TV Club

Girls HBO: One Man’s Trash, episode 5 of Season 2, reconsidered.

Was that the best episode of Girls ever?

Lena Dunham

Photo by Jessica Miglio/HBO

Having written, for the most part very enthusiastically, about every episode of Girls since it premiered last year, I’ve long since gotten used to defending the series from detractors, online and off. This week, though, the script was flipped: I hated an episode that has since been championed by pretty much all of the smartest and most prominent fans of the show. Several people have said it’s the best thing yet from Season 2; others have said it’s the best thing in the series altogether to this point. What’s more, my view of it—and that of my colleague Daniel Engber, who shared his distinct but similarly negative take in our conversation about the episode—has been pilloried as a particularly blinkered bit of male gazing.

To take the second matter first: Engber and I did go on rather much about Patrick Wilson’s appearance and its bearing on the episode’s plausibility. Wilson’s conventional handsomeness is part of the episode’s point, I think, along with his conventionally fancy home and conventionally prestigious job, as some champions of the episode—including Slate’s Hanna Rosin—have noted. But it was only part of the point, and perhaps doesn’t really weigh much on the matter of plausibility; that Engber and I each thought so to varying degrees may very well reflect a specifically male sort of superficiality and foolishness that I’m not particularly happy to see in myself (or anyone).

The broader question of plausibility is, I think, both more complicated and more interesting. Rosin began her critique of our exchange by picking apart our “very literal-minded complaint that this episode was ‘unrealistic.’ That was a fantasy, guys,” she wrote, “and fantasies are often unrealistic. You could tell because it stood apart from the rest of the series, like a standalone play in three tiny succinct acts.”

Over at Vulture, New York TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz quoted those remarks, and built his case for the episode around the idea that plausibility is beside the point, and that “Dunham’s screenplay and Richard Shepard’s direction refused to tell us whether this whole situation was, in some sense, too good to be true—if it was ‘really’ happening, if it was a fantasy of Hannah’s, or if it was somewhere in between.” Seitz compared the episode to “Louie’s most stylistically radical episode to date,” called “New Year’s Eve,” which was “wholly dedicated to rendering the dream/reality distinction useless. It insists that we experience every moment in terms of emotional logic and metaphor, as we might one of our own dreams.”

Seitz is right that Louie has eradicated the distinction between dream and reality, particularly on that incredible Season 3 finale. But Girls has not done so—the contrast between “One Man’s Trash” and “New Year’s Eve,” which includes multiple dream sequences and flagrantly absurd scenarios, is stark. And the question does matter—as Seitz’s own analysis of the episode suggests. “Joshua’s vague account of the breakup of his marriage,” he says, is a “tell” that the episode may indeed be a fantasy, because it consists of “what sounded like placeholder dialogue that Hannah would presumably fill in with real dialogue during revision.” (Emily Nussbaum similarly suggested, albeit in passing, that the episode is actually the essay that Hannah, in episode 2, gave to Sandy.) This is a bold bit of close reading, but besides feeling too clever by half, it utterly undercuts the effectiveness of the dialogue as dialogue: If the episode was “written,” in some sense, by Hannah, rather than Dunham, its need for revision is a brilliant metafictional ploy. If Hannah didn’t “write” it, it’s just not very good dialogue.

So which was it? Having watched the episode once like a normal person—i.e., sitting on a couch and not taking any notes—and then again a few days later on a computer with a word processor open, I decided to watch it again. After last week’s viewing, I found the episode “interestingly bad.” This time I found it more interesting and less bad. It wasn’t entirely un-bad, though; in particular, Dunham’s acting, usually stellar, is frequently stilted and unnatural. There were various little details that still seemed off and unconvincing: how quickly and totally Ray explodes at Joshua and starts yelling about body drumming and neighborly fences; how completely Joshua fails to recognize Hannah just minutes after meeting her; her failure moments later to understand what he means by the question “So, what’s up?”; the way that, when he asks for her name after they first start making out, she says, “Guess.”

But there were also moments that made more sense this time, including, yes, the way Joshua so passionately responds when Hannah—implausibly, it still seems to me—kisses him without warning. Her request that he beg her to stay—another scene that Seitz singled out as being “written” by Hannah—still felt artificial; here, as elsewhere, the lines themselves may have been the problem, or it may have been Dunham’s delivery of them. The moment she starts crying in bed, just before launching into her speech about happiness, felt completely inorganic, something only imagined and not fully realized.

And that’s still how I feel about much of the episode. But watching Hannah deliver that odd speech, I realized what really bothered me, I think, about “One Man’s Trash,” what got under my skin about it, made me frustrated and even, maybe, a little hostile to it: I didn’t recognize the character at the center of it.

Like many critics, I generally disdain too much emphasis on “identifying” with a fictional character, and I’ve praised Dunham in previous weeks for making Hannah less and less sympathetic, for daring to put such an unlikable protagonist at the center of a show. But on some level, Hannah’s basic aims still felt, to be honest, a lot like my own. She wants to get by in New York, to make it as a writer, to have a few smart friends. Put so plainly, it all sounds very cheesy—but there it is. And in “One Man’s Trash,” she expressed a longing I don’t identify with at all: the desire for a big fancy fridge in an opulent brownstone with immaculately maintained interiors. That’s not me, that’s my neighbors, the ones with the deed and the construction crew working five days a week for a year and, whenever they’re finally done, the fancy place next door all to themselves.

As Seitz notes, “some part of Hannah is … looking to be cared for (in her fantasies) by a handsome rich doctor with a nice house and no visible personal attachments except the one he’s got with her.” Even more to the point are Sarah Nicole Prickett’s comments at Bullett: “I’ve often felt this show to be secretly conservative,” she says, “and here we see it, plain: Hannah’s artistic bent is revealed to be pretension; her struggle, a ruse. What she’s really about is this Nancy Meyers life.”

That’s put a tad emphatically, maybe, but it’s not far off the mark. And it probably shouldn’t bother me as much as it did. But the truth is that some part of my love for this show does have to do with seeing myself in it, and particularly, I suppose, in Hannah. I don’t think the few days with Joshua were a “fantasy” in the sense that they didn’t “really happen” in the world of the show. (Although Joshua does call himself at one point “an old ghost,” so … maybe.) But I do think they were a fantasy of happiness for Hannah, one that, for a variety of reasons, I find a bit repellent. That doesn’t make “One Man’s Trash” the “worst episode of Girls ever.” Maybe, who knows, it was the best episode ever. (I still like last week’s more.) Either way, it made the episode very hard for me to enjoy. And that, I realize, is at least partly on me.