Girls Recap: The True Struggles of Humanity

Photo: HBO
Episode Title
Only Child
Editor’s Rating

“You will never write a thing that matters because you will never understand the true struggles of humanity,” Caroline, Adam’s sister, hisses at Hannah after Hannah, in a fit of frustration, ejects the interloper from her apartment. I feel conflicted about Caroline’s disappearance into the concrete jungle. On the one hand, Gabby Hoffman’s demented performance (and Mickey Mouse sweatshirt) were impossible to deny. On the other, Caroline sometimes seemed like a way for Girls to make Hannah look saner, while putting off resolving the show’s indecision about how to modulate the character. But what really brought me around on a character I initially hated was the ways in which Caroline surpassed even Ray as a diagnoser of Hannah’s problems — even if she tended to reach all the correct conclusions by paths accessible only to those with whatever her particular pathology happens to be. And when Caroline tells Hannah that she’ll never write anything that lasts, she’s speaking out of spite, but saying aloud something the show has been suggesting for a while.

During the first season of the show, Elaine Blair, writing in the New York Review of Books, considered the ways in which the show’s approach to sex was a way of explaining Hannah’s maturing writerly eye. “Adam had been blissfully lost to himself while they were doing it, while Hannah was taking mental notes,” she explained of the sex scene where Adam fantasizes about Hannah as a little girl. “It is, among other things, an amusing metaphor for Hannah’s chosen profession: the writer is the one busily jotting in her notebook while other people are having orgasms.”

Over three seasons of Girls, we’ve learned that Hannah is a gifted miner of her own experience for material — her coke binge was a reminder of how far she’ll go to create those experiences. But this season, her self-absorption seems to have another point than to illustrate how easy it is for twentysomethings to miss the world around them. Rather, it’s a reminder that however good Hannah is at observing and processing things that happen to her, she doesn’t have, or at least hasn’t yet developed, a skill that’s critically important if you want to have a sustainable writing career: the ability not just to engage with other people, but to observe them with care and perception.

After the last episode, I defended Hannah’s private processing of her non-reaction to David’s death, and her concern for the project she’s poured herself into. It's fine for her to express such concerns around her friends and boyfriend. Of course it’s totally horrifying this week when Hannah meanders up to Annalise, David’s wife, at the funeral, misses Annalise’s attempts to deflect her, and then, on finding out that Millstreet is dropping David’s projects, asks a grieving widow: “Do you happen to know another publisher that I could maybe slip the manuscript to, if I do decide I maybe want to try to keep it alive?” And it’s cathartic and delightful to see Annalise, played in a bit of perfect casting by Jennifer Westfeldt, tell Hannah “Okay, if I do give you another name, will you get the fuck out of here?”

But my concern in this sequence, and in this episode more generally, is less with Hannah’s personal development and more with all the alarming signs that she might actually be stalling out as a potential writer. If Hannah, the budding writer, sees David’s funeral as an opportunity to “lock eyes with Michiko Kakutani” and to figure out the fate of her book, she is missing a tragically terrific amount of material. The most interesting thing happening at David’s funeral isn’t Millstreet business, it’s Annalise’s confession to Hannah, who is surprised the editor she thought was gay is married to a gorgeous woman, that, “He was [gay]! Sometimes.” If Hannah was even capable of absorbing that exchange, she might have asked herself whether her adventures in kidney-stone removal are more interesting and outré than a married couple trying to negotiate each others’ complex sexualities. But because she doesn’t really notice what’s going on, it doesn’t occur to her.

Similarly, Hannah tells Marnie that she can’t come over and see the new kitten Marnie adopted out of a teenager’s backpack. The reason Hannah gives is that “we’re having a very real moment over here.” But the moment in question is one that is entirely manufactured by Hannah for the purposes of her own self-gratification and collection: an intervention between Adam and Caroline, whose fights have begun to escalate in tenor. “Okay, I think we should all start by acknowledging that we all really care about each other,” she kicks things off. “So Caroline, tell me you love me.” Maybe resolving things between Caroline and Adam is more important than getting a look at the squash-faced kitten Marnie is declaring her new best friend. But maybe Marnie’s collapse is worth Hannah’s attention, too, not just as a friend, but as a writer.

If Hannah paid attention to anyone else, ever, she wouldn’t just be a nicer person, but she’d be less vulnerable to the tragedy that befalls her after a promising meeting with an editor who wants to publish the book she was working on for David not just as an electronic release, but as a physical book. It turns out that Millstreet owns her project, and while they don’t plan on releasing it, they don’t intend to sell the rights to anyone else, either.

“You wrote all of those wonderful stories and now you know you can do it!” Caroline tries to console her, once again giving Hannah completely accurate advice. But Hannah is up against a very difficult constraint: She’s sold herself not just as someone who can write “wonderful stories,” but as someone who’s willing and able to provide publishers with a very specific sort of anecdote about her own humiliation. And so Hannah’s not entirely wrong when she complains to Caroline that “My whole life was in that book! Everything that’s ever happened to me! And now, what am I going to do, live another 25 years to create another body of work to match the one they stole from me? What if nothing happens?”

Maybe nothing will. But Annalise’s arrangement with David is a reminder that our negotiated “nothing” can be just as interesting as a whole lot of “something.” And if Hannah was paying closer attention to the people around her, it wouldn’t matter.

Dealbreaker Index

Hannah’s Funeral Decorum
Though I badly crave the dress she wore to the funeral, which, unlike almost anything else Hannah wears, fits and looks simultaneously chic and appropriate.

Marnie’s Fling With Ray
I totally believe  that Marnie, who slept with a sexually curious Elijah, and pursued a relationship with Booth Jonathan in part based on his negging, would sleep with Ray after asking him to criticize her. My beef is less with Marn herself (though I am worried about that kitten) than about the show’s inability to do something different with her on the second go-round of a breakup story. If Charlie moved to Austin, maybe it’s time for Marnie to decamp somewhere even more challenging to her than Manhattan.

Shoshanna’s Braid
I totally sympathize with Shosh’s fifteen-year plan, though she’s going to need a more specific idea for herself than studying → business school → success. But her sartorial self-discovery leaves something to be desired.

Jessa’s Edna St. Vincent Millay Connection
Shoshanna’s totally right that Jessa’s idea of self-improvement needs to be more than smoking what she terms “Dorff cigarettes.” But I bet you anything that Jessa gets that job in the children’s clothing store (and I’d also put a little money on her being knocked up, given that choice of employers and her smile at the woman with the baby stroller last week). And it says something that for the second week in a row, Jessa’s the one character I’m not actually annoyed with.