back and forth

Is Hannah Horvath TV’s Most Selfish Character? Matt Zoller Seitz and Alyssa Rosenberg Debate

Photo: HBO

Girls may have rejected the idea that its main character, Hannah Horvath (played by series creator Lena Dunham), is the voice of her generation, at least when it comes to her writing career. But even if Hannah isn’t speaking for her fellow Millennials, at least once a season her behavior becomes a referendum on twentysomething New Yorkers. This time, it’s her self-centered reaction when her book editor, David, dies unexpectedly, that has characters in the show and viewers at home in a tizzy. Vulture’s TV critic, Matt Zoller Seitz, and Vulture’s Girls recapper, the ThinkProgress critic Alyssa Rosenberg, debate the following question: Is Hannah Horvath TV’s most selfish character? And do Dunham and her fellow Girls producers care if we hate her?

MZS: So, Hannah Horvath? The most narcissistic TV character ever, or only top five?

AR: Oh, come on! We live in a world where Tony Soprano got to rampage his way across New Jersey, and where Walter White got to kill and make addicts out of countless people in order to gratify his image of himself. Sure, Hannah is self-absorbed, but the scale of her self-absorption, and her ability to carry it out, makes her look like an absolute piker by comparison.

MZS: I’m just being goofy. I actually don’t think she’s that bad compared to a lot of cable characters. But I wanted to pose it in a “When did you stop beating your wife?” kind of way because that seems to be the consensus about Hannah among a lot of viewers and recappers — that she’s, if not a bad person, then fundamentally detached from other people and perhaps herself as well.

And I’m intrigued by the extent to which season three of Girls seems to be setting the stage for a referendum on all that. I mean, every episode is to some degree about this Mel Brooks quote I referenced in one of my pieces — “Tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you fall down a manhole and die” — but doesn’t it seem like these new episodes, and particular four and five, are delving into all this, in a much more pointed way? Almost as if they’re building a case against Hannah by putting her in situations where, being Hannah, she’s bound to incriminate herself. Like at David’s memorial service.

AR: I think I said this in my most recent recap of the show, but over the past two seasons of Girls, I’ve felt like Lena Dunham has been so determined to clarify that she is not on Hannah’s side that she’s lost the will to make the case for the character, if that was even what she wanted to do in the first place.

That said, this season seems to be doing something complicated by putting Hannah in situations where she’s bound to behave badly. But it’s also juxtaposing Hannah with Caroline (Gabby Hoffman), who makes her look like Our Lady of Self-Sacrifice by comparison.

At the same time, though, when it comes to her book, I’m deeply sympathetic to Hannah. This is a project that she’s been working on for almost a full season at this point. She views it as a make-or-break project in her career, into which she’s poured the sum total of her experience. Of course, losing the person who believed in that project and who made it possible is completely freaking her out. And if we’re supposed to believe Hannah has any potential at all, shouldn’t we care about the fate of her book some, too?

I found Adam’s reaction to Hannah’s reaction to David’s death sort of strange and judgmental, because if you can’t tell your boyfriend that you’re freaked out about the potential derailment of the biggest project in your career, who can you tell?

MZS: Well, yeah, maybe … but if it were me, that sense of “Oh, my God, the thing I worked so hard to create is in limbo now” would be overshadowed, at least during the first couple of days, by, “Holy crap, that was so bizarre, and upsetting, that he’d just die that way, in the way that he died.” You know?

Adam is over-melodramatizing his feelings — he’s a friggin’ actor, after all — but I think he has a point, just as Ray has a point about the need for Hannah to put “one crumb of basic human compassion on this fat-free muffin of sociopathic detachment” and “see how it tastes.” I think Girls is onto something in that fourth episode, this idea that grief can be a performance, but it’s a performance with a purpose — that sometimes even if we’re not feeling a certain emotion, the emotion we’re told we are supposed to feel, and we resent it, sometimes it’s still a useful exercise to pretend our way into it, because something real could come out of the pretending.

Hannah can’t, or won’t, go that far, and that’s a big problem for her in relation to all these other people.

AR: That, I’m sympathetic to. And I’d actually argue that Hannah’s problems trying on other emotions and other angles on David’s death are a problem for her not just as a human, but as a writer. Hannah’s so interested in the tiny jewel of her own life that she has a tendency to miss out on other details or avenues of inquiry that are genuinely fascinating. If she were more interested in other people and other experiences, the fact that her book ends up tied up by David’s press wouldn’t be such a disaster because she’d have other sources of material.

In a way, though, David is one of the people who has encouraged her myopia in the first place! He and her editor at JazzHate have served Hannah really poorly by encouraging her to mine her own experience to the exclusion of pretty much anything else, which gets them buzzy material, but doesn’t do a thing to help Hannah develop the skills that will serve her well as a writer in the long term.

MZS: I think you’re right about all of that. Hannah’s inability to get outside herself is her most debilitating flaw, professionally as well as personally.

I find it fascinating, and kind of heroic in a quixotic way, that you mounted this defense of Hannah’s reaction to David’s death in episode four. Because it feels like, while you’re over here building up a case for the defense, meanwhile Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow and the rest of the people who make the show are working for the prosecution. Which is bizarre because it’s their show, and they have to identify with and to some degree love all these characters, even Hannah. Especially Hannah.

But do you know what I’m getting at? No sooner do we have that moment of sympathy for Hannah at the end of episode four — where she sort of lies her way into a truthful reaction, shedding tears over David’s death, the death of her mentor, even as she’s bogarting Caroline’s b.s. story about Adam — then we go to the funeral in episode five, and we see Hannah acting with all the thoughtless self-promotion of a character from Seinfeld or Curb your Enthusiasm. And the air goes out of the sympathy balloon. And there wasn’t much air in there to begin with!

It’s like the show wants to beat up on Hannah. On one hand, that’s commendable. It’s better than doing a bunch of special pleading for her as a wonderful person. But there’s also something, well, prosecutorial about it.

AR: I totally agree with you that Hannah’s behavior at David’s funeral is hilariously awful. Completely and utterly, although I deeply covet her mourning dress.

MZS: Hah!

AR: And I think you’re getting at something that’s frustrated me about this season of Girls. Maybe last season, too. The show seems to have developed an allergy to Hannah, and yet it’s not quite willing to abandon her, so it keeps throwing other elements in the mix to make her look sympathetic by comparison.

I cannot stand the Caroline character, both because I think she’s crowding the show in a way that’s not actually productive, and her addition to the cast has Girls stuck in a deeply uncomfortable interim state. Caroline’s outlandish behavior makes Hannah tolerable by contrast, but she doesn’t actually resolve the conundrum of Girls’ overall relationship to Hannah, if that makes sense.

It’s interesting to me that the show is extending a lot of possibility of growth to Jessa this season, who’s arguably done much more substantial harm to anyone than Hannah ever has. I love the character work the show is doing with her, but it seems to put Girls’ stasis with regard to Hannah in fairly sharp relief.

MZS: I don’t feel like Caroline is entirely there to make Hannah look better by comparison. She can be scarily unbalanced and otherwise unpleasant, but there’s a sweetness to her sometimes, particularly in episode four, that I almost never see Hannah summoning. So, sure, in that one way she’s making Hannah look worse!

I do feel overall that the show is testing us in some way, or pushing us. It might sound odd, but it almost reminds me of what happened to The Sopranos in seasons two and three. It was like, “Oh, you think these gangsters are cuddly? Well, here’s Tony killing one of his own guys. And here’s him helping cover up the murder of a pregnant stripper.” And so on. Yet people still liked the characters.

So what’s going on here? Let’s speculate.

AR: Hmmm. I think you’ve identified something important, though I want to tweak it slightly. Girls had to deal with the fact that the people who didn’t like the show thought that the show was too generous to Hannah. But rather than correcting by making Hannah grow, Girls adjusted its presentation of Hannah to be sharper, yet more negative.

There’s another world in which Girls corrects in an entirely different way. Maybe it keeps Donald Glover around as Sandy, Hannah’s second-season boyfriend, and she gets a low-level job at a publication and learns how to behave as an Actual Human Functioning in Society through a series of comic mishaps. Maybe something happens to Hannah or one of her other friends that requires actual effort to solve, and she has to rise to the occasion. I recognize that would be easier, but I’m also at a point where I wonder if having Hannah actually learn things would make the show feel more human than freezing her in sociopathic amber.

I guess this is in keeping with something larger I’ve been feeling about television lately: Darker and meaner is not always more true or more realistic.

MZS: Maybe that’s where they’re ultimately headed, though? Toward, if not redemption, then growth?

I say that because these last few episodes made me question this notion that Dunham & Co. don’t care if we like their characters or not — I mean, like in the sense of approving of them in some conventional way. I think they do care. And I think the show does, in fact, pass judgment on its characters’ behavior, subtly. It’s not just presenting it without comment, any more than Seinfeld did, anymore than The Larry Sanders Show or other shows about unpleasant people did.

Aside from Jessa, Hannah seems the most fundamentally defective or deficient of the people on this series, which is too bad because she might be, if not the most talented, then surely the most ambitious. But I think we are being set up to watch her grow, and her friends, too. Whether that’s a function of their starting out the story fairly young and getting older with each season, or just a case of hard knocks beating some common sense into them, is really impossible to say — and maybe those two things are the same thing anyhow?

In any case, this is not a reading that’s based on anything specific to the show. It’s just a gut call based on “Well, why tear Hannah down so brutally if you’re not going to build her up, or better yet let her build herself up, at some point in the future?”

AR: Maybe. Although last season literally ended with Hannah damaging her own eardrum, and now that she’s healthy, she’s grating in a whole different way. To me, it feels like the show said that being well doesn’t actually make you nice, or someone other people want to spend time with.

I’ve had a very complicated journey with The Mindy Project, which I felt like pulled off something really tricky in its mid-season finale. After a couple of seasons of Mindy saying whatever comes into her head in a Hannah-like fashion, Mindy’s frankness actually served a purpose in helping Danny work out his relationship with his father. It was a moving, kind of sexy thing. And I think Girls keeps denying us this moment where it casts a vote of confidence in Hannah.

MZS: I think it’ll get there eventually, though. This show is about youth ripening into maturity, or something like it. Somebody on this show has to learn something, or grow in some way. The behavior of the characters might be annoying, even awful, but I think there is hope in its heart. Or maybe that’s just my wishful thinking talking.

AR: I hope so. Because even though I started out this conversation defending Hannah, I’m coming to its close feeling sort of punished by Girls.

MZS: That the relationship between a Girls viewer and Girls is very much like a relationship on Girls is an irony I’d rather not unpack.

Is Hannah Horvath TV’s Most Selfish Character?