Brow Beat

Girls’ Episode With Matthew Rhys Proves This Show Is Still Brilliant at Stoking Controversy

It’s hard not to have an opinion on this.

Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

The third episode of the final season of Girls, “American Bitch,” is an installment with a strut. Just see if you can let it saunter by without tossing an opinion at it. A self-contained pas de deux between Hannah Horvath and a famous writer and alleged sexual predator named Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys), the episode is a provocation, Girls wading into Bill Cosby– and Woody Allen–infested waters. (Chuck has a painting of Allen, holding a water gun to his haloed head, on the wall of his palatial Central Park West apartment.) The episode is manna to the think piece gods and it is designed as such. A hot take, Hannah’s own, precipitates the plot, which, as in the controversial “One Man’s Trash,” exclusively concerns what happens between Hannah and a hunk. There are surely those who feel downright eye-rolly about any controversy involving Dunham or her show at this point, but “American Bitch” stokes opinions with undeniable artistry: Girls has still got it.

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As the episode—now available on HBO’s streaming services and airing Sunday opposite the Oscars—begins, Chuck has summoned Hannah to his home to discuss a blog post Hannah wrote excoriating Chuck for his nonconsensual dalliances with four college-aged women. No legal charges have been filed against Chuck. None of the accusers are underage. He’s been accused of forcing women to give him blow jobs after on-campus readings. (“How do you force someone to give you a blowjob,” Chucks asks Hannah, churlishly. “It’s very chokey,” she replies.) Later in the episode, Hannah yells, “I’m so sick of gray areas!” but the circumstances are very gray. “I’m not trying to get an apology out of you,” Chuck claims at their start of their encounter, but he is trying to exorcise his anxiety, if not his guilt, by convincing Hannah that she misjudged him.

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“American Bitch” works, despite being so abjectly in your face, because it takes a messy subject and gets messier still. At first, it seems like Hannah and Chuck will thoughtfully, if predictably, disagree. Chuck, a best-selling, award-winning author who has pictures of himself posing with Toni Morrison and Barack Obama on his walls and recently received a rave in the Times, cops to being a “horny motherfucker with the impulse control of a toddler.” But he insists: “I don’t have any secrets. I have never forced anyone to blow me. That’s not my style.” His position is that he’s the victim of a witch hunt and that the women have twisted what happened because “they need a story … they crave experience.” Hannah’s position is that he is unaware of his own power (the Times has recently allowed him to publish an op-ed defending himself, as it did with Allen); that women don’t make this kind of experience up; and that they are not doing it in order to have a story but because they want to exist, to have their experience recognized.

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But as this conversation is sharply unfolding, a seduction is taking place. Chuck essentially re-creates for Hannah the experience of the other women, in which he is most definitely a creep but not exactly an aggressor. Rhys, who is wonderfully cast—despite being too handsome and too young—appears to be an accomplished, affluent, slightly neurotic success with his life more or less in order, except for these allegations, which are keeping him up at night. But he’s more like a mature Hannah Horvath, someone who is sloppily, harmfully sloshing all over the place but with the experience to know how this will affect others, especially young women. Where Hannah’s narcissism is still wild, Chuck’s is weaponized.

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Chuck woos Hannah—and the audience—by being both inappropriately intimate and exceptionally flattering, a disarming mixture. When Hannah first walks into the apartment, he is strange about her shoes: Will she leave them by the door, and can they not touch any other pairs? Maybe like Hannah, he’s a little obsessive-compulsive. Soon after she arrives, he gets into a long, personal phone conversation with his ex-wife about his depressed tween daughter, leaving Hannah to wander around his apartment unaccompanied. It registers even to Hannah Horvath as a strange, icky power move—a showy but effective display of having nothing to hide.

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Meanwhile, he keeps complimenting Hannah, while maintaining an authority over her, praising and condescending to her—if not outright negging her—at the same time. He invited her and her alone, of all his critics, he says, because he could tell she was funny and bright, a real writer. What is a real writer doing besmirching other writers based on hearsay? That’s not what writers do, he tells her. That’s for journalists. Hannah admits to him that she’s a fan, that his writing matters to her. He shows her unpublished work about one of his sexual encounters, and then, in another creepy power move, has Hannah read it aloud to him. He tells Hannah his real mistake was in not getting to know the women, brushing them off, but he can fix that: He can get to know Hannah. He asks attentive questions and makes charming banter: Where did she grow up? Where does she want to be in five years? He shines his very shiny light on her, gives her a signed copy of a Philip Roth book, and laughs at her jokes, saying, “You really are funny.”

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After all this, this intimate afternoon, a great blind date, Chuck invites Hannah to lie down in bed with him, fully clothed, so he can “feel close to someone.” Hannah hesitantly agrees. “I’m sorry I wrote something about you that upset you so much, without considering all the facts,” she says, delivering the apology he said he didn’t want and that she said she wouldn’t deliver. “It’s alright, I’m not angry,” he says. Then he rolls over and lays his flaccid penis on her thigh. Hannah takes it in her hand for a moment, before thinking better of it. Jumping out of bed she says, “I touched your dick!” Chuck rolls over and shoots her his most devilish cat-who-ate-the-canary bedroom eyes.

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Chuck’s face says it all: gotcha. He is a total sleaze, who does use his power and his charm to woo women into doing things they might not want to do, but he has made the only point he really cares about—it’s not nonconsensual. Hannah, for her one moment of curiosity, humanity, letting an idol’s ministrations wear her down, forfeits the clarity of the situation. Girls walks a fine line, capturing the complexity of a sexual situation perverted by power dynamics without getting too preachy, too simple, or too predictable. He’s awful, she’s not, but here they are, still stuck squarely in the gray area. As Hannah walks away from the apartment, a stream of attractive young women make their way down the street and through Chuck’s front door. There’s no stopping some dicks.

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