Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO
It’s so perfectly in keeping with the Girls we’ve gotten to know over the years that one of the strongest expressions of self-awareness we’ve ever seen from Hannah Horvath comes when she’s in the midst of pitching a mild temper tantrum, in front of Grumpy’s customers, in the process of quitting a job. She’s trying to tell Ray that she’s leaving because she’s gotten a job working in an advertorial section at GQ, and because Ray is in many ways the male Hannah Horvath, only with a greater ability to put polish on everything that springs into his head on its way out of his mouth, he immediately declares the whole enterprise a fraud.
“There’s no way GQ hired you to be a staff writer,” Ray declares. “So it’s obviously one of those advertorial sections, where it looks like a real article so they trick you into reading it, and then you find out it’s a paid advertisement. Which is both morally and creatively bankrupt. So who’s the sponsor?” Hannah confesses that it’s the department store Neiman Marcus. But she’s frustrated with Ray’s dismissive attitude toward her reasons for taking the job. “Do you think I’m fucking excited, Ray?” she demands of him. “Do you think that I think that this is the best use of my literary voice and myriad talents?”
The old Hannah might have said all of this as a way of quitting not Grumpy, but the GQ job, treating it as an affront to her dignity. And Girls might have reveled in Hannah’s miscalculation. But for the first time this season, Girls feels like the show is on Hannah’s side because Hannah finally deserves it. She’s troupering off to a job that isn’t her dream, doing good work when she’s there, and responding to disillusionment not by defenestrating herself from her boss’s presence (J.Crew’s Jenna Lyons), but by absorbing a pep talk from her co-worker and applying herself. It’s honestly a relief.
In the scenes at GQ, Girls makes an important but subtle shift that I think could be an important tonal change going forward. Rather than relying on Hannah and her friends’ complete and utter lack of self-awareness for its humor, the GQ staffers are funny precisely because they know who they are, that some of their behavior is inherently funny, and that they have gotten lured by security. In the first season of Girls, Marnie was deadly serious when she outlined her hierarchy of communication with boys as: “The totem of chat. The lowest, that would be Facebook, followed by GChat, then texting, then e-mail, then phone. Face to face would be ideal, but it’s not of this time.” Now when Hannah thanks Joe for supporting her piece about doing cocaine because she didn’t feel it was re-tweeted enough, he drily tells her “I’m not on Twitter. But I’ll Instagram it later.”
I wrote last week that I was anxious about how Hannah was developing as a writer, so it was terrific to see her in proximity to people who have actually done the kinds of work she aspires to. There’s Kevin, with his dabbling in the “dark arts,” as he refers to his poetry. Karen, whose “unpacking of The Jersey Shore through an imperialist lens” I would badly love to read. And Joe’s New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece may be years in the past, but his interest in Hannah and his willingness to buck her up suggests the kind of attentiveness to others that makes for good writing and reporting, and that Hannah is so often missing. I badly hope that Hannah stays at GQ for a while, for her sake, and for the sake of Girls. It’s time to air out these stuffy Brooklyn apartments, for Hannah to have some new friends and a mentor who isn’t Ray, or an editor who wants to exploit her capacity for humiliation, not to mention for the show to have a nonwhite character who actually sticks around.
What makes me particularly happy about “Free Snacks” is that all of these things happened in an episode that was among the most balanced Girls has had all season. It’s very funny, for example, to see the collision between Jessa’s disregard for convention and the status and consumption anxiety of the customers in the children’s clothing store where she now works. “Christening dresses are usually white, aren’t they?” the woman wants to know. “Not the chic ones,” Jessa informs her, closing the sale. It’s the first time in a while that Girls has used Jessa’s particular pathologies as a way to illuminate another archetypal New Yorker’s anxieties and strangenesses the way her marriage plot did. And I’m glad to see the show weave her development and a larger vision of the city together.
I still wish that Girls was doing a better job with the chemical composition of Shoshanna’s story line this season. Her anxiety remains very funny, as when she tells Jessa “Ray is being written about in popular service publications and my life is a mess! And I know that was a personal choice, but I think that maybe it is time for me to un-choose that choice.” But it doesn’t quite square with Shosh’s emerging sense of self that she’d pick an utter dolt as her candidate for mandated four-times-weekly “hang nights.” The character was more fun back in the first season, when she was an obviously smart girl who’d gone badly astray under cultural influences like Sex and the City, Listen Up, Ladies, and Baggage. Girls might have done better to explore why Shosh is so obsessed with business school, a career trajectory that, like these cultural trifles, Shoshanna seems to have seized on for its outward appearance rather than its actual substance. Establishing some real tension between Shosh’s career goals and her sexual walkabout would require Girls to actually set up story lines that tell us about Shoshanna’s aspirations or business-school applications in the same way the show has taken Hannah to GQ.
And finally, it’s impressive that Girls manage to pull off, even a little bit, the idea of Ray and Marnie as a thing, bonded by their mutual unhappiness. Watching her self-aggrandizing vision of herself doing charity work in Africa bump up against Ray’s platitudinous outrage is hilarious, not least because who would have expected Marnie to be the person to deflate Ray? And when Ray tells Marnie not to storm out of their meal together because “You have no one else to eat lunch with. And neither do I,” Girls ties together her storyline and Hannah’s. Purity and perfection are nice ideals. But sometimes you just want someone to eat noodles with, or to show you where the free snacks are.
Adam’s Insistence That He Doesn’t Want a Real Job: There’s some awkward, but surprisingly effective, relationship kung-fu going on in Hannah’s willingness to call Adam’s casting director a bitch, and then to pivot and tell him, “You know what else would be a cool, fun challenge would be actually getting a job, and then we could pay all our rent, and we wouldn’t have to worry.” It’s incredibly rare to see Girls actually tackle a dealbreaker in the same episode in which it comes up, but Adam hears Hannah, and goes out and decimates an audition, declaring that he “cut its fucking guts out and left it in a dumpster by the side of the road!” How crazy would it be for Hannah’s apartment to be occupied by two functional adults with actual jobs?
Shoshanna’s Taste in Boys: Oh, Shosh. If you just want to get laid, do that, sweetie. Don’t try to mandate playlist comparisons.
Marnie’s Standards of Smart: Marn, I know you’re feeling insecure. But no matter how loud you declaim it, “You don’t even know what pave is! Who’s the dumb one now?” New York standards of what counts as intellectual aren’t going to shift in your favor on this one.