The XX Factor

Girls on Girls: Do You Have to Hate Your Best Friend’s Nemesis?

Lena Dunham and Allison Williams on Girls (HBO)

Hanna Rosin: It occurred to me watching this episode that the Bechdel Test needs an amendment. Now a decent film has to include not just two women talking about something other than men, but two women fighting viciously, so viciously that they might actually come to blows (“Back the fuck off!” Marnie says, dong her best Azealia Banks imitation) I know I’m starting this conversation backward, because there is a lot of great stuff in the beginning and middle to talk about (Hannah’s professional jealousy, Jessa’s personal encounter, the water birthing of truth), but indulge me by starting at the end: That fight between Marnie and Hannah was so sudden and intense that it revealed for me a hollowness at the core of that relationship. That is, it left me feeling that their friendship was never credible in the first place. I’ve always felt like the girl connections were a little thin in the show, and this fight made me feel that even more. Anyone else with me? 

L.V. Anderson: I agree that the fight was very sudden. But there was one thing about it I found credible: It started when Marnie brought up how much money Hannah owes her. “I pay all the bills in this apartment; does that not give me like one night off from talking about you and your problems?” she asks. Mixing money with friendship can absolutely send relationships off the ropes, and while I found both the content and the tone of the argument to be beneath the show’s usual standards of emotional honesty, I bought the notion of their debtor/creditor relationship encroaching on their emotional relationship. 

Incidentally, I’m pretty sure an exchange like Hannah and Marnie’s final one (“Fine!” “Great!” “Awesome!” “Very good!”) has happened at least once in every sitcom ever. 

Allison Benedikt: That’s also been my main beef with the show, Hanna. (Though I have others. Hi, everyone, I’ll be playing the role of resident buzzkill.) None of the relationships between the four girls have ever felt real to me, and that fight at the end was actually blocked and shot in a way that made it feel stagier than any other scene this season (save, maybe, the entire staged Bushwick party). It also felt like a total setup for an end-of-season cliffhanger. We have one episode left, right? So they’ll leave us wondering if Hanna and Marnie can ever patch things up/if Hanna will have to go to a homeless shelter (where clearly she will not get clothing donations from Marnie).

June Thomas: Yes, I agree, the things they spat at each other—whether or not Hannah still has friends from preschool and Marnie’s willingness to bring up Hannah’s “most shameful, painful, private secret” (which felt like a total nothing-burger)—certainly seemed like very small baggage. And their real biggest baggage—Hannah’s irresponsibility with money and her nonchalance about allowing Marnie to take the role of her parents subsidizing her “groovy lifestyle”—went unaddressed. But that’s generally how it goes, yes?

What wasn’t clear to me was whether Marnie is worn out by Hannah’s freeloading ways and is simply lashing out, or if they ever had anything in common beyond shared history. If she just said she enjoyed Tally Schifrin’s book to annoy Hannah, that’s one thing, but if she truly dug it on a deep level, that feels like a real reason to break up.

Benedikt: Wait, what? If Marnie liked bad memoir, Hannah should stop being friends with her?

Thomas: Well, when you put it that starkly, it feels like a silly stance, but isn’t hating one’s best friend’s nemesis (at least when talking with your best friend) a requirement?

Rosin: I dunno Allison, if I suddenly found out you had a shelf full of Suzanne Sommers in your bedroom, I might have to reconsider ….

Benedikt: What did you guys think of Ray this episode? With his list of “real” things Hanna should be writing about instead of herself (“cultural criticism, years of neglect and abuse, acid rain, the plight of the giant panda bear, racial profiling, urban sprawl, divorce, death” ) and his begging her to buy a jean with a “slim leg” for her trial shift at Grumpy’s—he stole the show!

However, there seems to be a pattern of Girls taking legitimately weird/creepy/mean/unlikeable men and turning them into quirky/loveable guys just a few episodes later. I’m against this trend, much as I like funny Ray.

Rosin: I think they held on to a lot of the creepy Ray in this one. I mean, telling a girl to change out of a white dress is the sartorial equivalent of deflowering her, no? And to me that speech about what constitutes “serious matters worth writing about” was as pretentious as Adam’s last week about creative purity. It’s the old boy/girl debate we last had around Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom about what’s worthy of putting in print. Boys write great American novels. Girls write domestic fiction. 

Benedikt: I totally disagree about Ray’s speech. I mean, yeah, it was pretentious. But the whole show is pretense, so it’s hard to knock it for that! He got under Hannah’s skin because she worries about being trivial in her work, and she should. That’s not a judgment of memoir writing or youth, but rather just saying that if you are a 24-year-old woman living in NY, telling everyone you are a writer but not exactly being one, you have Ray’s speech playing on repeat in your head at all times. This is fact.

I really don’t think Ray is supposed to be the bad guy! I swear on Hannah’s diary that I will eat my bowler if he doesn’t end up a much different man by the end of next season, with a full episode dedicated to showing his sensitive side (some of which we’re already seen). I’ll be happy if I’m wrong.

Thomas: Ray totally screwed her up though, right? Shouldn’t we have more faith in Powell’s assessment of Hannah’s hoarder story than in Marnie’s (at least right now when she’s looking for reasons to hate Hannah) and Ray’s (when he’s in his bitter boy mode rather than his crack-spirit-guide role)?

O’Rourke: Agree, June: we’re meant to think Powell is right, and Ray is just mouthing off the way people (read: mostly men) do about what is “suitable” for art. That’s the point here, right? The joke is on Ray: This is a show written by a woman (and often directed by one too). He’s the one who thinks he knows everything but doesn’t, and Hannah, like many a talented young woman before her, takes what he says too seriously and starts to doubt herself. His finger-snapping bossiness in matters sartorial is one thing; His pronouncements about literature are another. I think here we see Hannah having a moment of learning to trust her own convictions, despite all the noise out there trying to tell her not to.

Benedikt: Back to Powell. Michael Imperioli was not giving off the “wise mentor” vibe, plus after the reading we catch him chatting up, and praising, the “maybe everyone in this town is just looking for a bathroom” girl. So his taste is questionable.

Also, I was into the IM boyfriend who died! I’m curious!

O’Rourke: True. He was giving off sleazy mentor vibe. But I still think that we’re meant to think he’s right about Hannah. That exchange by the door had the qualities of truth, not pure scamming. And just because mentors are sleazy doesn’t meant they’re wrong.

Benedikt: Can we talk about what the Kathryn Hahn character said to Jessa about why she’s always causing so much chaos—“You’re doing it to distract yourself from becoming the person you’re meant to be.” That is not a line I want to ever hear.

Anderson: That line felt a little like a heart-to-heart in a Hallmark Channel original movie. I think Hahn did the best she could with it, but I wish that scene had given her some more interesting dialogue to work with.

Thomas: I loved the [Hahn]/Jessa scene so much. Like Powell Goldman, whose encouragement of Hannah and her writing seemed like it might be a stealthy form of seduction, I really wondered if [Hahn] and Jessa were going to go at it—they seemed to have a real connection. And yet both of these examples of mentorship by older figures, with their message of “stop screwing around, you could do something with your life if you took yourself seriously,” also felt pretty sincere to me.

I also loved that the way Jessa was staring so sincerely into [Hahn’s] face was so redolent of her now-famous eye-lock with Marina Abramovic.

Benedikt: The one part of that exchange that struck me was when Jessa says to Kathryn Hahn about her husband: “I was only attracted to him for like, several minutes when I first met him. But I’m attracted to everyone when I first meet them. And then it wore off. It always wears off.” She seemed to actually be realizing something there.

Can we just quickly say that there’s no way Shoshanna would just now be discovering Internet dating?

Anderson: I was disappointed by that storyline! It went nowhere. After her absence last week, I was happy to see her again (though I think “I love products!” has to be most caricatured thing anyone has said on this show), but I wish she had actually done something in this episode besides announce that she’s going on “a day date” and then disappear. 

I do think it’s plausible she’s just now discovering Internet dating. She’s only 21. 

Anderson: Can we discuss Tally Schifrin for a second?  Upon hearing Shoshanna’s description of Tally (“She’s like painfully pretty”), I couldn’t help but think of Tally portray-er Jenny Slate’s self-esteem video, in which imaginary narrators describe how adorable they find her as she goes about her everyday life. 

I understood Tally to be Lena Dunham’s evil alter ego: self-absorbed, undeserving of accolades, and successful only because she writes about sex. (I think some people think that’s what Lena Dunham is actually like. I guess Tally is Lena without the self-awareness.)

But Terry Gross would never interview someone like Tally Schifrin, would she?

Rosin: Also, Laura, Tally Schifrin is not living the pampered, entitled life. She has suffered a genuine tragedy. Come to think of it, this is the second pretty girl death cult we’ve come across (the first was her old hometown classmate). Maybe this is Lena Dunham’s way of getting back at the Rays of the world, refusing to take death seriously.

Thomas: But that’s one of the fab things about Girls—and at this point, I may just be saying this to torture you, Allison!—people aren’t just bad or wholly likable or completely self-deluded. Ray is mean and bitter but he can also be loyal and protective. Adam can be selfish and withholding, but he also makes Hannah really happy. Marnie can be uptight and undermining, but she’s also subsidizing her lazy friend’s lifestyle.

Benedikt: How many times have you praised a show or movie for writing complicated characters? For showing that there’s bad and good in all of us? Many I bet. And that’s fine, that’s true, that’s life. But there are also some assholes. And I think it would be “brave”—if we want to use that word while talking about a TV show—to let them exist on this show.

Rosin: Hannah’s last minute rewriting, and Jessa’s moment of revelation, and Marnie’s  closet purge are all part of the constant reinvention these characters go through. Nearly every episode, they play with some radical way of remaking themselves. As a meditation on life in your 20s, this makes sense. But as a premise for a show, it’s problematic. David Thomson in the New Republic suggests that this constant upheaval in the show is unsustainable, that eventually the characters will have to settle down, and then the show will get boring. 

Anderson: It’s interesting you bring that up, Hanna, because Ray’s advice reminded me of Thomson’s (or vice versa). Basically, Thomson thinks Girls doesn’t have staying power, and his advice to Dunham boils down to, “Put more old white men in it!” He compares her to Orson Welles and suggests that she write about “the failure of American wealth and power,” as Welles did. 

I find this attitude remarkably condescending, so forgive me if this sounds defensive, but I think anyone with an iota of imagination can see that Girls already is a critique of American wealth and power. It’s a very specific vision of what recession-era life is like for a certain class of unemployable young people, and it implicitly criticizes the societal and economic failures that allow young college grads to live in a state of suspended animation.

O’Rourke: Wow. I haven’t read Thomson’s piece, but that’s all I have to say.

Thomas: There are all kinds of reasons that shows get boring—and it doesn’t just happen on long runs. The fact that the Girls actors really are the same age as their characters complicates my fantasy of their becoming the women they’re meant to be. Hannah would become a writing mentor, Marnie a Real Housewife, Jessa settle down in Park Slope with a nice girl, and Shosh turn into a professional sexpert.

Anderson: Also, not to pile on, but Thomson’s assertion that “These people could only fall in love, get a great job, or grow up by removing themselves from the show” is also flat-out wrong. Hannah has fallen in love already; Marnie has a great job. But growing up is a process, and doing well in one area of your life does not mean the rest of your life isn’t a shitshow. If the series is unsustainable, it’ll be for other reasons, as June said. 

O’Rourke: So who is the woman Jessa is meant to be? What do you all think?

Benedikt: I actually think she’s meant to be a lot more “conventional” than the beginning of this season indicated. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she turned out to be a wealthy stay-at-home mom, with the house where all the kids want to go after school.

Rosin: Meghan, have you ever faced a room of corduroy-clad zombies like Hannah did at the reading? Seems terrifying.

O’Rourke: Not quite like that, though just last night I was at a reading in a room full of old books like that one. This episode got at stuff I cared about (and that theoretically Hannah does too): How to be “literary” without just being old-fashioned; how to know whether your work is self-indulgent or not; the hyperawareness of the market (which is what Hannah is encountering when she looks at Tally, and which no writer/artist/TV writer can escape these days). I loved Adam’s no-holds-barred “NO” when asked if he would come to the reading. So, she goes to watch his “tech rehearsal” but he doesn’t attend the reading. 

Thomas: Sorry, I have to go talk to this New York magazine editor who’s basically stalking me. And to poop.

Benedikt: Bye little face.

Rosin: God, what is wrong with her?

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