This week’s episode of Girls breaks the cardinal rule of 21st-century creatives–don’t feed the trolls–but at least has the sense to do it in a medium where they can’t respond back.
The centerpiece of “Triggering” has a room full of Hannah Horvath’s peers reciting various real-world critiques of Lena Dunham, sounding pretentious and shallow as they put her writing through the wringer. And yet, to her credit, Dunham balances it with even more self-effacing–depicting herself as thin-skinned, deceptive, selfish, and out of her depth.
“I feel like I made the right decision, which is a totally new sensation for me,” Hannah tells Marnie from her new Iowa home–a house she sprung for just because an apartment she already considered “huge” was less than half the $800 rent. And who wouldn’t feel good moving to middle America? The grass is green, the streets are wide and empty, and hey, you can even leave your bike unlocked, a classmate tells her.
This first impression, however, soon melts away. Dunham and co-writer/exec producer Jenni Konner try to recreate the 30 Rock episode “Stone Mountain,” where Jack Donaghy discovers people in the “real America” can be just as nasty as in New York City. But whereas 30 Rock‘s cartoonish culture clash pitted coastal snobs against a backwoods hell on earth, Girls only shows Hannah’s helplessness when faced with faint discomfort. If anything, her escalating misfortunes serve as a tourism ad for the midwest. Come to Iowa! Where the worst that can happen is:
- A man at a bookstore will be rude about your cut-up credit card (after you start your encounter with a casual reference to him still being “on the teat” despite his, um, actual employment)
- You may live at a location with poor cell phone service
- A stranger may give you good advice–and then invite you to a Battle of the Bands
- You may lock yourself out of your house because you don’t know how to cope with a bat coming inside–but then you will be able to enter through a ground-floor window rather than waking up a landlord in the middle of the night
- Someone steals your bike when you leave it alone and unlocked at a public university
Much of this sequence relies on physical comedy, which falls flat–with jokes as lazy as Hannah tipping over on a bike and doing nothing to brace her fall. How spacey! Too bad, as seasons 1 and 2 did have laugh-out-loud silent moments; they were just subtle and brief, not quite so obvious (see: Shoshanna’s weak freakout at the end of Season 3. Hardly a worthwhile homage to Charles Foster Kane).
Things pick up, though, when Hannah’s classmates evaluate each other’s work. The students outright worship a black classmate they call “D. August” (from the dialogue I thought it was a first name–De’August–but now that the IMDB credits have corrected me, the joke is even better); when their professor asks what his short story is about, they skip that step and go right to effusive praise. When they trash Hannah’s story, he jumps in as her only defender. Somehow they end up saying he, “as usual, hit the nail on the head,” yet jump right back into the dogpile.
As I mentioned, the hate from her peers echoes real-life criticism: that she’s a “really privileged girl,” that she’s got feminism all wrong, and in a prophetic nod to her memoir’s second most controversial passage, that she “trivializes the very real abuse suffered by some.” Hannah rather obnoxiously defends herself, breaking the prof’s rule of staying silent until her classmates finish. Later, when someone tells her the story was “TMI,” she launches into a monologue that feels like Dunham herself delivering a manifesto:
There’s no such thing as too much information. This is the information age. We’re all just here to express ourselves, so it’s like, to censor each other–we’re no better than… George W. Bush.
Can’t know for sure, but I think we’ve just seen the very first Bush joke of 2015. It could be exactly what Dunham believes, or it could be a send-up of her character. Per a statement she gave around the time of season 2, Dunham has enough self-awareness to know that Hannah’s hatred of Republicans is instinctual rather than reasoned. And it could just be Dunham trolling conservatives. If so, congratulations; I took the bait.
Hannah’s problems worsen as she gets cut off from friends and family, resorting to collect payphone calls to reach home. (Here, Dunham betrays her age–even without cell phone service, she could connect her phone to her wifi, then make calls or send texts through a multitude of apps. In the beginning of the episode she shows a Skype call breaking up, but it was working well enough to talk with Marnie for at least 10 minutes–and she definitely has enough bandwidth for texts or audio only.) All seems lost, and she tells her parents, after lying about tiny details like whether she’s gone to class, she’s thinking about suicide for the first time ever… how dramatic! when who shows up but gay BFF Elijah–a gayus ex machina.
While Elijah (Andrew Rannells) again gets the biggest laugh of the night with a great, grotesque New York anecdote, his arrival really is a weak plot device. What kind of job does he have where he can afford the flight (upwards of $400 for a same-week ticket) but has the time to travel on a whim? And how does he already 1) know Hannah’s address and 2) get past the front door lock? Hannah suggests he’s got an ulterior motive, but unless he finds no greater pleasure than in giving hand jobs to closeted Iowa boys, we get no answer to that question–yet.
Of course, Elijah’s solution to all of Hannah’s anxieties is to party like college kids again. Beer, dancing, aforementioned hand jobs, and kiddie pool wrestling with some kind of blue goop tee up the episode’s climax, a sickening exchange between Hannah and an undergrad girl with a cheating boyfriend. Her consolation and advice veer from “where is he? Let’s go teach him a lesson” to “you were long-distance? Time to sleep with a stranger!” After hugging the girl and saying, “I’ve seen a lot of things. I’m 25 years old,” she cuts in front of her in line for the bathroom. The episode ends with Elijah and Hannah walking out silently, Hannah looking like Betty Rubble with her white dress stained blue from her wrestling match.
The episode really suffered from spending so much time on Hannah, the least endearing lead character. We see Marnie only in a Skype call, with her whole identity caught up in an affair with her songwriting partner. Shoshanna and Jessa get a great character moment when Hannah tries to call them collect. Shosh can’t figure out how to accept the call, and when asked what the phone number might be (“it’s a bunch of zeroes”), Jessa’s first thought is a prison call.
As I speculated last week, Dunham did use this episode’s meta-commentary on her career as an opportunity to snipe at critics. It was still quite harsh on her character, but the tightrope’s balance felt like it leaned closer to Hannah, unfairly maligned genius, than Hannah, spoiled brat. And with more screen time, Dunham’s performance began to feel more affected than natural, especially during her “TMI” lecture and the cheating boyfriend pep talk. Here’s hoping her co-stars get some great scenes as compensation for their underuse next week.