Girls Recap: Witnesses


Hello Kitty
Season 5 Episode 7
Editor’s Rating *****
Adam Driver as Adam. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Hello! I’m Kathryn VanArendonk, and I’m stepping in to tackle the last few episodes of Girls this season.

Girls perpetually walks a line between being on the side of its characters and on the side of its audience. It’s a show that delights in discomfiting grey areas: Are we supposed to support these characters or mock them? How should we judge their frequently unappealing behavior? In some cases, the series’ empathy for a particular character is clear, which is part of what’s made Shoshanna’s Japan story so appealing. She’s confused in a way that Girls depicts as both familiar and admirable, and the shot that closed “Queen for Two Days” is an unusually straightforward depiction of loneliness for this show. (It’s also very lovely.)

That kind of unpolluted compassion has never been extended to Hannah, a character whom Girls stubbornly refuses to simplify as someone easy to love or easy to hate. Part of that persistent complexity comes out of Hannah’s obsession with how she’s portrayed, how other people view her, and what it feels like to be seen and noticed. It’s hard to feel happy or satisfied when watching a character who is so preoccupied with being watched, and who frequently fails to behave in a way that makes watching her fun. It’s harder still when the narratorial eye doesn’t offer any shortcuts — we very rarely get an easy answer to whether we should read Hannah as sad or funny or brave or tragic. Instead, Hannah continuously puts on a show, and Girls slyly watches our uneasiness as we watch her.

This business with audiences and performers is part of my reading on this whole series, but it’s also the specific preoccupation of this episode, “Hello Kitty,” which gives us a bounty of material on watching and being seen.

We open, for instance, with Hannah finally getting scolded by her boss for disparaging other teachers in front of the students and talking about her relationship with Fran. (One of the other teachers has a “phantom centaur butt.”) Part of why teaching has worked out pretty well for Hannah is that it meets her endless need to be the center of attention, but as per usual, she fundamentally disregards all the typical boundaries of what a professional performance should look like.

Confronted with the prospect of a real reprimand for her actions, Hannah’s response is to pull a Basic Instinct, a move that she delightedly crows about to Fran afterwards. “Honestly, men are so afraid of the female vagina,” she tells him. Naturally, Fran is the grounded one here, calling Hannah on her immaturity and quite reasonably suggesting that he has an interest in Hannah not “show[ing her] vagina to anyone but me.” Hannah’s obviously making an effort to end things with Fran by deliberately provoking him — but it’s not like her assessment of the typical male response to female anatomy is wrong, either.

Then, in the middle of this fight, Hannah and Fran show up at the play Adam’s performing in, a play Jessa has fretted about because it will no doubt end with Hannah seeing that Jessa and Adam are together. Hannah’s fight with Fran continues to escalate, nearly to the point where Hannah breaks up with him.

And that’s when Girls gets quite explicit with its fixation on seeing and performing. The play is called 38 Windows, and it’s about the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was stabbed to death outside her Queens apartment. As the story goes — a story that has since been discredited — dozens of her neighbors heard or saw the attack and did nothing to help.

Real talk: I was hoping that the title of this episode, “Hello Kitty,” would mean a solid dose of Shoshanna’s adventures in Japan, but instead it’s a reference to Kitty Genovese, and a little joke about Hannah’s, umm … kitty.

Anyhow, in 38 Windows, audience members are invited into various rooms in an apartment building, populated by actors who play the neighbors. The whole thing is done up like the sixties — Hannah watches a woman do a surprisingly aggressive version of the Jerk at her ticked-off sister; Adam plays a man arguing with his wife. Meanwhile, out in the building’s courtyard, two lit-up statues represent Kitty and her killer, and the audience and actors occasionally crane their heads out of the window to listen to screaming.

It’s a play about indifference and performance and the line between apathy and criminality, and Girls does it up with characteristic ambivalence. The material is unquestionably serious, and Ray, at least, is righteously infuriated by its portrayal of societal apathy. I can even imagine some version of a play like this being quite moving. But 38 Windows is also undeniably silly. When cops come to question the neighbors, one responds, “We were just living our boring lives, baby.” And the statues of Kitty and her killer are reminiscent of bad museum dioramas, an impression that’s bolstered by the shot of Adam preparing for the play with the Kitty statue slung casually over his shoulder.

More to the point, while the actor/neighbors and the audience witness Kitty’s death, Hannah watches something far more upsetting to her — when she looks out the window, she doesn’t see the murder. She sees Jessa watching the play from a fire escape, staring lovingly at Adam. And so, the truth dawns on her. “Hello Kitty” doesn’t add as much cinematographically as some previous episodes did this season, but this shot — circling around to capture all of the sight lines and the space of this courtyard — is really arresting.

Hannah, of course, flips out. Marnie’s not much help, either — she’s been “too busy Yelping divorce lawyers to worry about the sex lives of their second-tier friends,” and as Hannah starts to fall apart, Desi comes charging in, gleefully announcing that Alex Patsavas wants a Marnie and Desi song for a death scene on Grey’s. As much as I hate Desi, I love how excited he is about the music of The OC. It might even be for a montage! Amid this surprising opportunity, Marnie manages to make her feelings clear: They obviously have to make this work, but they’ll make it work “just as a band.”

While the others are witnessing the death of Kitty Genovese, Elijah is at a very fancy party with Dill. He’s happy, dangerously so, and thus it comes as no surprise when someone comes up to him in a line for drinks and tells Elijah all about Dill’s other relationships. There’s someone named Muzzy, whom Dill apparently took to a black-tie gala just last week, and also a guy named Shane, who lives in an apartment subsidized by Dill in tacit exchange for sex “only when [Shane] feels like it.”

Elijah’s upset, and confronts Dill in his glamorously appointed bathroom (featuring a not-quite Emmy on a shelf by the mirror). Elijah does an admirable job of being clear about why he’s upset, but Dill slips and slides away from each accusations. “You know I would never disappoint you on purpose, right?” sounds exactly like something Hannah might say to Fran. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.

Back home after the party, Elijah opens the door to find a completely wasted Dill and resignedly lets him in. Corey Stoll plays Dill’s utterly charming loutishness perfectly, and it’s not hard to see why Elijah not only lets him in, but lets Dill take him to bed, and only sighs in mild exasperation when Dill falls asleep while giving him a blow job.

The aftermath of Hannah’s revelation at 38 Windows is similarly mixed, but much sadder. She seems legitimately stunned by Adam and Jessa, especially after they walk away without any discussion of the relationship. Fran is understandably frustrated with Hannah’s behavior, but completely clueless about why she’s so upset — and frankly, he’s acting much nicer to her than makes any kind of human sense. Shaken by Adam and Jessa, Hannah clings to the nice guy standing in front of her, and manages to sincerely apologize.

Hannah is grasping onto Fran as the most convenient port in a storm, but Girls doesn’t let us off the hook. Unlike her obviously put-on anger in the opening scenes, Hannah’s trauma here is — or more importantly, is presented as — serious, legitimate, and quite heartfelt, even while it’s also hilariously trivial in the context of Kitty Genovese and this (slightly) silly play.

This is, after all, Girls, a show that rarely makes clear who is in on the joke, or if there’s even a joke at all. Laughing at Hannah is too easy, and so is hating her, but being fully in her corner is hard. And so, we’re stuck somewhere in the uneasy middle, just as Girls intends.

Girls Recap: Witnesses