Thoughts on this week’s Girls (which is available early on HBO’s various On Demand platforms because the Oscars are Sunday night) coming up just as soon as I assume that was Toni Morrison…
“Because that stuff never goes away.” -Hannah
Like “One Man’s Trash” from season two — another Hannah solo spotlight where she spends the whole episode dancing around a rich, handsome older man (played by an FX star, no less) — “American Bitch” will likely become one of the more divisive Girls outings. It’s serious, talky, again raises various questions about why the man (who in this case is also a famous and beloved author) is so interested in Hannah, and has a twist at the end that recasts in a new light everything we’ve seen leading up to it.
I find myself of two minds on the whole thing. Because on the one hand, this is one of the single best, most interesting half-hours of TV that Lena Dunham and company have given us. And on the other, I don’t think it really works as an episode of Girls.
Over five-plus seasons, Girls has proven pretty elastic in structure and tone. We can follow Hannah on the road to Michigan or the Hamptons or upstate New York, or spend most of an episode focusing on the guys in the girls’ lives, or go halfway around the world with Shoshana, or even go through a long and strange night with Marnie and Charlie. There’s room for both Laird’s fumbling attempts to hit on Hannah and for Adam to break down her door to rescue her when she’s in the deepest throes of her OCD. But no matter the location, the number of characters, or the point of view, the characters still feel like themselves, and the tone feels unified in some way. “One Man’s Trash” is a short story set in the Girls universe, but it clearly takes place there (by mood as much as by the presence of Ray in the opening scene), and Hannah is clearly Hannah, even if she’s role playing a bit with her new friend Joshua.
“American Bitch,” on the other hand, feels more like an anthology episode of a series made by the Girls creative team, with Dunham playing the lead role again. This version of Hannah has certain biographical details and personality traits in common with the woman we’ve been following for the last five years (we already knew that Hannah was into Philip Roth, for instance), but watching her stare down Matthew Rhys’s Chuck Palmer and discuss allegations of sexual misconduct with his college-age fans, it didn’t feel like Hannah was the one in the room with him. This was a more focused, more articulate, and just plain angrier take on the character than we’ve ever seen before, and I could only occasionally reconcile this one from the usual Hannah, even as recently as two weeks ago when she sabotaged her surfing assignment in Montauk.
Now, it’s possible that when placed in the right/awful circumstance — being called to the home of one of her favorite authors, who has just gravely disappointed her through his alleged behavior, to be personally scolded for calling him out about it on his website — Hannah might be able to draw on previously-unseen reserves of concentration and fury to swat away each of this guy’s attacks and give him an eloquent piece of her mind. But one of the core things we know about Hannah Horvath is that even when she’s at her strongest, her weaknesses are only a half-step away, and she’ll usually find a way to make a perfect moment slightly imperfect, where here she was able to stay on point for far too long. Hannah and Dunham have certain traits in common, but this was almost like Dunham had a point she wanted to make about male celebrities abusing their power over women and briefly inserted herself into the narrative.
And their afternoon together does, in fact, turn out to be very imperfect, which is where so much of the episode’s power ultimately comes from. Something seems off in the first half as Chuck keeps lavishing Hannah with praise to justify his decision to invite her, of all the writers who attacked him online, for this encounter. It’s not that Hannah’s untalented, but even she can tell something’s not right. She eventually lets herself be flattered into believing he’s just a lonely, misunderstood guy — which is exactly what he wants in order to lure her into the true purpose for the visit: to trick her into climbing into bed next to him and reflexively touching his penis, in a way that will simultaneously humiliate her yet she’ll never be able to get him in trouble over.
Not only is she a nobody (the exact reason he chose her over someone at a more famous site), but any version of the story would involve her admitting that she chose to lie down next to him, and she chose (even if she was barely thinking in the moment) to put her hand on his penis. There’s no way that a public recounting of that story doesn’t cause her an endless amount of grief, and thus Chuck not only gets to enjoy his particular kink, but secretly punish Hannah as a proxy for all the other women who have been condemning him since the accusations began. It’s diabolical — like Edward Norton in Primal Fear, only on a scale pathetic and human enough to fit into the Girls worldview — and set up wonderfully through Dunham’s script, Rhys’s performance(*), and the direction of Girls vet Richard Shepard(**). It’s a long con of an episode, uncomfortable throughout and then stomach-churning once we get the briefest look at Chuck’s true face and motivation, which vanishes the second his daughter enters the apartment, thus cruelly shutting down Hannah’s attempt to either bolt or fully give Chuck a piece of her mind.
(*) If you want to hire a guy to come across as innocent and all-American, and have him also be believable when he reveals his true nature, it’s hard to do better than the man who would be Philip Jennings.
(**) Shepard was not only behind the camera for “One Man’s Trash,” but for many of the series’ other travel/spotlight episodes, including season three’s “Flo” (Hannah’s grandmother dies), season four’s “Sit-In” (the supporting characters crowd into Hannah’s apartment one by one to comfort her over the break-up with Adam), and last year’s “The Panic in Central Park” (Marnie and Charlie’s weird reunion). The show has a lot of excellent directors, including Dunham herself, but certain types of episodes demand Shepard.
It’s a fascinating, creepy, surprising, thoughtful episode of TV. I just wonder if Dunham might have been better off saving the idea for her next project, or tweaking it slightly to better fit this one.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org