Review: ‘Girls’ – ‘Triggering’

A review of tonight's “Girls” coming up just as soon as two people ask me if I'm Blake Lively's husband…

Because Lena Dunham is writer, director and star on “Girls,” because she has certain traits in common with the role she plays, and because she has such a divisive public persona, almost from the start it's been impossible to separate discussion of the show from discussion of Dunham herself. People who object to “Girls” tend to object to Dunham, and vice versa.

For the most part, “Girls” doesn't concern itself with the furor that wraps around the show, but every now and then, it can't help but touch on the public conflation of Hannah and Lena, and the various accusations leveled against the fictional woman and the real one(*). The most memorable of those from previous seasons was at this stage of season 2, when Donald Glover's character objected to one of Hannah's short stories on similar terms used by some of those who don't like “Girls.” But that was just a warm-up for Hannah's entree into the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where the critique of one of her stories turns into an incredibly self-aware discussion of “Girls” and its star.

(*) I should note that Dunham tweeted earlier today that the episode was written nine months ago – and, thus, long before all the controversy over her memoir. But that was far from the first time Dunham and/or her show have been publicly pilloried.

There's a point at which a show can disappear so far up its own navel that story and character vanish in the meta. That's true even of one like this where the lines between fact and fiction can occasionally get very blurry. But the various Iowa scenes worked, just as the Glover scene in season 2 did, because they weren't an excuse to lash out at the people who hate “Girls” and/or Dunham, nor were they any kind of stirring defense of either woman. Rather, they took the discussion that swirls around the show and its creator and simply used it to generate laughs, in scenes that steered right into the damn skid by making Hannah appear every bit as obliviously privileged as her fellow grad students accused her of being (and as Dunham so often gets tagged as).

As happened when Sandy read her short story, or when Hannah did a reading for her old college professor in season 1, what becomes clear is that Hannah has a much higher opinion of her work than the work probably merits, as both prose and provocation, than her readers usually do. She's convinced that “Contact” requires a trigger warning for the other writers, and that they'll be stunned and moved by her audacity, when instead they just look at her as a rich white girl dabbling in areas where other people genuinely suffer. And they call her out as putting an avatar of herself at the center of the story, just as Hannah is presumed by some to simply be a less successful version of the actress who writes and plays her (Anna, Hannah and Lena all sound similar, all have tattoos, etc.).

There's certainly some competitiveness among the writers, and a hierarchy that Hannah wants to ascend before she's maybe ready for it. But as so often happens on this show, Hannah Horvath is convinced that she has to be the most special snowflake of them all – has to be able to experience more, endure more, and be more interesting than anyone else. Because if she hasn't suffered all this pain and humiliation in service of becoming something greater, then what the hell is the point? This is Hannah's great flaw, and it can be tragic, and it can be comic. Here, it's mostly the latter, and definitely not an auspicious beginning of her time in Iowa – for Hannah, at least. For “Girls,” though, this was kind of terrific.

Some other thoughts:

* After last week's episode featured the full ensemble, “Triggering” mainly deals with Hannah – and is stronger as a result of the tighter focus – though Elijah turns up midway through, which gives Hannah at least one ally in her new home without implausibly having the whole ensemble head west. Meanwhile, Marnie, Shosh and Jessa have amusing cameos dealing with the limits of new communication technology (Skype failing at the perfect time, sparing Hannah and us from hearing Marnie rant about her own awesomeness) and ignorance of old ones (Shosh having no clue what a collect call is).

* Hannah's new workshop-mates are played by Marin Ireland (Aileen from “Homeland,” and the star of WE TV's short-lived “The Divide”), Ato Essandoh and filmmaker Desiree Akhavan, among others.

* The show did not actually film in Iowa, in part because the university declined to give them permission to film on campus, in part because it made more logistical sense to film close to New York City. As “The Sopranos” demonstrated many times, the NY/NJ/CT tri-state area can convincingly double for many locales.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at