Brow Beat

Guys on Girls: A Healthy Collective Freakout

Lena Dunham and Adam Driver on Girls (HBO)

David Haglund: When we discussed episode 8, I kept referring to the loathsome guy who attempted a threesome with Marnie and Jessa as “Chris O’Dowd’s character” because, as far as I could tell, he didn’t have a name. Well, now he does: Thomas John (a reversal of “John Thomas”?). Oh, and he’s married to Jessa.

Now, some might object to ending the season with a marriage, because it feels like a dramatic cliché. (All stories end in a marriage or a funeral, someone supposedly said—though I can’t figure out who.) Others might object to ending it with this marriage, because… really? Jessa and this guy?

But I don’t think this wedding is serving the usual rom-com purpose. I don’t think Jessa and Thomas just magically fell in love. I think that that advice Jessa got from Katherine, her ex-employer, in the last episode, so heartfelt and seemingly right on, was exactly what she didn’t need to hear. She was vulnerable, and she rushed out to do the biggest grown-up thing she could think of—namely, marry a venture capitalist because she admires, as she says, everything he doesn’t know about.

So I think the marriage is doomed. Or that it will, at least, be a struggle. The relationship between Ray and Shoshanna, on the other hand, has serious potential. And, as it happens, we’re joined this week by Alex Karpovsky, who plays Ray so brilliantly on this show. Alex, I’m curious: When did you learn that Ray and Shoshanna would end the season together? Did you have any input on the character’s development? And what was that book he was reading? (I couldn’t make out the cover, but we know it’s by a British woman and that it’s “fucking incredible.”)

We’re also joined by Bruce Eric Kaplan, a longtime TV writer and producer whom New Yorker readers may know for his great cartoons (signed BEK). Bruce is an executive producer on Girls, and I’m curious to know what kind of input he had on the show, and the roles that producers and writers not named Lena Dunham have on the series—especially the male writers and producers, of which there only seem to be one or two.

Lastly, did anyone else notice that Hannah finally got the dessert her mother denied her in the pilot? She began the first season eating spaghetti, and she ends it by eating cake—which was, of course, free food from a party, the sustenance of struggling writers everywhere. What did you all think of that Chekhovian ending—and this finale more generally?

Bruce Eric Kaplan: Hello! David, to answer your question, the writers who aren’t Lena work together talking about the characters, and their story arcs and help shape the season. Some of us wrote episodes with Lena in the first season. Also, some of the writers work on set rewriting the scene that is shooting. 

Zosia Mamet and Alex Karpovsky on Girls (HBO)

Alex Karpovsky: I can’t remember exactly when I learned that Ray and Shoshanna would end the season together. I think Jenni or Lena may have thrown a whisper my way at one of the table reads. A lot of potential storylines and character arcs are discussed—some come to fruition, some don’t, and it’s sometimes hard to keep track of the possibilities. It’s also sometimes bruising to really fall for a possibility and then not have it congeal—so maybe there’s a defense woven into the forgetfulness. That, or early onset Alzheimers.

Sometimes Lena and I would have chats about Ray and his motivations and underpinnings, but they were pretty brief and I’m not sure how much effect they had on the unfolding of Ray.

I have no idea what Ray was reading that day at Grumpy’s, but I have a strong feeling that British accents drive him wild.

Seth Stevenson: This episode’s ending was a perfect mirror of the series’ opening scene, in which Hannah got her allowance taken away while she was shoveling spaghetti into her mouth. Here, she gets her purse stolen and then chows on wedding cake. But I’m still trying to figure why she was on that outbound F train that ends in Coney Island. I guess she was hoping to switch to the G at Bergen Street?

We chatted last week about the girls resolving their inner conflicts and becoming adults. But this was a step backward. All the girls went into sudden switch-flipping mode—Jessa getting married, Marnie falling for some dweeb, Hannah flinching at getting close to Adam after pursuing him for months. Only Shoshanna maintained her composure. And, surveying the scene, she called her friends “dumb whores.” I’m not comfortable using that term, but I get where she’s coming from.

Alex, my theory about Ray is that, despite his dickish façade, he might be the most grounded, moral, compassionate character on the show. Tell me I’m right!

Daniel Engber: The ending reminded me more of The Warriors than The Seagull—I was ready for some Joe Walsh “In the City” as Hannah strolled along the beach. She’s been fighting her way through New York all season, and now seems to have lost everything. Or has she shed all her layers, renounced her guilt, and finally reached that Adam Sackler nirvana of “full potential”? In the city, oh oh, in the city…

I liked the ending, and thought the finale was one of the best episodes of the season. But better than the Coney Island bit was the fight with Adam, where in another bookend he repeats what he’d said outside the club, right before their relationship started in earnest: You don’t know me. At the end of that scene, the camera stays in the ambulance, the doors close, and we’re with Adam as he pulls away, with Hannah disappearing from the window. For a show that can sometimes be alienating in its treatment of men, this shift in perspective really felt important.

The other big theme at the end of the season was Hannah’s realization via Marnie that other people hate her just as much as she does, and via Adam that other people can be just as scared as she is.

But the centerpiece of this episode threw me off. Jessa seemed so full of contempt for her new husband at every moment. And Thomas John once again was painted as an irredeemable buffoon at every single moment. “Free the bird…” I know people can lie to themselves, but this much?

Alex, what happened to Ray’s girlfriend from episode 1?

Karpovsky: Ray’s girlfriend from episode 1? What a babe. What beautiful eyes. Unfortunately her parents are shrinks and she loves her own jokes and she likes to copulate with a bit too much light on in the room. Those are all kisses of death for Ray.

Seth, regarding Ray as the most grounded, moral, compassionate character on the show: I really hope you’re wrong.

Kaplan: In my mind, Hannah hasn’t lost everything when she is freed of Adam, and her wallet. In the last scene, she appears triumphant in that she is finally out of her head, free of all material things, and in the moment, eating cake and experiencing the beauty of sunrise and the beach. That seems like real growth. So I don’t see the characters as stepping backward. In my mind, they are all moving forward in some way. Even if that forward movement may be a mistake of some kind.

Dan Kois: That shot through the ambulance window stuck with me, too. It seemed like a neat inversion of the ending of The Graduate—another couple leaving a wedding, but separate this time, not together. In The Graduate Ben and Elaine sat together in front of the bus’s back window as they pulled away from the church; in Girls those windows framed only a disbelieving Hannah while a pissed-off Adam lay out of sight, seething with rage, as the ambulance rolled away.

“Don’t just think,” Ray told Hannah. “That’s an extremely unattractive feature of your generation.” That “just thinking” Ray objects to isn’t thinking, really, it’s assuming—it’s privilege, the belief that you’re important enough that to make it to a party you can claim to have drunk expired Mylanta and skip work. Or, conversely, the belief that you’re more scared than everyone else—but as Adam so deftly put it, “You don’t have the right to be.”

Complaints about Girlstone-deafness to matters of privilege now seem extremely shortsighted. Privilege—and the puncturing of the privilege bubble that swept each of these girls along through their first 20-odd years of life—is, in fact, what Girls has been all about.

Bruce, how did plans for Jessa’s hilarious surprise wedding develop? (I enjoyed his choice of music for the recessional, Lady’s “Pussy Be Yankin’,” but was sad we did not get to hear one of his mashups.) And Alex, is it hard to sustain Ray’s disdain for the generation underneath his when you’re constantly surrounded, on the set of Girls, with counterexamples of 26-year-olds working their asses off and making something great?

Karpovsky: I live in Williamsburg. If I’m looking to galvanize my disdain for younger ones, Bedford avenue is but a few blocks away.

Kaplan: There was actually a serial killer finale planned at one point, although in the writers’ room anything and everything comes up and it doesn’t mean anything. Jessa’s marriage came up when talking about what people felt she might do—and her marrying Thomas-John specifically came up naturally when the character and then the actor showed up, if that makes sense.

Engber: Was Booth Jonathan going to be the killer? Was there ever a plan to bring back Booth Jonathan? I feel like he is the equivalent of the Russian from The Sopranos.

Kois: Oh man, Bruce, PLEASE tell me that his name really is Thomas-John. With a hyphen. Is that true?

Kaplan: Completely true!

Kois: Is he based on a real-life douche? Or is he an amalgamation of all douches? You can tell us.

Kaplan: I am not aware of him being a specific douche.

Stevenson: Bruce, I’d also love to know if the (extensive!) commentary surrounding the show has at all shaped the way the writers have approached Season 2. I’m sure you’d all like to ignore the peanut gallery and focus on an internally crafted vision, but it must be difficult not to let hints of those outside perspectives seep in.

Kaplan: I can really only speak to myself in answering this one. I am not shaped in any way by the commentary. I think of these characters as people independent of viewers, or even writers, and I only think about what they would or would not do in my opinion.

Haglund: You mentioned writers on set rewriting a scene that’s being shot right then. Are there any particular scenes that you recall being rewritten really extensively?

Kaplan: No one scene comes to mind, but many scenes, requiring alternate lines or even directions to go in. Right now, they are shooting downstairs and I am going to disappear from this discussion for ten minutes to email some alternate dialogue.

Kois: Go ahead and CC us, please, Bruce. This way you can get the critics to weigh in before you even film!

Stevenson: Maybe I’m viewing this through the distorted lens of actual adulthood, but it seemed to me that the girls got flakier while the boys revealed hidden depths. Ray is incredibly kind in the way he deals with Shoshanna. Adam was “very moved” by the wedding and willing to push his relationship with Hannah forward. But perhaps the girls were mired in a false sense of maturity, and in need of a healthy collective freakout, while the boys are deluding themselves into thinking they’re men.

When Marnie giggles at one of Bobby Moynihan’s doofy jokes, Hannah stares at her like she’s been infested by a pod creature. Likewise Jessa, the free spirit—she’s suddenly marrying a finance douche? And Hannah gets what she wants but suddenly decides she doesn’t need it—where did that come from? To quote Jessa: “Your dreams are not what you thought they’d be.” I do recall my mid-twenties as a time for my friends and I to try on different personas… maybe that’s what happening here.

Kois: It’s funny that “flakier” is the word you use, because it mirrors Adam’s explanation to Hannah, early in the episode, that emotional exfoliation is what will make her, finally, into who she ought to be. “You’re forming every time you shed a layer,” he says when she’s feeling guilty about Marnie, “getting closer to yourself.” Adam is supremely comfortable in his own skin, of course—that’s why he’s even more awesome at slow dancing than he is at fast dancing. Ray was comfortable in his own skin until Shoshanna’s weird energy threw him off—but he still believes he’s worthy of deflowering her.

Haglund: Is Adam right, though? It’s almost an article of faith for some of these characters, especially Hannah, that they will eventually become who they are—Adam’s line about “getting closer to yourself” resonates with several others throughout the first season. And I probably thought that, too, in my twenties. But at some point I realized I wasn’t ever going to arrive some place. I just keep trying to go places. Then again, maybe that’s just what guys in their thirties say, and someday I will realize I long ago became who I am. Still, I wonder if Hannah’s oft reiterated goal from Season 1 is a fool’s errand—and if maybe she’ll realize this in Season 2.

Kaplan: I’m back. In my opinion, the characters on the show are trying or struggling to be their most authentic selves, which in theory we all are every day. This doesn’t seem like a fool’s errand at all. And their actions feel very organic to me. Marnie has been struggling with control issues, and is trying to let go. Jessa has been feeling unmoored and so now is trying to be more grounded, even if perhaps Thomas-John is a challenging choice for that. And Hannah clearly has intimacy issues so when forced with greater intimacy, she may run from it.

Engber: One of the signs of a well-made show, I think, is when it seems like a lot of the lines must be written by the actors. How much input do the actors get on the scripts for Girls?

Stevenson: Along the same lines, how much room for improvisation is there? Have any of our favorite lines from the show been the result of happenstance?

Kaplan: There is tons of room for improvisation. However the majority of the show is scripted. 

Engber: Some of the show’s best lines sound like they could be cartoon captions, e.g. “I like her collection of ironic t-shirts. Of course, I like them unironically.” I also have the impression—maybe wrong—that you like the cartoon joke of having a kid say something very characteristally adult, which sometimes happens in Girls. Are there any similarities in the way that you think about and write jokes for both?

Kaplan: You would think I would have a clear answer on this one, but I don’t. I would say that there is very little overlap in the sense that when I do my cartoons, I listen to the cartoon voices in my head. And when I write Girls, I listen to the girls’ voices in my head. And they seem to exist independent of each other. However, since it all involves being filtered through me, I suppose there must be overlap.

Haglund: Time is a rubber band. Even so, ours is running out. Anyone have predictions for Season 2?

Engber: I don’t think Jessa and Thomas-John make it through the season break; they separate and she moves in with Hannah. (Elijah assuages George with some informational websites on HPV, and they end up living together in his fucking rich guy’s apartment.) Shoshanna and Ray are totally in love, until she cheats on him. A parade of silly men, old and young, march through Hannah’s life. In the finale, everyone goes to a tortilla soup contest.

Kois: “Where am I?” Hannah asked the girls on the roof opposite Stillwell Avenue from her as she stood on the platform of the last stop on the F, her purse long gone, her mascara smeared. “You in Heaven,” one of the girls answered. Then, as Hannah walked away, another girl said, “Has she got a green belt on or am I tweakin’?”

Much as I’d also like to see another show, also called Girls, about those girls on that roof, I’m pleased at how resolutely focused *this* show called Girls stayed on its specific milieu. My hope for the second season is that the show widens its view incrementally, parceling out new characters as its cloistered foursome make their way, separately, into the slightly-wider world: Marnie into singlehood and a new apartment, Shoshannah into coupledom (or at least sexual experience), Jessa into marriage (or, if Engber is right, divorce).

And Hannah? I agree with Bruce that the final shot of the episode, of Hannah sitting on the beach of Heaven staring at the early-morning Atlantic, was not entirely pessimistic. For all the ways she’s fucked up, she’s surely learned something—or at least gotten some real material out of it. I see next season revealing Hannah making real strides as a writer. It’s dawn, after all. And while she may no longer have a purse, she did, despite everything, hold on to her cake—and got to eat it, too.

Stevenson: I have to duck out. Bruce, Alex, thanks so much for chatting with us. It’s been a real pleasure. But stop wearing those floral capris like your hymens are still intact.

Haglund: See you later, Seth.

Stevenson: On purpose?

Haglund: Don’t push.

Read what the women of Slate thought of the season finale at the XX Factor.