The Best Episode of ‘Girls’ is the One No One Watched
On Monday I was sat on my bed, flicking my thumb on level 124 of Bubble Witch Saga 3. It was a bitch of a puzzle and I’d been stuck there for days. In a background haze of red and gold Academy Award Winner Brie Larson was opening an envelope to announce the winner of the Best Actor category at the Oscars.
I was streaming the show live, all four hours, watching a white dude who used to make a living by airing grown women bouncing on trampolines, playing to a room of mostly white dudes who do the same thing, figuratively speaking. The event was only unique in its small anomalies — the quality of film making over the past year by and about people of colour was, as usual, outstanding, and it seemed to finally be recognised. There was a palpable shift in the Academy — a growth — a bolder, younger, more diverse perception of what is classified as “great cinema”. Even with La La Land picking up several awards.
At the same time, on another channel, Girls aired its third episode in a season that is easily described as Lena Dunham’s strongest work. In this sixth and final season Hannah Horvath, Dunham’s hapless stooge, has suddenly, but not without five seasons of procrastination, embraced adulthood. She is far more functional, self-aware and unpretentious than she has ever been, although that isn’t saying much.
In the first episode, ‘All I Ever Wanted’, we find Hannah embarking on her career with the same romantic notions about writing she has carried since her season 2 drug fuelled proclamation that she is the ‘voice’ of her generation. This episode works to subvert her fantasy, not with chaos and calamity, but with Hannah’s understated recognition that the world does not revolve around her. Her comical inability to ingratiate herself into a world of wealthy, thin women surfers, and her romantic interlude with the already attached Paul-Louis (Riz Ahmed) who remains content to stay with his girlfriend even after great sex, leaves Hannah on the periphery. A place that, by the end of the episode, she seems at home in.
The next episode, ‘Hostage Situation’, serves to hold Hannah and her friends in brief periods of discomforting captivity and force them to confront adulthood head on. Their ability to be released by that which confines them is determined directly by their ability to let go of childlike desires — to be liked, to be kept, to be frivolous and selfish. There has never been a moment in any episode of Girls where Hannah seems more sure-footed than when she says to a sobbing, self-absorbed Marnie that “it can be pretty hard to have observations about other people when you are only thinking about yourself.” Her words come from a place of compassion, and of sincere empathy.
We understand the irony here. Entitlement was Hannah’s most compelling attribute. She was a character who had so little empathy that she felt vindicated in the act of flashing her vulva to her non-consenting boss. And then, of course, Dunham herself has been rightfully accused across her series run of being blind to the experiences of people outside the privileged white set. Yet suddenly, without pomp and circumstance, Dunham and Hannah both are reflective, wise, and somewhat unrecognisable.
It is exactly this maturity, and this sharp self-awareness, that is painfully stolen from Hannah in ‘American Bitch’. The third episode of season six considers Hannah a grown woman, one who buttons her shirt to her neck, who fixes her lipstick in an elevator mirror, who meets an older man in his upmarket apartment in the middle of the day for a meeting.
The man’s apartment is particular, strangled by subjectivity. She has to remove her shoes, she has to place them in a way where they cannot touch the other shoes in the hall, she is never once offered a drink, she is not allowed to affect the things around her. The apartment is crowded with paintings of its own rooms, with untouched furnishings serving little function but to inform itself of its own wealth, with photographs of its owner in receipt of awards and one peculiar picture of Woody Allen with a halo of golden light around his head.
If this apartment were a person it would be every man who ever talked over you at a party. If it were a film it would be a grown up 500 Days of Summer, proselytising to itself in a Sisyphean loop, incapable of seeing through the bright light of its own windows. Its occupant is its mouthpiece, a wealthy forty-something author named Chuck Palmer (Mathew Rhys), a confessional writer much like Hannah and Dunham both, the ‘voice of a generation’ grown up and imbued with patriarchal power.
As soon as a guarded Hannah sits down, we are introduced to the agenda of their meeting. She has written an article about his potentially non-consensual sexual encounters with his own students, one that reads as her own hero fallen, guilty, a predator. Four of these girls have stepped forward as his accusers, and yet he still asks why she would write such a piece, when she hasn’t even spoken to him?
The question is loaded with the weight of the very public contemporary conversation on abuse, consent and power, relating to celebrities like Chris Brown, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby and Casey Affleck. It feels almost deliberate that the question is asked while simultaneously, on another channel, Affleck, who has been accused of sexual harassment by a former producer, and by multiple other women, was receiving an Oscar for Best Actor. Deliberate in a natural sense, like when your car breaks down just as your phone battery dies. It exists in a reality where gods like to play games with us, a reality where we are not only being watched, we are being made into satire.
This seems to be Dunham’s gift — finding humour in difficult conversations. This is particularly recognisable in the interactions between her parents, whose relationship was maintained, despite her father having come out as gay, through a series of phone conversations with Hannah. Internal ironies and a lack of self-awareness tend to drive Dunham’s comedy, and it is deeply ironic that Hannah, a character who herself is guilty of giving someone a non-consensual blowjob, would climb on her high horse about consent.
The growth of Hannah, though, informs her resolve that she had done the right thing. She speaks to the silencing of women, to the power dynamics both in their student-teacher relationship with him and also in society at large, to the fact that while one accuser might require more astute research, four accusers is, at the very least, fodder for a think piece.
He responds in a stream of compliments and self-deprecations. She’s a strong writer, she’s funny, she has a pretty face. He can’t sleep, he’s seeing a therapist, he’s worried his young daughter will discover the rumours online. He presents as the tortured artist. Hannah listens, watches, sits with him on a couch. She doesn’t recognise her own vulnerability. She is eased by his false humility, while the apartment around her screams ‘get out’.
The sticking point in conversations about consent is often the law. Accusations cannot be entered alone as evidence in a case, no matter how many there are, and the burden of proof always lies with the victim. Affleck, with his immense wealth, settled his lawsuit out of court. Dunham’s author, Palmer, had sex with ‘adult women’ who consented to enter his apartment, just as Hannah had done. The question of consent hangs within those walls, next to the Woody Allen portrait and the photograph of Palmer’s daughter playing the flute.
When Hannah relays her own experience of non-consensual assault by her teacher, one that echoes an autobiographical story found in Dunham’s own memoir, Palmer seems affected, saddened, angry for her humiliation. He tells her he is sorry. The trap snaps shut.
An astute observer knows what’s coming next. They talk as intimate friends about favourite literature. In a classic Hannah moment she comments on a book she loves despite how problematic it is, called ‘When She Was Good’ by Philip Roth, who himself had been accused of abuse. And when Palmer offers her his signed copy of this book, it is as though he has passed to her a heavy mantle bestowed upon an entire legacy of women, women held accountable , responsible, for the abuse they have suffered at the hands of men.
Then with the conspicuousness of a man who knows he’s already gotten away with it, he asks Hannah to lie down with him. He reels her to his side with the language of consent, asking her to remain fully clothed so she is ‘comfortable’. After she has directly apologised for misjudging him, he adjusts himself and in one swift move, rolls over and slaps his exposed dick on her thigh.
In a darkly comic moment, Hannah grabs hold of the dick. It is old Hannah resurfaced, the one who was led by her Id, her instinct, and equated ego to self-worth. But Hannah is no longer that. Her sense of autonomy is too strong, too stable. She recoils from Palmer for the spider he is, but she is exasperated, humiliated, reduced. His work is done. He grins.
‘American Bitch’ colours in what Hannah refers to as the ‘grey areas’ of consent — the power and manipulations people, but especially men, utilise to harass, intimidate and abuse women, robbing them of their autonomy and devastating their sense of self.
When Hannah moves to leave, she is asked to stay by Palmer’s newly arrived daughter to listen to her as she plays the flute. So, in a moment that encapsulates her degradation, Hannah stays, but she doesn’t watch the concert. She stares at Palmer, who is watching his daughter playing on a Freudian phallus, grinning wildly. The moment is Hitchcock, it’s psychological torment, it’s the tension before a Tarantino blood-fest that never comes.
Instead Hannah leaves, and in an almost surrealist ending, we watch a flow of women, one at a time, walk past her into his apartment building. The metaphor is clear. This keeps happening, and it will never stop. It will never, ever stop.
The heft of this episode is contained in its familiarity. Dunham cunningly characterised Hannah as a more relatable, enjoyable person before this episode even arrived. We identify with her. We know her experience, just as well as we know our own experiences of men. Palmer is Affleck, but he is also just some dude, a friend or a partner or a teacher or a colleague — someone we look up to, someone we trust.
It seems apt that while it was airing, my screen was set on an award ceremony which celebrated a ‘Chuck Palmer’ type. A man who is, by the discretion of his peers, judged as more valuable than the women he has hurt. Peers who, in a direct affront to sexual assault advocate Brie Larson, had her hand Affleck his award.