Brow Beat

Guys on Girls: Stripped Down

Lena Dunham and Adam Driver on Girls (HBO)

David Haglund: Open on a shot of condom wrappers. Cut to open peanut butter jar. Then a young Adam Sackler in a home video. Hannah Horvath is in love.

And Girls is on a roll. After a couple bumpy episodes a while back, we’ve gotten a poignant return to Hannah’s suburban home, a wild and hilarious Bushwick party, and now the emotional roller coaster ride that is a committed relationship with Adam Sackler. We have marveled in the past at the way the series has deepened and complicated that character, but this episode rounded him out as much as all those episodes combined.

We saw his empathetic side, when he told Hannah not to “minimize” Marnie’s heartbreak. (“That shit’s really hard. I’m sorry to hear you’re going through that.”) We saw his approach to physical fitness, on the run with Hannah. (“Reach your threshold and run past it!” he shouted. And later, as motivation, “Charlie’s in the bushes! Charlie’s in the bushes!”) And then we got that great monologue at the tech rehearsal about his first day in sixth grade (“I smell like sweat, I smell like a gerbil”), and the time years later he had angry sex with the girl who wouldn’t pay attention to him then. “Don’t be afraid that if they’re not laughing they’re not feeling,” he told his castmate, sounding a bit like Judd Apatow in his more reflective moments. He seemed almost too good to be true.

Then he flipped out in wild anger at a car and peed on Hannah in the shower.

The other big storyline might get more attention, what with Marnie and Jessa making out and all. Perhaps that seems like an obvious move for a show about four young women: have the two most conventionally attractive kiss each other, and titillate the show’s (surprisingly abundant) male viewers. But I thought this scene, apart from Chris O’Dowd’s character’s rug-related flipout (I don’t care how much he paid for his floor covering, few guys would break up that Sapphic encounter), was handled well. I can understand, I think, what both Marnie and Jessa were doing (even if I disagree with the theory—hatched by the women of Slate before they’d even seen this episode—that Jessa is “a closet lesbian”). And I thought O’Dowd’s rant about the pretty young daddy’s girls of Williamsburg who don’t know what it means to work hard was an important moment for the show. As the Dude said to Walter, you’re not wrong, you’re just an asshole.

Lastly, Jody Lee Lipes, who directed last week’s episode as well as this one, is going places.

Am I wrong?

Wickman: You’re not wrong, David, nor are you an asshole. We can talk about the Jessa-on-Marnie mashup in a moment, but in the meantime I’m much more interested in the more promising relationship between Adam and Hannah.

This is the episode where we learn the most about Adam, and it’s also one of Girls’ best episodes so far—two things that are not unrelated. That opening tableau of condom wrappers is the first thing we’ve seen since Adams’ great “You don’t want to know me” speech, and taught us at least three things: 1) Adam has indeed entered a new phase of his relationship with Hannah (the sex-crazed infatuation phase); 2) Adam is now happily using condoms, and is perhaps not as monstrously selfish as it seemed when we first met him, when Hannah asked him to get a condom and he said “I’ll consider it”; and 3) they’re Magnums: Adam is well endowed.

And what about that home movie of young Adam, playing with his banana? I love the in-joke that even as a young child, he liked to go shirtless. But it wasn’t just an in-joke: This episode seems determined to depict the latent little squirt in Adam’s personality. We see him as a young boy, putting a banana peel on his head; then he and Lena talk dirty about fucking as toddlers; then Adam plays a twelve-year-old in his play. Also he keeps compulsively scratching his ass in the street. (Did you guys notice this? Exactly what latency stage is he supposed to be in?) Finally, we learn that this is part of what Hannah likes about him: She likes hearing about Adam the dirty schoolboy: It makes her wish she could go back to that time and kiss him.

Of course, there are limits to all of this: Adam can be strikingly and surprisingly mature (like when he tells Hannah not to invalidate Marnie’s pain), and Hannah’s affection for Adam’s boyishness does not mean she likes being peed on.

And I agree about Lipes, who has directed the episodes that are both the most tonally inconsistent and the most hilarious. I’m for a team of Dunham and Lipes sharing all the directorial duties from here out. (Sorry, auteurists: Dunham may be the primary artist behind this show, but spreading the duties around just this little bit seems to be helping.)

Engber: I’d like to talk about this volatile baby of a relationship. But first, on the matter of Adam’s member: When he mimes jerking off on stage, and when he jerked off for real in episode five, the guy was going at it from both sides. In D&D terms, he’s brandishing a +8 two-handed sword. Magnums? Of course.

Yes, we learned a lot about Adam in this episode: He’s sensitive, he’s mean, he’s artsy, he’s emotionally incontinent. But before any of that, we learn that his parents shot home movies on Super 8. Huh? This guy is, what, 24 years old? Which means he was a toddler in the early 90s, and grew up in the heyday of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Hannah and Adam should be watching videotapes on an old camcorder. (Or home movies of Hannah’s parents in the ’70s. Wouldn’t that be great? Before they finished grad school and moved to Michigan, laughing without a soundtrack and passing around a joint…)

I know that’s nitpicking, but it’s another example of the show’s frustrating inconsistency (tonal, narrative, whatever). Watching an 8mm film projected on the ceiling is too precious; when the camera panned down, I half-expected to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel snuggling on the bed. Then we have moments of farce, moments of cringe, and moments of pathos. This is dramedy, but the drama and the comedy aren’t as fused together as they should be. The voice keeps changing, as if Dunham (and her team of winged monkeys) can’t decide what they’re doing—like Adam says, they haven’t figured out who they are.

Wickman: I raised an eyebrow at that Super 8 detail, too—could it have been filmed by Adam’s grandma, the one who gives him an allowance?—but I don’t see the show’s inconsistencies as a major flaw, and especially when it comes to tone. Farce, cringe, pathos: Girls does these all pretty damn well. So why choose? It is TV, after all, which has room to be episodic.

And I found myself pretty infatuated with the show’s depiction of this kind of fresh love (the best I’ve seen since at least “Call Me Maybe”). It wasn’t just the great performances of the leads, but also the smaller details. My favorite among these was putting both Hannah and Adam in white long johns, which I suspect were chosen to make them look like they’re wearing straitjackets together. Earlier, too, Hannah asks Adam if she’s dreaming; infatuation, as this episode makes clear, can be a shared madness.

Haglund: Those long johns were hilarious—and good call on the straitjacket comparison. They were also infantilizing: When Adam says Hannah looks great in hers, she says, “You mean like a giant baby?”

And the shifts in tone are one of the things I love about this show. Life can go from serious to funny to sad to scary pretty quickly. When Marnie and Jessa are at that guy’s apartment, and one minute she’s making out with her friend in an effort to “be free,” and the next she’s asking the creepy venture capitalist not to hurt her? That seemed entirely plausible.

And this episode showed us what a truly jarring change in voice looks like: When Adam’s castmate at the tech rehearsal went into an odd, farcical “wigger” routine immediately after Adam’s touching monologue. It completely broke the illusion, in the service of “an easy joke,” as Adam called it. “Everyone laughs at the white guy doing the black voice.”

Engber: But the wigger routine is exactly what I’m talking about! Adam rightly calls it “an easy joke,” but the easy joke that the writers used was way too easy. That “yo yo yo shit” completely broke the illusion of watching someone completely break an illusion.

Also breaking the illusion: When Chris O’Dowd erupts in a threesome-ending rant in a cartoonish drunk baby voice.

On the other side, it works perfectly when Adam shifts from bravado to vulnerability to rage to urine. I don’t want everything to be the same.

Haglund: The voice of the show is steady, though. Last week I mentioned how Marnie’s attempted put-down of Adam echoed Hanna’s comment to her parents in the pilot. This week, Adam’s instructions to that castmate—“You owe it to yourself to strip it down a little”—echoed Jessa’s comment to Marnie: “I love you stripped down.” (To which Marnie replied, “I’ve never been this miserable in my life.” “It’s totally working.”)

Engber: You guys are tone-shifting apologists. I’ll speak for the rest of America—or at least the children of Soho—when I say that all this dodging back and forth makes it a little bit harder to relate to the characters and enjoy the show.

Haglund: As for the Super 8, maybe Adam’s parents are a bit precious, too? This show doesn’t avoid contemporary gadgets, after all: We’ve seen Hannah composing a tweet, and, in this episode, Marnie mourning the end of her relationship by staring at Charlie’s vacation pics on Facebook. Which struck me as exactly what she would be doing.

Engber: I *loved* Marnie’s three-word summation of Charlie’s new relationship: “ew … gay … what?”

Wickman: Yeah, that Facebook scene was as spot-on as the Twitter scene from the third episode. It was accurate enough that it made me realize how fantastical the (otherwise great and thematically appropriate) ending of The Social Network was. Zuckerberg wouldn’t be refreshing his screen to see a friendship request, he’d be using his access to look through her photos.

Engber: Or poking that cute medical student at UCSF.

Haglund: I agree that O’Dowd’s character at least bent the illusion, even if he didn’t quite break it for me. He was an object of stereotyped fun: The young jerk in finance with lots of money and no clue, making his “mash-ups” with “Steal My Sunshine” and “recordings of children in a field.”

Wickman: Those two moments, the “wigger” and the drunk baby, were exactly the two scenes that I did, I admit, find a little distracting. I’ve liked Chris O’Dowd (last seen in Bridesmaids and then belting “I Can’t Help Myself” at Cannes) before, and he made me laugh more than a few times here, but here he was playing it too broad and, yes, too weirdly infantile for the show. In other words he was playing it—to return to another old Engber criticism—like sketch comedy.

I did, however, love the monkey calls on his “two-iTune-windows-at-the-same-time” mashups. That soundtrack perfectly echoed his out-of-placeness during the sensual moment the girls were sharing (though, I agree, I still don’t think Jessa is a “closet lesbian”). And the scene allowed his character to be at least a little sympathetic—we’re meant to sympathize with the substance of his rant, as it was written—which is the kind of complexity that would be rare among sketch comedy.

Engber: I was glad to see some naked cattiness from Jessa and Marnie, trashing Hannah because they’re jealous of her new boyfriend. But can we talk about that line in the bar, when they’re making fun of their friend’s small breasts and Marnie ends the conversation by saying, “They’re teensy… but I love them”?

Women of Slate, help us out: Do women talk this way about each other’s breasts? I’m trying to remember if I ever developed a sense of affection for one of my guy-friend’s body parts. I think the answer is no.

Wickman: One last defense of apparent inconsistencies, which comes from the show itself: I liked when Adam answers the phone saying, “Yo skank, where you at? Getting that pussy pounded?” And then we learn that the call was just from his sister. (This is just a shtick that they have.) Some things that at first seem to be inconsistencies are explained in good time.

Engber: You know, for an apologist you’re not a very good apologizer. Just FYI.

Haglund: Dan, did you at least find this episode as funny as I did? Marnie after her Facebook voyeurism: “He was making all these wishes at those overrated fountains.” Jessa on O’Dowd’s profession: “What is a venture capitalist? It sounds like some sort of explorer, but that can’t be right.” Adam and Hannah in bed: “Would you have fucked a four-year-old me?” “I was only two.” “How fat were you? Be honest.” All those lines made me laugh out loud.

Engber: Yes, it was very funny. I thought the biggest laugh was when Adam gives Marnie a long talk about finding yourself and figuring out what you want to do. And Marnie says, “I like reading?”

Haglund: “I took the most amazing Middle Eastern studies course in college. I almost became an international relations major. Almost.”

Engber: I need to be balls deep in something else right now, so let’s wrap this up.

Wickman: It doesn’t make sense to get out now. There’s pee on you!

Haglund: OK. That’s our cue to go.

Read what the women of Slate thought of this episode on the XX Factor.