You’d think after two seasons of getting it wrong, Hannah Horvath would at least have a slight grasp on how to put one foot in front of the other. Instead, Girls creator/writer/director super-hybrid Lena Dunham continues to put the character in situations which yield little crop for Hannah’s ambitious quest to acclimate into the “real” world.
The only problem is that Hannah’s interpretation of the real world is often clouded by her insistence on seeing it like a child, a self-made roadblock to the fullest extent. She knows what she wants to do; become a writer, and we assume she’s a great one (although we’ve only been treated to glimpses of her work), otherwise we wouldn’t have a running goal to frame an entire television series around. But, making “it” happen takes time, a diligent work ethic, and money, each of which–living in the fast-paced, expensive New York City–Hannah just doesn’t have.
Sunday’s episode of Girls registers as one of the most polarizing of the entire series. Social media was aflutter, as was my phone’s inbox, with people either complaining about the episode’s drastic shift in tone from the rest of the series, or praising it as one of the most uniquely impressive entries into the show’s already-impressive repertoire.
I fall into the latter category, but let me explain myself.
Season 2’s fifth episode sees Hannah developing a whirlwind attraction for a 42-year old who lives just down the block from the coffee shop where she works. Josh[ua, as he keeps reminding Hannah when she shortens it], played by Patrick Wilson, is upset because someone from the coffee shop is placing their trash into his cans. Hannah invites herself into his home after leaving work, shares in a glass of lemonade tinged with basic conversation topics, and, you know, has sex with him.
The midday affair turns into a two-day sexfest, with Hannah and Joshua both calling off work the next day to stay home and cuddle, eat steaks from the grill, muse about his aging, and have sex after playing a few dozen sets of naked ping pong (the game table facilitates the fun stuff, of course).
The tone of the episode mirrors its content. The framing is stationary, almost static at times, and highly claustrophobic. We are treated to countless shots of Hannah and Joshua fit tightly into compositions which read more like 18th century portraits versus moving images from a 2013 television series. At once this functions as a means to isolate Hannah from the outside world, seeing as she’s indulging in a sex fantasy come to life. But, on the other hand, we can also read these shots as Dunham’s insistence on attempting to push Hannah into a frame of normality, which simply doesn’t work—and for good reason.
Hannah learns that Joshua is a doctor (hence the fabulous house, standard-sized in any other part of the country, but a small-scale castle when placed into the arena of New York City housing prices), recently separated (but not divorced) from his wife, who now lives in San Diego. “What did you do? I mean, to make her leave?” Hannah asks him, with all the terrible experience of her former loves building to a head in that very moment.
In essence, Joshua represents the ideal life for someone like Hannah, who has unrealistically dropped into her lap like a Godsend from straight girl heaven. He’s attractive, tall, sensitive, loaded, and the fact that he’s “separated” and not “divorced” adds a little bit of scandal (if harmless) to the whole affair, something we’re to believe a girl in Hannah’s position (penniless, struggling liberal arts major, twenty-something with big ambitions and no means for which to accomplish them) would jump at. He could provide her with stability, money, and good sex—things she isn’t used to (or at least things she’s only been used to in parts, but never all together at the same time). The cinematography in this episode shifts from merely isolating Hannah from the rest of the world in a bubble of sexual satisfaction to attempting to shove her into sort of picture-perfect, portrait-style framing of a typical life she could have so very easily if she were to be with a man who supports her. The problem is that Joshua is distracting Hannah from living. Having no money and trying to make it on your own in one of the most expensive, dream-crushing cities in the world is a task which takes an independent to succeed, and an even greater one to fail. Hannah realizes this when she’s revealing some of her deepest thoughts to him after sex, and the spark that was once in Joshua’s eyes dims mid-conversation. He’s not interested in feelings or philosophy. He doesn’t understand Hannah’s mind, he merely understands her body as a placeholder for the emptiness he feels having lost the “stable” part of his adult life. Hannah might be 24, but she’s by no means an adult; her experiences are yet to be had. “I just want to feel everything,” Hannah tells him, not realizing that at 42 he’s felt close to the “everything” she speaks of.
We’ve already seen Jessa get herself into this situation, and both times now we’ve seen that the “ideal” life for a New York woman is not, as it would seem, that of a rich housewife sitting at home using her husband’s money to hone her craft. It’s artificial.
After indulging in a few last-minute housewife experiences, however, after Joshua goes to work (browsing his huge closet, reading The New York Times at an outdoor breakfast nook while eating the finest organic jams his pantry has to offer), Hannah leaves the house, taking out the trash (her “growing up,” so to speak) and fitting it into a garbage can once plagued with trash from the coffee shop. She leaves the “sex vacation” behind and makes her way to the street. In a single shot (which breaks the stagnant framing of the interior) the camera becomes mobile and pans over, watching Hannah her make her way out of the static confines of immature passions (and constrictive framing) to the bustling road at the end of the stagnant avenue she’s on, towards a life where she’ll have to work for her stability. She leaves a life of ease and makes her way towards one where she has to work for herself in order to “feel everything,” not let some man from a dream world she doesn’t have the right to inhabit yet give it all to her based on a whirlwind bout of sexual passion.
The episode does something we’ve rarely seen in Girls before, a true turning point for Hannah as a character. We’re used to seeing her make a fool of herself. At 24, she makes a sincere proposal to her parents to support her writing at $2,000 a month until her book is finished. She does cocaine because a shitty blog editor tells her it will be a “good experience to write about.” Hannah has no filter between what’s conductive to her career and what’s simply an immature decision made out of desperation and destitution. Hannah generally fails to see herself for what she is. She knows she’s broke, but we get the sense that she sees that as more of a beautiful “struggling artist-chic” sort of thing than a “I have a shit job and can’t pay my rent” kind of thing. In this episode, Hannah confronts the side of her that makes her pathetic and, hopefully, had her sights on getting it together as she made her way out of Joshua’s house and down that long road back to the coffee shop. She realizes that staying with Joshua would only be indulging the child in her that relishes in the fantasy of not having to work, being with a rich man, and having it easy on Park Avenue for the rest of her life.
For once Hannah grows up, and Lena Dunham’s genius writing couldn’t have made the process any more satisfying–for us, at least.