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Are You Feeling Anything? Seitz on Girls, Death, and Mourning

“Are you feeling anything,” asks Adam, “beyond wondering when your e-book’s gonna hit the stands?”

The first part of that sentence could be asked of any Girls character, in almost any circumstance: Are you feeling anything? Follow-ups might include: What are you feeling? How do you know you're really feeling it? How do I know you're really feeling it?

These are legitimate (if bitchy) questions. They don't just apply to the inhabitants of Lena Dunham's post-collegiate limbo. As my colleague Alyssa Rosenberg pointed out in her recap this week — and as Girls' Hannah Horvath defensively observed in "Dead Inside," fending off criticisms of how she handled her editor's sudden death — people process things in different ways. Unfortunately, while we're processing things our way, others are judging and condemning us for not processing things their way. 

Empathy measurement is tricky no matter what. It gets trickier when death enters the picture. Failure to express condolences while sounding properly aghast or moved is interpreted as proof that a person is a dreadful narcissist or otherwise disconnected from humanity, when in fact the problem might be that they aren't sure what they're feeling at that exact moment, much less how to express it without being insincere or sounding trite.

That's not to say that Hannah is thinking any of this as she flops around trying not to sound like a careerist swine after David's death, or that Girls is praising or condemning her nonresponse; just that it's complicated. 

As written by Dunham and Judd Apatow and directed by Jesse Peretz, "Dead Inside" didn't do an elegant job of conveying that Hannah was, in her own Hannah-like way, shocked and upset (though the tears that flowed during that final stoop conversation felt real, even though their context was false; more on that in a moment). On first viewing, "Dead Inside" played like self-criticism — as if Girls were agreeing with viewers who think Hannah is so coldly self-centered that only a sociopath could relate to her. But this turned out to be another instance of Girls seeming to embrace a superficial message while actually subverting it (as in the climax of season two's finale, which felt like a standard rom-com race-to-the-happy-finish until you realized how screwed-up the couple was). 

This episode resists being decoded for simplistic morals or for hints on how to behave, except for very general and obvious points about social rituals, such as, "Sometimes it's better to be kind than honest." Hannah didn't really know her editor that well. They both saw each other as potential revenue sources, mostly, and we never got any hint of great hidden affection on David's part. So it doesn't make sense for Hannah to rend her garments and wail inconsolably. At the same time, though, Ray and Adam are right to criticize her for being unable to place even one measly brick in a facade of public mourning, and they aren't being insincere when they adopt an "Every man's death diminishes me" attitude. Whether such sentiments are truly felt or merely enacted, they push society toward decent behavior.  The enactment of feeling can lead to feeling. Not everyone who cries after a death is reacting directly to that death; some of them are trying to jump-start the process of reaction. That there's an element of performance involved doesn't make the action inauthentic, unhealthy, or otherwise bad. Girls gets all this, to its credit.

That's why I had two wildly different reactions to the final scene of Hannah stealing Caroline's phony story. On first viewing it seemed like proof that Hannah was, per the episode title, dead inside. The whole scene made me queasy. There was a touch of the caricature of the writer who sees everything as material and just Hoovers her way through life, sucking up experiences and stories. On second viewing, though, it seemed the logical endpoint of Hannah's being asked, cajoled, and commanded to do whatever it took to get herself in a mind-space where she could see her editor as a person rather than the guy who cracked before he could jump-start her brilliant career. She finally does what everyone kept telling her she needed to do. When Hannah says of David, "It's just hard to realize that my champion is gone," the tears in her eyes are genuine, I think, even though they were summoned with, and surrounded by, lies.

That stuff with Jessa learning that a friend she thought had died had faked her funeral was a bit too silly for an episode that otherwise avoided the farcical. But it did tie in with the idea of "faking it till you make it" — that one purpose of social ritual is to push people into zones where they can feel what they're "supposed" to feel, if not for their own sakes, then for the sakes of the deceased's survivors. Maybe that odd smile on Jessa's face in her final scene comes from realizing that her friend made fiction real, and dragged her into an extended performance.  

Better still was how "Dead Inside" situated David's passing within the context of boring daily life. Caroline, Laird, and Hannah's cemetery romp made this notion official — other people's solemn remembrance serving as backdrop for their frolic — but it was addressed in other scenes, too. Ray and Hannah debate the correct response to a death while preparing coffee drinks. The scandalous death of the man that the heroine hoped would make her career can be followed by the heroine's boyfriend announcing that he found an old picture of Tom Hanks on the street. Shoshanna and Jessa swap stories about friends' deaths, but it turns out that only Shoshanna is paying attention. 

Jessa: "You had a friend who died?"
Shoshanna: "We literally just had this conversation."

Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO