“Girls” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Five: “Another Man’s Trash”

Broken record time: I find comedy series confounding to write about, because for me writing about TV is calculating how details of setting and shooting and performance add up to something, but with comedy you can’t solve the equation because the need for jokes is an undefinable variable. The joke needs must be king and it trumps all the usual concerns, even on series with heavy narrative serialization and a lot of dramatic moments the inclusion of which used to create “very special episodes” but which are now pretty common across the board. (Scrubs, an overlooked single-camera comedy trailblazer, did this in literally every episode.) Girls is basically a dramedy that has more in common with Mad Men than with Arrested Development, but it still throws those confounding curveballs, exaggerating specific aspects of the characters and milieu for comedic effect. (“Specific” is key here, of course — it’s not flat-out ridiculous — but still.) But just because I don’t write about it very often doesn’t mean I don’t like it an awful lot.

Judging from twitter and Google Reader posts I tried not to read for fear of spoilers, this past week’s episode, “Another Man’s Trash,” was something of a breakout for the show, and having seen it it’s easy to see why. For starters, TV nerds no doubt have to appreciate the humor in borrowing a bottle-episode structure but having half the cast stuck in the bottle be Patrick Wilson.

But its real brilliance is in creating suspense based solely on the show’s established story structure. We’ve all seen Girls before, and we know that anytime something’s going well for Hannah, someone says something that destroys the magic and brings it all crashing down — she’s getting along great with a job interviewer until she makes a date-rape joke about him; she’s having the coked-up time of her life with her gay ex until he tells her he fucked her female best friend, etc. So you spend her entire lost-weekend idyll waiting for the other shoe to drop…

…and it legit seems like it won’t! Hannah and her handsome doctor Joshua keep having sex — lots of it, all over his splendid house, driven by frank and honest statements of arousal and desire that took her months to get to with her ex-boyfriend Adam, if she ever really got to them at all. They lounge, they joke around, they sit quietly reading and eating, they tease each other, they go to sleep and wake up and do it all again. For once she seems able to accept that she and a romantic interest (substitute “friend” or “professional peer” and it’d be the same deal, for her) are on a level playing field.

Why? At one point Joshua tells her she’s beautiful, and when he asks her doesn’t she think so?, she replies something like yes, but that’s not the feedback she’s used to getting. That’s the key here: Joshua’s very existence is the new feedback. Physically stunning, smart, successful, kind, wealthy — Hannah’s holding her own with someone who’s all these things. One of the reasons I love Downton Abbey and Mad Men so much is their emphasis on how the emotional feedback people receive from their friends and colleagues shapes who they are able to be and become; this is the best feedback loop Hannah’s had in ages. If you’ve ever had one of these whirlwind weekends (or whenever) where your every waking and sleeping moment is consumed by someone wonderful you’re in the process of discovering and being discovered by, you know exactly how powerful, arousing, fulfilling, transforming that feedback loop can be. And don’t mistake me—it’s not at all a situation where “oh, someone good likes me, now I feel validated as a person.” It’s more like she’s thrown herself into the deep end and realized she could swim like a motherfucker all along.

That’s her undoing, of course. She believes herself to be totally safe, so after her inhibitions are worn down by getting all light-headed and passing out in the shower, she lets loose with a torrent of pure Hannah solipsism for which Joshua is completely unprepared. It’s heartbreaking to see how Hannah’s emotional awareness works — how she’s initially totally clueless that she’s coming on too strong, that she’s treating Joshua like a journal rather than a person with his own emotions and agency, that she’s being enormously condescending and dismissive to his life; but how the very moment she senses the possibility of rejection, she picks up on those cues and attacks them like a shark that smells blood in the water. She’s clueless unless and until she picks up on someone reacting negatively to that cluelessness, at which point she becomes an emotional Sherlock Holmes.

It was very funny, very sexy, very specific, and very sad. We’re lucky to have the show that gave it to us.

12 Responses to “Girls” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Five: “Another Man’s Trash”

  1. BMICHAEL says:

    Dan Harmon writes a ‘bottle episode’ and the internet cums rainbows. Lena Dunham does it, and she’s fat. (full d.: I do love dan harmon etc.)

  2. MattM says:

    An all-Hannah episode was a clear high-point of the series, but also reinforced how little interest I have in Jessa/Shosh/Marnie (also Adam/Booth Johnathan/etc).

  3. Tim O'Neil says:

    I think you slightly misread this episode – or maybe I misread your comments? I really don’t think there was much desire for reciprocation on Joshua’s part, he was a middle aged guy who just got divorced looking for sex with a 24 years old. Which is great while it last, which is as long as it takes for Hanna to let her guard down, at which point he realizes that he doesn’t really want to be doing this, he just wants to have sex with a 24 year old without all the baggage of, you know, actually being around a 24 year old. The way that kind of age difference works, he was always just using her to gratify his own insecurities, and she couldn’t see that until it was way too late.

    But seriously, I liked the show better when it was still OK to laugh at these awful people instead of trying to sympathize with them. They’re still monsters, but the more time passes the more I think that Dunham – the actual person – really does not have the self awareness God gave a flea.

    • Re: Joshua: Well, yeah, duh. (I do think he was excited to reciprocate right up until the moment he wasn’t, though.)

      Re: the girls and sympathy for the devil—Everything from The Sopranos on down creates monsters it then occasionally asks us to empathize with, which we’re willing and able to do despite cringing or laughing at other times. if this is okay for all the great antihero dramas I don’t understand why it’s suddenly too much to ask for us to walk and chew bubblegum at the same time here.

      • Tim O'Neil says:

        But I would argue that I’ve always had trouble with the “great antihero dramas” for precisely that reason as well, but we’ve danced this dance before.

    • Of course Dunham is self-aware. That’s what informs the writing. The humor is coming from carefully calibrated writing and performance where Hannah is both emotionally naked and yet so self-involved she’s not truly open to others. I would also say Patrick Wilson’s character wasn’t necessarily “just” looking to have sex with a 24 year old. I think maybe he was caught up in the romance of it until her probing awakened him to how much of an emotional commitment it would take to keep this idyll going. Or, Hannah was a problem that he could solve and make himself feel good and once again in control of his life, like taking in a stray dog. And then he realized it wasn’t going to be a matter of just filling a food bowl.

      Our contemporary culture accepts complexity and shading in everyone. We’ve all got addictions, obsessions, dark impulses, but also friendships and loyalties and personal morality and senses of humor, capabilities of kindness. Drama or comedy that doesn’t recognize this today is rightly seen as retrograde. Which can make the old, clearly defined stuff attractive and reassuring (John Ford, Hays Code crime films, superhero comics, multicamera sitcoms). It’s just another storytelling mode with its own pitfalls. Obviously, giving every character a history, a soul, can be crippling and so realistic it becomes inert.

      • Tim O'Neil says:

        Brecht is retrograde?

        • To the limited extent I know Brecht and the distancing effect and all that, yes. Not any less valid an approach, just not fashionable now.

          • Tim O'Neil says:

            My point was less flip than it came out, I guess. Essentially, based on the first couple episodes of the show – which were very black – I thought this was going to be a rough satire more in the Brecht-ian tradition (which sounds pretentious, but he’s the guy who talked about it, so he’s the guy whose name is associated with the style). Then it turned out those first couple episodes – which had repulsed viewers like Sean precisely because they did such a thorough job of making the characters seem thoroughly unsympathetic – were outliers. For me, ironically, trying to make the characters more sympathetic only succeeded in making them less sympathetic, because I find their milieu inherently pathetic and their socio-economic status (even when they’re “slumming” the boho life) terrifying.

            When I say Dunham has far less self-awareness than I originally gave her credit for, I mean that after the first couple episodes she seems to have pulled back from the kind of moralistic judgment that any kind of comedy of class manners is going to necessarily entail, going for a more traditional model of well-developed characters with thoughts and inner struggles. Which, you know, all well and good, but (for me) yawn. Seems very tin-eared given the state of the world today.

          • My problem with the first couple episodes wasn’t that the characters were unsympathetic, but that they were incoherently rendered (particularly in episode 2) for easy access to gags. You can check the reviews if you don’t believe me.

  4. Tim O'Neil says:

    Oh, I believe you!

    I apologize if I misrepresented your opinion, it was based on my faulty memory.