Girls Recap: MFAches and Pains

Photo: Mark Schafer/HBO
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Last September, comedian and writer Dana Schwartz created a parody Twitter account called @GuyInYourMFA. Meant to gently mock the precious, pretentious attitude affected by a stereotypical, Ivy League–educated, white male in a graduate writing seminar, the feed became an immediate sensation (it's now garnered more than 32,000 followers), because, well, everyone knows a dude like that, whether or not you've actually witnessed the mock-intellectual hipster snobbery of a creative-writing seminar's "safe space." (Sample tweets: “I only see plays that can be described as Brechtian.” “This was fun, but I don't think you should stay the night. I tend to be inspired to write at 3am, and I listen to percussive jazz.”)

In the strongest scene from this week’s Girls, written by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner and directed by Dunham, the latter zooms in on what actually goes on in said seminar — and she nails it. The classroom turns out to be the ideal forum to see Hannah squirm under a microscope and also, in a more meta sense, a genius way for Dunham to play and engage with the larger cultural conversation about Girls and her work in general. Nothing that anyone says to Hannah in the critique on the show is harsher or more questioning of privilege and sexuality than any of Dunham’s detractors have said about her in real life — it’s just that in the real world, Dunham has managed to address these questions with a fair amount of self-reflection and grace (often under journalistic fire).

Hannah, on the other hand, can’t take a hit. She can barely keep her mouth shut for five seconds when someone takes issue with her work. She responds to her critics like a child might: interrupting, pouting, making defiant claims. In fact, Iowa, Hannah’s big move into the future and into adulthood, so far looks like anything but. Isolated from the rest of the group, Hannah is regressing. She keeps asserting to everyone that she is an older, wiser grad student — her housemate, the bookstore guy, the crying girl at the party — but wearing her dorky hot-pink bike helmet and rumpled pajamas to class, she looks like the most unseasoned freshman on campus.

And what a beautiful campus this is. You have to hand it to Dunham and her director of photography for this episode — they make “Iowa” look gorgeous, amber waves of grain and all. When we begin the episode, Hannah seems to be in heaven. Far from her cramped, dark apartment in New York, she browses charming, light-filled real estate in antique houses that will only cost her $800 a month (two thumbs the fuck up, indeed). She takes Marnie on a Skype tour of her new digs, which takes four minutes as opposed to the four seconds it would have taken back in the city: She now has a lounging parlor, a shelf of curiosities, and plenty of room to store her Lubriderm.  She eats grapes as a snack in the sun. She has finally “made the right decision, which is a totally new sensation for me.”

It is through this gloat-y conversation with Marnie that we learn that Hannah and Adam have split for good. Marnie (poor, mistress, scarf-making Marnie) dangles news about Adam in front of Hannah the way only a friend who secretly finds drama delicious would, and while Hannah seems at peace with it, her obsessive scrolling through pictures of her ex late at night would say otherwise. Nighttime reveals the cracks in Hannah’s Midwestern utopia: She’s lonesome in that big house. When a bat flies in, she has to run outside and crawl back in through the window. She locks herself in the bathroom and curls up on the cold tile floor. A braver girl might have chased the bat out with a broom, but Hannah has always been somewhat coddled. She doesn’t confront her problems — she just sleeps in the other room. It’s very clear in this moment, far away from her friends, her family, and her boyfriend, that Iowa is going to be very rough for a person like Hannah. She can’t truly adapt. She makes clerks call Amex while 15 people wait in line behind her. Rather than listening, she brags and boasts to her classmates. It’s going, so far, about as bad as it can go.

The seminar is the center of this episode, and will most likely be the most discussed part of it. Dunham, who has come under fire in the past for a lack of diversity on the show, stocked the workshop full of characters of different races and genders, and in a fairly biting send-up of the central Girls critique, shows how students from varying backgrounds treat each other differently. D’August, played by Django Unchained’s Ato Essandoh, reads a very depressing, sparse story about a dying mother and a rotting tooth, the kind of painful catnip that MFA students love. And they do — one woman calls it “gut-wrenching, not asking to wrench our guts, just wrenching them,” and another student named Chester Chong says, “You played with gender in a way that was really surprising and almost offensive, but not offensive.” The bro-y white guy in class (That Guy in Hannah’s MFA) says, “I would cut my arm off just to write three more pages like that.” The class treats D’August with silent reverence, and the resulting praise is very funny, if not extremely uncomfortable.

Hannah is, of course, unimpressed; “I assume the mom dies, so … ” is all she can add to the glowing praise. When her turn comes around, she warns her classmates about the “more triggering aspects” of her piece — which would sound like a Shouts and Murmurs piece if it wasn’t a real phrase — and tells people it is okay to leave the room or wretch in disgust if they find her writing too “problematic.” What it is, instead, is just bad. I can just imagine the glee with which Dunham (a very good writer) and Konner came up with Hannah’s empty, juvenile prose. Chester calls it Fifty Shades. It is obviously a lazy work of memoir; the character’s name is Anna, and Hannah finally admits later that that story is “about taking quaaludes and asking my boyfriend to punch me in the face.” Still, the ganging up on Hannah is intense and severe, and even D’August (who always hits the nail on the head, according to the reverential white bro) can’t soften the blow. Hannah has a lot to “metabolize.”

And yet, this is Girls, so Hannah again runs away from the hard work. Instead of accepting that her story was inferior, she decides that Logan (played by the great Marin Ireland) only found it repellent because she, herself, had been a survivor of abuse (a fact that Hannah feels no shame blurting out in a bar). She can’t make friends this way, and she knows it. TMI might be an “outdated concept,” as she womansplains to Logan, but no one actually wants to hang out with the girl in pajama bottoms who spouts off way too much TMI.

Her cry for help is, in classic Hannah fashion, a collect call, first to Shosh and Jessa, who are too wrapped up in Scandal to care, and then to her parents, who are too wrapped up in Scrabble to be helpful. Hannah asks her mom if it is “normal when you get to a new place to think about suicide for the first time ever” — not that she’d ever do it, of course, but she needs to be heard, and no one is there to listen.

Like a miracle, Elijah to the rescue. This is the only note of the episode that feels a bit forced; it’s very … convenient for Elijah to just magically appear. Not only do Andrew Rannells and Dunham have some of the best chemistry on the show, but we needed a friendly face in Iowa for continuity. Still, despite how truth-stretchy it feels, I could watch Hannah and Elijah dance at freshman parties forever; she in an ill-fitting white dress that ends up neon blue, he giving hand jobs to straight boys upstairs. They are a perfect team of soulless, selfish troublemakers — no wonder they “hate everyone who isn’t each other” so much. At the end of the episode, Hannah says, “I want to go back to undergrad school.” If they both keep this behavior up, it will be like they never left.