IT BEGAN WITH a butt-plug and ended with a snot-rocket: I will go out on a limb and say that this episode’s theme was shame. Marnie was shamed for being a hostess; Ray, for being homeless; Shoshanna, for being clueless about Ray being homeless (and for not knowing what a butt-plug is). After “Bad Friend,” which was an unusually eventful and manic episode, we return to the show’s comfort zone, but with a difference: there seemed to be more vulnerability, self-consciousness, and self-recrimination going on than usual.
The star of “It’s A Shame About Ray,” title notwithstanding, was Jessa. I’ve been fairly open about Jessa being my least favorite character — not only is she the least likable, but I’d previously felt that she was underwritten, a bit of a cipher, a “bad girl” for the sake of balance, a Samantha, if you will. But she had three amazing scenes this week that, while entirely consistent with her backstory to date, deepened and redefined the character. First, the dinner with Thomas-John’s parents, played by Griffin Dunne and Deborah Rush, who shamed her for not working, for dropping out of Oberlin after seven months, for her heroin habit, and for being a gold digger. “You certainly have lived a lot. It’s very impressive,” Thomas-John’s mother remarks acidly, and in her next scene — the wrenching break-up with Thomas-John — Jessa develops the theme:
I have been living this life for 25 fucking years. I am going to look 50 when I’m 30. I am going to be so fucking fat, like Nico*, and you know why? That’s because I’m going to be full of experiences.
Jessa has always stood apart from the rest of the Girls, her superior libertinage putting their petty “mistakes” to shame, and this is usually played for laughs, especially when she’s interacting with the impossibly innocent Shoshanna. Here, though, this distance between Jessa and her peers is played not for comedy but for tragedy, as she offers herself up as a kind of martyr to experience: she is living mistakes so the rest of us don’t have to, sacrificing herself for the sake of a good story. (The fact that Jemima Kirke was pregnant during shooting somehow gives additional resonance to the metaphors of fullness, fatness, and sacrifice. But, I must be missing something: when did Nico ever get fat?) Jessa does not expect to come through it all intact, or happy, or to learn anything herself: she leaves it to others to draw the conclusions.
Of course Jessa is punished — shamed — for this unseemly excess of experience. Thomas-John replies to her attempt to belittle him by reminding her of his worth: “the only fucking finance guy who actually made a profit from the recession. I’m a miracle. I’m a unicorn. I’m a fucking needle in a haystack. And you’re just some dumb fucking hipster who’s munching my hay.” Having assailed her with one ugly H-word (no, not hay), he segues to another — “You know why I like hookers?” — and finally comes out and says what he really means: “You’re just a whore, with no work ethic.” This is the criticism that’s been haunting Girls from the first: it’s where sex and class converge; it’s the judgment that the show has been daring its critics to pronounce, and refusing to allow them to separate into its component parts. Emily Nussbaum’s recent New Yorker review aptly points out that Girls is part of a long tradition, reaching back at least to Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything and Mary McCarthy’s The Group, that presents “smart, strange girls diving into experience, often through bad sex with their worst critics.” These works, like Girls, frequently call forth dismissive or disapproving reactions: “There’s clearly an appetite for this prurient ritual, in which privileged girls, in their rise to power, get humiliated, first in fiction, then in criticism.” Jessa’s fight with Thomas-John is a kind of primal scene of this humiliation, and it is, indeed, pretty brutal.
Finally, the bathtub scene: it was a call-back to the pilot’s infamous cupcake, of course (which our own Jane Hu has discussed admirably in these pages), but also a rare moment of vulnerability for Jessa, and the first time I’ve really believed the friendship between her and Hannah. It demonstrated how shame can be brought down to scale, how the complexes of class privilege and promiscuity can be dissolved in the waters of friendship. We leave Jessa and Hannah literally stewing in their shared shame, flicking a lump of snot back and forth and laughing. A utopian moment, maybe, for a show that’s increasingly bereft of them.
I have three or four great folk albums in me,
Phil closed our conversation last week with a nod to Eve Sedgwick and paranoid reading, while Evan began this week with a meditation on shame — a topic Sedgwick wrote wonderfully on, an affect she related to paranoia. It’s a shame Eve Sedgwick could not experience the increase of women — paranoid, humiliated, fat and thin — on television, for I’m sure she’d have much to say. What Sedgwick might have said is something I often consider — possibly too much — though more from a perspective of hope than of mourning. The flipside to Sedgwick’s essay on paranoid reading is, as Phil wrote last week, to try a reparative one: its title, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” says this exactly-so, though the essay, as all of Sedgwick’s, complicates the binary. I am suspicious of any reading that tends toward only one or the other, for they often lapse into the landscape of morality. For me, especially in the case of Girls, whether a character is bad or good is one of the least interesting questions. They prompt answers on what and whether these girls have learned from past mistakes — an often punitive perspective (I’m looking at you Thomas-John) — and ignore, for instance, what constitutes a mistake, and why a girl might feel ashamed to commit one.
Shame and guilt are generally oriented around retrospection, based on a realization that one has erred in the past. What better way to inspire shame in Jessa than to give, for the first time in Girls, a protracted look at her past. Perhaps Jessa felt less like a caricature (and less unlikeable, as Evan noted) this episode simply because we now understand her as someone who bears a ton of baggage, especially for her age. All sorts of baggage — large, medium, small. (Evan, her visible pregnancy added a kind of substance and poignancy to her performance for me as well.) With Thomas-John’s parents, Jessa speaks casually about her heroin addiction, dropping out of Oberlin after seven months (while throwing in some class privilege, oh Girls!), along with other background that she proudly includes under the umbrella of Experience. Even so, through Jessa’s boasting, we saw — if at first only inflected through the eyes of Deborah Rush — strands of regret and shame (if not yet guilt — guilt is something I’m not sure Girls is familiar with, or wants to contend with yet). Later, fighting, Thomas-John categorizes his marriage to Jessa as his own kind of experience: “I have never made a mistake like this before.” They’re both livid, but Thomas-John’s first impulse is to contend with his past as a failure, and tries to manage the undeniable fallout. “What am I gonna do now?” he slurs, followed by: “You know what I like about hookers, Jessa? They respect me.” For someone who gambles with large sums of money for a living, Thomas-John’s supposedly biggest mistake is not so much financial or even emotional (did we ever buy this union?) as it is about losing face. All it took for him to realize that his pride trumps all was to feel ashamed of his wife in front of his mother.
Money does, however, become the means through which Thomas-John hopes to fix his mistake. He asks Jessa, in a tone more demanding than questioning, “How much money do you need to fucking leave?” A divorce settlement might be enough to make up for any damages to Thomas-John’s reputation and pride — might be enough to erase this blot on his past, but he is adamant on letting Jessa know that it won’t be the same for her:
You have another fucked-up story to add to your collection. And someday some fucking asshole is going to make a movie out of your life and it’s gonna be called “Hi I’m Jessa and I destroy people’s lives because I’m fucking bored.”
Aside from sounding like the mock-pitch for some Dunham-esque media-deal, the line aims to humiliate Jessa further by telling her that she’ll lead a life with a future that won’t be distinguishable from her past. Thomas-John hopes to shame Jessa by suggesting that she doesn’t have even the capacity to comprehend shame, or to learn from it. (The line that prompts her to punch him carries a similar message about her inability to develop: “And you’re just a whore — with no work ethic.”) Unlike Evan, I’m not sure that Jessa “does not expect … to learn anything herself: she leaves it to others to draw the conclusions.” What I felt from her impulse marriage to Thomas-John was that it directly resulted from Katherine’s (Kathryn Hahn’s character) words about growing up — and that for a moment Jessa felt like she really had done so. But even in episode two of this season, sitting on a field with Hannah and four puppies, Jessa’s line about “This is what it’s like when the hunt is over” conveys that she views adulthood as a motionless state. This episode, she learns (I expect she always knew) that nothing ever is.
In Sedgwick’s introduction to Tomkins’s Shame and Its Sisters (co-written with Adam Frank), she explains that the conflict between the head and the heart “enables learning, development, continuity, differentiation,” and I think it will be an experiment for both the girls — and Girls itself as a show — to see if they can manage to develop, grow, and continue. Debates over the self-awareness versus irony ratio of Girls seems also to be a, if what slightly cynical, debate about the show’s measurements of head and heart. This season has been manic, as Evan noted, but it’s also, in ways, more static than season one, with arguably some backpedaling. Hannah is getting what she wants, sort of (JazzHate took her piece!), but she’s also roommate-less for the second time (perhaps Jessa will change this?), and Shoshanna seems the only person making strides in her emotional life. About Marnie, who has been steadily losing her ground this season (as she becomes an increasingly more compelling character):
You know the kind of year that she’s had, okay: first you break up, then her dad loses her job, then she loses her job, then she has sex with a gay man, then she needs to come over here and deal with your needs and your whining — sorry, you’re a jerk!
That Hannah speaks these lines to Charlie in defense of Marnie — the friend she blasted one episode ago — tells us that at least some relations remain. That they remain in times of personal floundering possibly makes them mean more. The emphasis on female friendship in “It’s A Shame About Ray” is a return to form for Girls, showing how running to a friend out of shame isn’t the same as hiding. As Andrew Miller writes in The Burdens of Perfection:
[S]o little is required to feel shame: merely to think of oneself as being seen is often enough. But, then, so little is required for shame's therapy: merely to be seen again, but to be seen with generosity or forgiveness—under a different description, within a different set of concepts, from a different perspective.
If I’ve learned anything from Sedgwick’s writing, it’s the power in looking, and then looking again. The closing scene in Hannah’s bathtub was one of sympathetic relating between two friends, but it was also one where Jessa took a moment to relate to herself — to become more cognizant of her past, possibly by way of acknowledging the future, as painful as it might be. It was both paranoid (what will happen to me?) and reparative.
Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along — originally a flop, though now lauded — is a musical that begins at the end of a story (about a partnership, a friendship) that rolls back in time so that it ends in the past, or, another way of putting it, at the beginning. If Jessa could hear “Growing Up,” a song from the show, she’d probably find it too maudlin, and that’s a shame, because it offers possibly even more wisdom than “Wonderwall”:
Moving on, getting out of the past
Solving dreams, not just trusting them
Taking dreams, readjusting them
Growing up, growing up
Trying things, being flexible,
Bending with the road
Adding dreams when the others don’t last
Growing up, understanding that growing never ends
Like old dreams, so old dreams, like old friends.
This is sung in Act I, but then gets repeated in Act II.
Looking, and then looking again,