The XX Factor

Girls on Girls: We Are All Putty in Adam’s Hands

Peter Scolari, Lena Dunham, and Becky Ann Baker on Girls (HBO)

Hanna Rosin: In her interview with Terry Gross last week Lena Dunham described Hannah as going through a learning process, figuring out what she wants and how to get it. In this episode Hannah makes leaps in her self-discovery by going back home to Michigan, so she can more clearly see her Brooklyn self. She flirts with moving back to her hometown, working at the florist’s, shacking up with the cute pharmacist, but as we learn pretty quickly she’s too dirty for that version of home.

I was cringing during the scene in the car with the pharmacist. I was sure we would get a replay of her job interview, where she would say something wildly inappropriate and completely derail the date. But instead what we got was a kind of … arrogance, an extension of the dominatrix voice she closed the last episode with. What did you guys make of the new haughty Hannah?

June Thomas: Don’t you have to feel a bit arrogant to put up with the life of a young striver in New York City? It’s not always fun to live in a nice but out-of-the-way Brooklyn neighborhood, to be under the feet of a roommate (though Hannah is lucky to only have one—and a friend at that), to try to achieve this weird and depressingly unremunerative ambition/vocation of being a writer? If you didn’t really believe in yourself and your talent and your drive, life would be a lot more comfortable in East Lansing, where a guy will take you out on a Saturday night date for pizza and booty-shaking and vanilla sex, and no one would understand you.

Dana Stevens:  As for what Hanna calls Hannah’s arrogance: this comes out in a few places, including the sex scene with the pharmacist (her unsolicited probing of his bum can’t help but recall Adam’s thwarted attempt at anal sex with her in episode 1). But I’m not sure it’s genuine uppityness as much as the trying on of a yet another ill-fitting persona, the jaded New York sophisticate.

Meghan O’Rourke: Isn’t that funny arrogance and vulnerability the special purview of the 22, 23, and 24 year old? You are confused, on the low end of the work totem pole or still trying to prove yourself (unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg), and yet you also are young. You’re the next thing. You’ve left your parents’ home and are free to reject all the posters and accoutrements and funny habits and small town-ness of their lives. So Hannah comes home and finds it kind of fun to flirt with the cute pharmacist—but then all too quickly sees in him a kind of limitation. She’s moved past this moment. Her mother knows that too—so it’s not just Hannah being haughty, but Hannah being realistic.

This growth feels necessary to the show ….

Stevens: My favorite thing about this week’s episodewas the glimpse we get of her relationship with her parents, played wonderfully by Becky Ann Baker and Peter Scolari, who I’ve been wanting to know more about since they cut her off financially in episode 1 and headed back to East Lansing. I really appreciated that the Horvaths weren’t mere foils for Hannah’s self-discovery, but individuals with their own needs and frailties. Her mother has hot flashes from menopause and has to send Hannah to the pharmacy for medicine (the fact Hannah tries to delay this errand shows how far her 25-year-old mind is from contemplating the discomforts of menopause). Later, her dad falls and hits his head during an athletic bout of 30th-anniversary shower sex with the mom, and has to be helped to bed naked, with Hannah compulsively throwing a towel over his private parts (an unexpected modesty on her part given her complete comfort with her own nudity).

O’Rourke: I agree. I was really glad to see how the show was able to develop the parents’ roles. (In the first episode, I felt that at moments they verged on caricature.)  They really came alive here: at many moments this felt like a true family to me. (See the moment when Baker and Scolari as Mom and Dad tell her to stop texting during the movie—the kind of odd thing that family members do to one another.)

L.V. Anderson: My favorite family moment was Peter Scolari’s “Oui, oui” to Becky Ann Baker’s announcement that she’d made a reservation at S’il Vous Plate. It was such a tiny line, but his reading of it was so authentically dad-like and totally cracked me up.

Stevens: What about Peter Scolari holding up the banana sign to meet “Hannah banana” at the airport? Another adorable dad moment. I’ve also now rejected Elijah’s theory that Hannah’s dad is gay, which was probably just blurted out to hurt her feelings anyway. He seemed pretty into that shower sex.

Thomas: Absolutely. Elijah would think so because he’s a 25-year-old narcissist with very little experience of the world. That means he thinks that any guy who’s kind, good-looking, and in good shape (did you see Peter Scolari’s arms in the shower—that guy has been working out!) must be gay. He’s wrong, but a guy like that would totally think so.

Rosin: I also loved the mom and dad’s conversation about Hannah, that way in which their views of her said a lot more about them than it did about their daughter. Her dad, whom we’ve been led to believe is her closer confidante, says he is always worried about her and wonders “what does a person like that turn into.” Whereas her mom has to school her husband about the other side of Hannah, who is funny and likeable and does what she wants and knows how to have fun. It’s that way in which parents have parallel realities about the same child.

Thomas: I am in awe of Becky Ann Baker’s performance in this issue. She went full Lena Dunham–and as much as I admire Dunham for letting it all hang out, it’s a much bigger deal when you’re 59 than when you’re 25.

Stevens: June, I also dug that Becky Ann Baker went completely all-in with that shower sex scene—down to the runny-mascara raccoon eyes! She was also fantastic as the mother of the two main kids in Freaks and Geeks, and in some ways, this character seems like a more nuanced extension of that one: a warm, giving parent, but also someone who wants to have some good 30th anniversary sex in the shower and, as she put it in the first episode, save some of her money for a fucking lake house.

Thomas: I wish we’d seen the look on Hannah’s mom’s face when Eric’s parting gift of a box of personal lubricant was put on the kitchen table along with her medication. What kind of guy asks a woman out by bribing her with lube for her mom? That was way creepier than anything Adam has ever done.

Stevens: Do we think she enjoyed sex with the pharmacist? It was pretty vanilla (loved his disgusted response to her would-be come-on, “Do I feel tight like a baby?”), but those sounded like mini-sighs of real pleasure toward the end ….

O’Rourke: This is the part of the show that confuses me. Is she enjoying any of this sex? She seemed not to mind this, but not to be into it, either.

Then there’s the phone call with Adam. This scene captured the peculiar, Kafkaesque parsings that women find themselves trapped in when it comes to the odd wilds of contemporary sex: One can imagine Hannah thinking, Is it empowering to tell the guy you’re sleeping with about the other guy you just slept with? Isn’t that a form of true intimacy? On the other hand, isn’t it a little sad?

One of the aesthetic advances of this show from Sex and the City is that we don’t get the cute voiceover of Hannah sitting down and typing these questions; we have to infer them.

Anderson: My sense from the sex scene was that Hannah wasn’t really enjoying it because it was too vanilla for her taste. However—though she wildly overestimated Eric’s kink tolerance—she was still overly focused on his enjoyment rather than her own. I wasn’t totally convinced when she told Adam that sex with Eric had been fun physically.

Rosin: Whether she enjoyed it a little bit or a little more than a little bit, the sex functioned as foreplay for Adam, no? After that encounter with Eric she can see herself more clearly as being on Adam’s team. Those kinky porn snippets come as naturally out of her mouth as they do out of Adam’s, and she too likes sex to be a little uncomfortable. That giant plaid comforter was a great visual metaphor I thought, in a big wet blanket sort of way.

Anderson: I was totally fascinated by the Cautionary Tale of Carrie in this episode. But mostly I was fascinated by the fact that the only nice thing Heather had to say about the recently departed (via choice of pop song) was that men found her sexually attractive. Heather, midriff bare, lip-synching “Pretty Girl Rock” from the point of view of her dead acquaintance was Girl’s most explicit indictment of a culture that puts enormous value on women’s looks—and it was a pretty damning indictment, I thought.

Rosin: Yes, Heather was Shoshanna without any weirdness or ethnicity or charming cluelessness. (Or virginity, I guess.)

Anderson: I was wondering if Heather was more of an ur-Marnie: conventionally attractive, apparently responsible, strings guys along for her own purposes (or so we can perhaps assume from her interaction with her “You did good, yo” coworker/boyfriend).

O’Rourke: The lip synching scene: that was some pretty broadstroke comedy, no? Yet something about it worked, maybe Hannah’s disbelief that her date was taking her hand. I think this show really nails the weird way that even smart girls flushed with hauteur can find themselves feeling continually in the submissive position in dating. In Hannah’s case, she clearly feels she is not really in the dating pool as successfully as she ought to be. And yet when you see her with this guy, it’s hard not to have her mom’s reaction—he’s just not going to keep her interested. Yet she has to psych herself up at the mirror, be shocked by his taking her hand, try to please him with the kind of talk she’d learned from Adam. (It’s important that she says something so clearly Adam-inspired, not something that reveals anything about her autonomous desires.)

Anderson: I don’t know if it’s fair to say that Hannah’s dirty talk in this episode was clearly Adam-inspired. Or, rather, maybe it was Adam-inspired, but that doesn’t mean Hannah said it only out of naiveté and ignorance. She may not yet be in a place where she feels comfortable advocating for her own pleasure in bed rather than focusing entirely on her partner’s, but I increasingly believe that she genuinely enjoys the weird, decidedly non-vanilla kind of sexual interaction she’s been exploring with Adam.

O’Rourke: Oh, yes—I’m not saying she’s not drawn to it. (Clearly she is.) But it is Adam-inspired, no? She was taken aback by some of his pedophilic sex talk just a few episodes ago.

Rosin: I’m with Laura. If that dirty talk is Adam inspired, then Adam’s brand of inspiration has a permanent place in her heart, or her lusty parts. Again, I bring up the comforter. Looking at that thing, I would do anything to quickly switch up the mood.

Thomas: In that interview Dunham also talked about the influence of porn (or “porn sites” as Terry Gross so charmingly put it) on young people’s sexual expectations—that is, the experience Dunham has given to Hannah of getting into sexual situations where the scenarios people are setting up could not possibly come out of their own heads but must have been planted there by porn. It was interesting to see that here Hannah was the one revealing her influences—but it wasn’t clear whether she was just repeating things that had been said to her of if they came out of her own head.

O’Rourke: But more broadly, it’s culture-internet inspired, as June points out. This is a show about the fact that we all live in a world aswim in internet porn, and even sex with the nice pharmacist from back home is deeply inflected by that.

Stevens: Question: Do we ever learn exactly how Carrie died? Did I miss that?

Also, I can’t help but wonder whether killing off an unseen Carrie is a way of this show’s taking the baton from Sex and the City (which Dunham loves, but also clearly wants to move beyond.) Is that a wild overinterpretation?

Rosin: Brilliant, Dana! Hannah killed Carrie.

On another note, was anyone else thoroughly charmed by that phone call with Adam? His haphazard existence and ADD brand of affection (“I saw your name on my phone and thought, ‘Where the fuck is that girl? I wish she were here right now’”) suddenly seemed so appealing to me.

O’Rourke: He is turning into the most interesting character on the show.

Stevens: The Adam phone call was a perfect ending to the episode, I thought (this series is pretty great at endings in general.) The framing of the very last shot, when Hannah goes out in the yard to take the call—the camera pulls back, and we see her barefoot in her parents’ suburban backyard, listening to Adam’s manic patter about whatever—beautifully emphasizes both her aloneness and her displacement. During the whole episode she’s been presenting Adam to others as an ex, part of her past—she tells her mother “he’s dead to me” and turns him into a first-date anecdote for the pharmacist. But as soon as he calls her, she knows that when she gets back to the city, she’ll probably be drawn back in to their sort-of relationship, as painful and ambivalent and damaging to her as it is. There was something so poignant about ending on that late-night backyard phone call. Isn’t it one we’ve all fielded at some point in our romantic lives?

O’Rourke: It’s one of the things I remember most clearly about my early/mid twenties: Standing on my parents’ lawn talking on the phone. I loved that scene. It raised the whole episode up a notch.

Thomas: I guess a lot of this episode was about figuring out where home is. The phone call with Adam made her realize that although her parents are supportive (and pleasingly pervy), her home is now in Brooklyn, and that Marnie and Adam, each deeply dysfunctional in their own ways, are her family now.

Rosin: Right, you go home to find home, or something like that.

Stevens: I’ve already made clear my allegiance to Adam in our last week’s dialogue. I know he’s bad for Hannah, but I can’t help it—I’m putty in his amateur-carpenter hands.

Rosin: One last thing on that comforter. In my head I contrasted it with Adam’s goofy eye mask, which he clearly bought on Etsy or some Brooklyn boutique. Equally prissy and made for comfort and yet the vibe is so different: I wear this girly eye mask because I don’t give a shit if it’s girly and I don’t want to see you anymore.

Stevens: Ha, the eye mask! I noticed it too, and wondered if another girl had left it at his apartment. Maybe the one who asked for the penis-in-furs photo?

Thomas: Plus it made him look like a human raccoon. Irresistibly cute, but he will spill garbage all over your porch—and he might even give you rabies if you give him the opportunity.

Anderson: I am also putty in Adam’s hands—but for me it was not the eye mask, but the growl he emitted when Hannah asked him to look out his window that sealed the deal.

Read what the guys of Slate thought of this episode over at Brow Beat.