolded in the context of this season’s multiple dramas. Marnie and Charlie; Ray and Shoshanna; Hannah and… well, everybody. It was a busy, unpleasant, if often very funny episode of television, but it ended on this note of exhaustion and generosity. A lot happened, but it led us to a moment of nearly non-narrative communion, focused on two naked bodies and the naked expressions on their faces.
“One Man’s Trash” began with the usual Dunhamanian punchiness, but, after the cold open, once the Nick-Drake-meets-Charlie-Brown music started playing, it was clear Dunham and Shepard were interested in chasing that tub feeling one more time. So was this episode a drill-down or an opt-out for the series? Did it channel our attention on one thing or did it let us see a new possibility only to snatch it away or return us home? I’m inclined to think neither is exactly the case. In the most Salingerian, interpolated way possible, I don’t think it would be wrong to style this episode as something more like a koan. It’s neither a pause of the narrative nor a disruption of it so much as it is a question posed to that narrative. It hovers around it, maybe a couple of times transcends it, but is ultimately tethered to the world of that narrative. Let’s say “One Man’s Trash” was a suspension.
Perhaps intentionally, perhaps not, the scenes between Patrick Wilson and Lena Dunham in this episode reminded me of the scenes between Wilson and Kate Winslet in Todd Field’s 2006 film Little Children. In that film, Wilson and Winslet, stay-at-home parents in a pat, grim, graphic novel suburbia, embark upon a hot and sweaty affair that lifts them from the lives, or narratives, of disappointment, frustration, and squandered promise they otherwise lead. What would it be like to do what makes us happy? Is there a sustainable way of life in escape? It’s not an influential enough film to be a reasonably strong or pointed allusion here, but the structuring dynamic is similar. The particular staycation we witness in “One Man’s Trash” has the same kind of dream-like, exploratory sensibility, the same kind of toggle between wide-angle sex scenes with significant mise-en-scène (Winslet/Wilson on the laundry machine, Dunham/Wilson on the ping pong table) and close, improvised intimacies. And both works end with the same deflation. Dunham faints from all the happiness and luxury in Joshua’s shower (her body cannot physically stand the “things” Joshua owns), just as Wilson’s character in Little Children is snapped out of his bliss-induced stupor when he breaks his arm skateboarding with some neighborhood kids. The moral of the story is not what I’m after here so much as the story’s structure itself. It’s one thing to look through the glass into another person’s brownstone — especially if me and you and everyone we know live where Hannah lives. What could it be like to step through that looking glass? And who are you on either side?
An advantage of a bottle episode, or even a quasi-bottle episode, is the attention that can be paid to things that might ordinarily go undiscovered. Often, what we gain in episodes such as these is a little extra face time. Recall the many tearful rages of Don Draper in “The Suitcase”:
Or the insanely soulful/soulfully insane close-ups of Parker Posey on Louie:
As Lili notes, the Salingerian aesthetic here is all about observation, and I’d go further to say it’s all about the ability to register story on the face. Shepard takes advantage of this, and, as a result, we get the simplest version of Girls. Alone together in the brownstone, we still have peripheral contact with the topical concerns of the show — the burnt out backyard multi-racial hipster conclave ruining Steak Night is a perfect encapsulation of all of the questions and pressures Hannah (and Lena) are avoiding with Joshua — but they’re suspended for the moment. After the shower episode, we get Hannah morphing back into Hannah (though Lili, you’re right, I think, about the import of Hannah’s morning ritual, especially in context of what she did the last time she woke up alone in a strange bed with money laying around), but up until Hannah’s psyche gets articulated, we see it. Girls, we have long contended, is about more than the sum of its trend-pieces. This episode gave us a look at what that is. I think it’s to the show’s credit that, even with all that time on her hands, Hannah still couldn’t say it.
The same name with an extra sound at the end,
Lili Loofbourow is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley working on Milton and 17th-century theories of eating and reading. She tweets at @millicentsomer, blogs at Excremental Virtue, and writes TV criticism over at Dear Television along with Jane Hu, Phillip Maciak, and Evan Kindley. You can sometimes find her at The Awl, The Hairpin, and The New Inquiry.
Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in Slate, The 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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