Throughout Girls’ second season, I’ve been struggling with my reaction to Adam, Hannah’s ex-boyfriend who broke up with her in last year’s finale. There’s no question that Adam Driver is a tremendously magnetic actor, which makes it exceptionally uncomfortable and constantly compelling to watch him paint a nuanced portrait of a jerk. As Adam transitioned from being Hannah’s hookup of convenience to her boyfriend, he treated her with more respect and earned more of the audience’s in return. But as he’s slid back into old ways and worse, Girls is raising an interesting and disturbing question: What’s the line between a dangerous person and someone who is failing to be the good man he’d like to think himself to be?
After the breakup, Girls may have intended for Adam’s behavior to be funny and pathetic, but I started to find it scary. Manipulating Hannah into effectively acting as his home health aide after he was hit by a truck mid-breakup was a way for Adam to keep Hannah close to him. His YouTube videos exposed a degree of obsession and emotional intensity that could be reasonably interpreted as dangerous. When Hannah called the cops on Adam, I couldn’t really blame her, and I appreciated that the cops took the possibility of a threat to her safety seriously. Adam’s filching a dog from Staten Island might seem like an excuse for him and Ray to have a kooky adventure, but it’s in keeping with a guy who with an underdeveloped sense of boundaries and an exaggerated sense of entitlement.
So I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this most recent episode of Girls, in which Adam got a chance to tell, in the form of an Alcoholics Anonymous testimonial, a capsule version of his side of the story:
I had this girlfriend who at first I didn’t like very much. Or I didn’t take her very seriously, I guess. She just seemed like, you know, a piece of ass. But she was persistent, man, and she just hung around, and hung around, and showed up at my place, and gradually, it started to feel better when she was there. It wasn’t love, the way I imagined it. I just felt weird if I didn’t know what she was up to or whatever. And I liked knowing that she was going to be there, and warm, and staying the night. And she acted like I was teaching her everything about fucking history, about sex. She didn’t know what street Central Park started on or how to use soap, and I showed her. And I wanted that chance to show someone everything. But she changed her mind about me, and it was that fast.
It was a story that made a lot of emotional sense, given what we’ve seen of Hannah and Adam’s relationship. He tried treating her decently at her request, once Hannah was able to articulate that she wanted him to be her boyfriend and discovered that he actually enjoyed it.
But the thing that made me have the most sympathy for Adam’s struggle to function better wasn’t that he was capable of acknowledging how he’d behaved to Hannah. It was when, as Adam prepared to go out on a date with the daughter of one of his fellow AA attendees, he told himself: “I’ll be staring at you like a creep, because I’m a creep. Hi, Natalia. I’m a creep.” It made me think that Adam could use the services of an advice columnist like the great Dr. Nerdlove, who specializes in helping geeks improve their social skills and has written numerous columns on ways not to make women justifiably uncomfortable.
In other words, Adam might be both a person who has done some genuine harm and someone who, if he can only find the right direction, cpuld turn out to be a decent man. Hannah told her therapist, played by Bob Balaban, of her difficulties with Adam: “I can’t decide if he’s the most fabulous person in the world or the worst, and I should probably take my time until I figure that out, according to everybody.” After this episode, that seems exactly the right way for audiences to approach him, too.