Jemima Kirke as Jessa.
This week’s episode, “Homeward Bound,” is bookended by two scenes of New York homecomings: Shoshanna’s furious and wounded return to the city, represented by the fish-out-of-water image of her sliding along an airport walkway; and Hannah’s hitchhike ride back home, seeing the city through another person’s eyes.
Some of Girls’ strongest moments happen when the characters leave New York City. We saw this with Hannah’s visit home, the time she spent in Iowa, Marnie’s wedding, the infamous beach house, and of course, Shoshanna’s glorious (and ultimately failed) trip to Japan. It’s especially curious to watch Girls play with the intermediary places in this episode. Shoshanna slinks dejectedly back into New York just as Hannah leaves, immediately regrets it, and makes a series of horrible choices trying to get back. As “Homeward Bound” so correctly suggests, each departure and return to the city is an opportunity to try on new identities and become new people — it literalizes the series’s preoccupation with presentations of the self. And so, it feels remarkably appropriate that Hannah fails so spectacularly at both leaving and coming back.
After Hannah’s stunned discovery of Jessa and Adam’s relationship at the end of “Hello Kitty,” she finds herself in a “house car” with Fran, setting off for a three-month road trip through who knows where. The moment they exit the city, Fran and Hannah have inverse reactions: While Fran takes deep breaths and glories in his freedom, Hannah begins to feel the walls of the RV closing in on her, and sticks her head out the window to try to find more space.
What follows are some of Hannah’s worst decisions, all lined up one right after another. She breaks up with Fran at a desolate rest area, refuses his offer of a ride home, calls each of her friends to try to get them to pick her up, finally deigns to call Ray, forces a blow job on him (?!) while he’s driving her home, causes him to crash the enormous coffee van, and then leaves him by the side of the road so she can hitchhike back to the city.
This cavalcade of disaster is, unquestionably, the result of Hannah’s poor behavior. She’s alienated her friends. She continued a relationship she knows she should’ve ended earlier. She has an unbelievable lack of respect for boundaries (especially sexual ones). She acts without thinking. Heck, even Hannah’s hitchhiking predicament is just reaping what she’s sown; she can’t call an Uber because she got kicked off the app for “low ratings.”
At the start of this chain reaction of poor choices, though, is one decision that is unquestionably right: breaking up with Fran. In spite of her truly unwise way of dumping him, what follows does help explain how it got that bad. Hannah tries desperately to get away from Fran, and he ends up hilariously chasing her round and round through the public restrooms, perpetually ignoring her request that he just stop. He’s nice, sure! A nice guy would never leave his girlfriend locked in a bathroom, and he certainly wouldn’t let her just run away into the woods, and then abandon her at a rest stop. But it’s clear that Fran’s niceness has become, at least for Hannah, an unbearably oppressive niceness. He’s much, much better at seeming to be a good person than she is. And while his post-breakup explosion isn’t exactly unwarranted, neither is it flattering. In a show obsessed with perception and appearance, “seeming like a nice guy” is a pretty bitter indictment.
So Hannah’s free of Fran. Does she know what to do with that freedom once she gets it? Of course not. But as the RV rolls away, her deep, eyes-rolled-back sigh of relief feels honest.
Hannah eventually (and literally) falls into Ray’s lap because Marnie and Jessa are both otherwise occupied — Marnie’s recording a demo with Desi to take advantage of their Alex Patsavas–given opportunity, and Jessa’s helping Adam hold down the fort at Laird and Caroline’s place. Marnie’s story is funny, and elevated somewhat by Lisa Bonet’s pleasurably obnoxious performance as Desi’s new love interest/spiritual guide, even though the role feels like a direct import of her character from High Fidelity.
But as far as emotional heft, Marnie’s laughable band doesn’t hold a candle to the situation at Laird’s apartment. While trying to track down his sister, Adam arrives to find Laird and Sample ( … yes, they are still calling this child Sample) alone in the apartment. Caroline left three days ago to find some pepitas, and it’s not until Adam finds a note under the fridge that Laird realizes the extent of the damage.
In moments like this one, Girls’ refusal to play anything straight gets quite tricky. Caroline and Laird (and Sample, for Pete’s sake) are clearly the butt of jokes. Laird’s exhausted, blind subservience to Caroline is meant to be snickered at, and Caroline’s monstrous maternity is satire, I suppose. We saw this play out last season with Caroline’s home birth, when the threat of real harm and the sudden existence of a helpless newborn smacked up against Girls’ ironic detachment. We see it here, again, as Laird reads the letter in which Caroline explains that she worries about hurting her daughter or hurting herself, and has left them. The line between funny and incredibly serious is a slippery one.
To my immense relief, “Homeward Bound” lands on the side of incredibly serious. After bouncing through some lightly humorous scenes of Jessa trying to help Adam take care of the baby (after Laird flees in dismay), the plot culminates with Jessa screaming in horror as Sample spits up all over her back. “Why aren’t you helping me?!” Jessa asks Adam, bewildered. “You’re an adult,” he replies. “She’s a baby. Why do you need more help than a baby?” The heavens opened up, and lo, a character on Girls is growing up.
While all this happens (and as Hannah gratefully leaps into a stranger’s car to hitchhike home), Shoshanna gets a dressing down from Scott, whom she meets in a sushi restaurant. This is clearly just a transition episode for Shosh, setting pieces into place for what her character will do next. It’s clear that going back to Scott is not an option. And although she doesn’t come off especially well in this scene, her fervent apology to the sushi chef is quite nice.
We end with Hannah in the car with Hector, whose gun in the backseat and generally glowering demeanor cause Hannah to give Marnie a safety call. The fact that Hector is played by Scandal’s Guillermo Diaz is another nail in the you-in-danger-girl coffin. In the final moments, though — and edited nicely to come right up against Adam’s surprising demonstration of maturity — the story flips. Hannah realizes that Hector’s just trying to run away from a terrible relationship, too. As the city appears in the distance, Hannah sees his sweetly sincere excitement as both startling and affecting.
It’s hard to say with any confidence that Hannah’s homecoming represents a shift in her mindset. She has behaved in such utterly reprehensible ways that if she’d gotten into that car, looked out at the New York skyline, and spontaneously written all of Hamilton, it would still be hard to find sympathy for her. But it’s possible to read the transition that takes place in Hector’s car as one belonging to someone lost, who’s found a slightly different way to look at the maze. In order to speak the way she does — in order to encourage Hector’s perspective — Hannah has to step outside of her own solipsism for just the tiniest scrap of a moment.
Sure, we shouldn’t believe that Hannah will exit that car and retain any of the understanding she stumbled her way into on the drive home. But wouldn’t it be nice if she did?