Adam Sackler is at once the most appalling and the most fascinating character on HBO’s Girls, which has its Season 1 finale this Sunday. Towering over Hannah—the show’s principal protagonist, played by series creator Lena Dunham—he cuts a striking figure, his faded jeans set off by a Bieber-like hair helmet and a bare chest worthy of its own twitter feed. Introduced as Hannah’s bizarre and reclusive sex partner in the first episode, he has hovered throughout the season somewhere between repulsive and charming, loathsome and endearing.
When the series began, Adam seemed like an inconsiderate, emotionally abusive jerk. He teased Hannah about her weight (“You’re not that fat anymore”) and showed little interest in her life outside of his apartment (“How’s Ohio?” he asked while she was visiting her parents in Michigan). His uncensored fantasies wavered uncomfortably between hilarious and possibly traumatizing—and he appeared entirely unconcerned with her sexual satisfaction. He even derided her insistence on condoms as an annoyance. It seemed Adam was the only one benefitting from their friends-with-benefits relationship.
But his impulsive growls, grunts, and roars were oddly winning—as was his term of endearment of choice for Hannah: “kid” (even if it does recall his Lolita-like fantasies). And a thoughtful side seemed to lurk below the brusque surface: We learned right away that he was a comp lit major in college and was working on a play (though his main passion appeared to be woodworking, a labor he called “more honest”).
These contradictions resolved into something like coherence when Hannah learned in the seventh episode that Adam has attended Alcoholics Anonymous since he was 17. The revelation was a turning point in their relationship, and led to them becoming a real couple. Then Hannah saw part of the play he was working on, a monologue that suggested a lonely adolescence (and, perhaps, the early stages of his sexual inclinations). Suddenly, Adam’s character made sense as a bewildered twentysomething negotiating the path from boyhood to maturity.
What’s more, his self-determination increasingly distinguishes him from the girls on the show. Walking to play rehearsal, he tells Hannah, “I’m really excited for you to see it. Because I’m really good at acting and writing.” That confidence contrasts sharply with Hannah’s own performance at a reading in the following episode. While she and her female friends are busy deciding who they are, Adam knows who he is. Even his enthusiasm for physical fitness now seems like part of a broader dedication to self-improvement.
Granted, Adam’s confidence can shade quickly into pretentiousness. When the performance of his castmate at that play rehearsal disappointed him, he dropped out of the production. “I would rather do nothing for the rest of my life than have my name attached to something mediocre,” he tells Hannah. “Your integrity is all that matters.” (She later persuaded him to return to the play.)
In a recent episode, Hannah’s friends Jessa and Marnie discussed Adam. “What’s the deal with that guy?” Jessa asked. “Is he like a great thinker or just a total fucking idiot?” The answer is both. Adam thinks he is “done growing,” as he says at one point to Hannah, but he has a realization or two left to experience. (For one thing, he can’t live off checks from his grandmother forever.) Perhaps one will come this Sunday, even—or in Season 2. Either way, I look forward to it.
Previous Character Studies:
Shirley Bennett, Community
April Ludgate, Parks and Recreation
Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones
Sally Draper, Mad Men
Sterling Archer, Archer