All the artistically significant TV shows have shared two traits: a restless, at times unstable-seeming creativity, and a willingness to confound viewers. Both traits were on display in Sunday’s Girls episode “One Man’s Trash” — particularly the second, which has prompted yet another of the Monday-Tuesday arguments that this show has proved expert at facilitating. This one is over whether a guy as lean and lacrosse-team handsome as Patrick Wilson’s doctor, Joshua, would want to have sex with somebody who looks like Lena Dunham.
That’s a great question, if you’re boring. Here are two responses: (1) He’s heterosexual and recently separated and totally alone in his nice big house, and she’s smart and energetic and came on to him in a way that left zero doubt that she’d be into it, so duh, sure, why the hell not, and (2) real-world nooky plausibility is the least interesting thing one can discuss when discussing “One Man’s Trash,” the most aesthetically daring sitcom episode since Louie’s brilliant “New Year’s Day.”
That didn’t stop Slate’s “Guys on Girls” discussion group from missing pretty much every point that one could get from Girls. “This episode somehow put a hard-to-like character in a hard-to-believe situation which also, frankly, was pretty dull,” wrote David Haglund, managing a trifecta of irrelevant complaints in one sentence. “The whole thing left me baffled and uncomfortable,” wrote his regular sparring partner Daniel Engber. “Why are these people having sex, when they are so clearly mismatched — in style, in looks, in manners, in age, in everything? Why is he kissing her and begging her to stay over?” At least Engber put the No. 1 item on his viewing agenda on display right up top when he praised “the one part of the episode that made sense … the discussion of whether Hannah had really invented the word ‘sexit.’ As opposed to the 25 minutes that followed, that exchange reminded me of Things That Happen in the Real World.”
The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum got much closer to the heart of the episode, thank goodness. She noted Hannah’s “dream-like impulse to pursue a handsome stranger” and Joshua’s promise of “a fantasy [italics mine] of steak in the refrigerator and sweaters that cost as much as her month’s rent” — more about dreams and dream-likeness in a moment — then moved on to discuss the sex scene between Hannah and Josh on the bed. It was indeed, as she noted, “a departure from any sex we’ve seen so far on Girls, because it wasn’t played for laughs … was so intimate that it felt invasive: raw and odd and tender. That’s a nearly unheard-of quality in sex on cable television, which consists largely of the same cynical motifs recycled again and again: perfect lingerie, interchangeable young female bodies (while male body types vary wildly, in age and shape), the sort of ‘porn with purchase’ that studs prestige cable series from Boardwalk Empire to House of Lies.”
For me, the most exciting — hell, the sexiest — thing about “One Man’s Trash” wasn’t the refreshingly hot-awkward, nonpunitive or non-humiliating carnality; it was the way that Dunham’s screenplay and Richard Shepard’s direction refused to tell us whether this whole situation was, in some sense, too good to be true — if it was “really” happening, if it was a fantasy of Hannah’s, or if it was somewhere in between. Slate contributor Hanna Rosin got at this in her delightful smackdown of “Guys on Girls.” Among other things, the piece demolished the “very literal minded complaint that this episode was ‘unrealistic.’ That was a fantasy, guys, and fantasies are often unrealistic. You could tell because it stood apart from the rest of the series, like a standalone play in three tiny succinct acts.”
Was “One’s Man’s Trash” a clear-cut fantasy, though — in the sense of “Just a dream, didn’t happen”? I don’t know that anyone but the filmmakers can say, and the fact that they don’t pleases me to no end. The episode was doing something nervy without announcing it as such: It was presenting a story that might or might not belong to the show’s ongoing narrative, and leaving it up to us to figure out where it fit, if indeed it did fit, and how. Did any of the events in this episode “really” happen? It’s the wrong question. Garrett Martin’s otherwise astute Paste recap nearly avoids asking it, but then succumbs, complaining that the episode’s self-contained, disconnected quality “felt like another one of Louie’s frequent tricks, dropping moments of fantasy into the show’s ‘reality’ without announcing them as such. It’s like a dream sequence started once Hannah entered the guy’s house.”
This opaque approach is an aesthetic advance in series television. It has become a bit more common in the post-Sopranos era. It’s exemplified by FX’s Louie, a series with a flexible tone that can be “realistic” or utterly fanciful, sometimes from scene to scene, and that makes a point of not telling you how you’re supposed to take any of it. As I wrote of Louie’s most stylistically radical episode to date, “New Year’s Eve,” “this is the first episode that seems wholly dedicated to rendering the dream/reality distinction useless. It insists that we experience every moment in terms of emotional logic and metaphor, as we might one of our own dreams.”
That’s “One Man’s Trash,” I think. I added that “I think” because being any more definitive than that would violate the spirit of the episode. You can’t “prove” what did or did not happen in “One Man’s Trash,” or say for certain how much of it occupies a place within the show’s established timeline of “real” characters and events. It does feel like an ellipse of some kind — or maybe a cul-de-sac from which Hannah emotionally escapes when the “relationship” goes to hell in a handbasket. (I love that mini-arc, by the way; it reminded me a little bit of that brilliant answering-machine sequence in Jon Favreau’s Swingers.) What’s happening in “One Man’s Trash” is “real” in the sense that it reflects Hannah’s personality, wants, needs, desires, and fears, and perhaps exposes an unpleasant part of herself that she’d otherwise deny. One “tell” that jumped out at me was Joshua’s vague account of the breakup of his marriage, which included what sounded like placeholder dialogue that Hannah would presumably fill in with real dialogue during revision (“ … real stuff that causes problems, and, uh, marriages to end”). Another is the scene where she makes him ask her to stay over and over and over, in different intonations, like an actor in a TV show produced by and starring Hannah Horvath. “I want you to stay” is one reading. “I don’t want to ever be without you” is another. They’re all so needy, and so fantastical, that they become a kind of verbal pornography, designed to give a secret princess an emotional orgasm.
For all her comically bold assertions of artistic and sexual independence, some part of Hannah is very traditionally gendered — a tattooed faux-bohemian version of the Little Woman, looking to be cared for (in her fantasies) by a handsome rich doctor with a nice house and no visible personal attachments except the one he’s got with her. Her buddy Jessa has a touch of this impulse, too, as do many of the women on Girls — and the men as well, come to think of it, especially the 33-year-old self-confessed “loser” Ray, who’s living with Shoshanna while pretending he isn’t. All of the major characters are living in a fantasy version of reality, as woman-children and man-children who probably don’t have the talent or endurance to realize the artistic dreams they keep insisting are so important to them, or become the “grown-ups” they loudly proclaim that they are. But maturity is not beyond Hannah’s grasp. As my friend Sasha Stone said today, in the second half of the episode, Hannah “broke two rules girls like her [in a relationship with an older man] aren’t supposed to. 1) she started trying to challenge him in a real conversation. That’s a no-no. You’re supposed to speak when spoken to and agree to everything. 2) she left.”
The reality in “One Man’s Trash” is the reality of Louie: What we are seeing is, at the very least, a documentary of the inside of a character’s mind.