Spoilers ahead for the Girls episode “American Bitch,” which is streaming early on HBO Go and HBO Now.
This week’s episode of Girls — in which Hannah Horvath spends the entire half-hour with an older man she barely knows — will remind you of another bottle episode in which Hannah Horvath spends the entire half-hour with an older man she barely knows.
I’m referring to season two’s “One Man’s Trash,” which places Hannah inside an impeccably renovated Brooklyn brownstone owned by a hot doctor named Joshua (Patrick Wilson). When the episode first aired back in 2013, it marked an especially divisive moment for an already divisive show. Slate’s “Guys on Girls” discussion asked, “Was that the worst episode of Girls ever?” then more or less concluded that it was, because it was too difficult to believe that Hannah and Joshua would have such a spontaneous fling. Todd VanDerWerff raved about the episode for The A.V. Club while also acknowledging that it represented “everything people who hate Girls hate about Girls.” Meanwhile, Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz argued that what made the episode so compelling was the way it toggled between fantasy and reality, without ever clarifying on which side of the line it fell.
Any of those interpretations could also be applied to “American Bitch,” the potentially polarizing episode that HBO just aired. Co-starring Matthew Rhys as Chuck Palmer, a well-known author who’s been outed online for putting young women into uncomfortable, allegedly non-consensual sexual situations, “American Bitch” is a tense verbal dance between Chuck and Hannah about the power imbalance inherent in male/female interactions. While the episode doesn’t have the dreamy fantasy quality of “One Man’s Trash” — it’s ultimately more nightmare than fantasy — I totally buy the idea that the Chuck–Hannah face-off could be a situation conjured by Hannah’s brain rather than something that actually happened to her. Like “One Man’s Trash,” Girls never confirms that one way or the other.
Watching these two bottle episodes back-to-back reveals other parallels — and for those who remain unmoved by the Patrick Wilson escapade, it may elevate your opinion of “One Man’s Trash.” Together, the pair serve as bookends on Hannah’s journey that tell us something about the degree to which she has evolved into an older, somewhat wiser woman.
Behind the scenes and within their respective narratives, the episodes share several things in common. Both were written by Dunham and directed by frequent Girls collaborator Richard Shepard. Both cast Dunham opposite the male star of a prestige FX drama, though, to be fair, Wilson hadn’t yet appeared in Fargo when “One Man’s Trash,” so that’s more of a coincidence than anything else. Like many bottle episodes whose trajectories are dictated by the words exchanged between two characters, both episodes unfold like stage plays, with the dialogue and events taking on a heightened theatricality that distinguishes them from the rest of Girls.
Both also feature Hannah entering the home of a man she knows only from afar, after being a third-party witness to his clash with another person: Hannah heads to Joshua’s after watching him fight with Ray over trash from the coffee shop that winds up in his garbage cans; she visits Chuck’s, by invitation, after writing an essay in which she defends a woman who claims that the author sexually assaulted her.
In Joshua’s pristinely renovated townhouse, the camera lingers lovingly on material things, from pieces of art and his high-tech shower to half-full decanters of liquor. At Chuck’s, we see stacks of his books waiting to be autographed, bookshelves overflowing with even more books, and framed photos of him next to acclaimed novelists like Toni Morrison. Joshua’s belongings represent the pretty, pricey things Hannah wishes she could afford to buy herself someday. Chuck’s possessions represent everything that Hannah, the aspiring writer, wants to become.
In this way, “American Bitch” takes the material of “One Man’s Trash” and bends it a little. In the former episode, Hannah initially expresses skepticism about entering Joshua’s house, noting that he could be another Ted Bundy. But within mere minutes, she’s kissing him and their relationship gets physical. In the latter, Hannah is even more aware that Chuck may pose a threat to women, but crosses his threshold regardless. However, while she is cognizant of herself as a sexual being in Chuck’s presence — at one point, she runs to the bathroom and pats down her underarms and crotch to making sure she isn’t emitting any off-putting odors — she’s much more interested in earning his respect than his romantic interest. During their argument in the kitchen, Hannah tries to explain why Denise, Chuck’s accuser, might have complied with his sexual demands even though she didn’t want to. “It’s not so she has a story,” she says. “It’s so she feels like she exists.” Both Joshua and Chuck make Hannah feel like she exists, but for much different reasons.
With only seven more episodes left in the final season of Girls, it seems fair to assume that Hannah Horvath won’t pull a full, 180-degree personality turn. In season six, as she was in season two, she’s still the kind of woman who will go to a stranger’s house seeking, consciously or subconsciously, some form of validation. (In both episodes, it’s notable how often Hannah is complimented: Joshua tells her she is pretty, while Chuck repeatedly calls her a smart, funny writer.) She’s still the kind of woman who, while visiting an older man, will acknowledge past experiences where she felt like she was abused by an authority figure. And she still won’t leave when it’s clear that maybe she should. This is especially true, obviously, at Chuck’s apartment; The minute he asks her to lay down with him, if not sooner, she should have gotten out of there. The fact that she doesn’t, and that she even touches his penis for a second, illustrates the potency of the lopsided sexual power dynamic she described. Hannah intellectually understands that Chuck has predatory qualities, but like so many women who know they’re smarter than to fall for his b.s., she lets herself be seduced by him anyway. (To her credit, the seduction is very brief.)
Nevertheless, as most people do in their 20s, Hannah has evolved in incremental but important ways between seasons two and six. “American Bitch” highlights that development in two key moments. The first occurs during the portion of Hannah’s conversation with Chuck when he seems to be acting like a more normal, mentor figure.
“What are you dreams for the next five years?” he asks her.
“I want to write,” she says, directly and sincerely. “I want to write stories that make people feel less alone than I did. I want to make people laugh about the things in life that are painful.”
Now, compare that to what she tells Joshua: “Please don’t tell anybody this, but I want to be happy.” Later in that monologue, she adds: “I just want to feel it all.”
Both men respond using almost the exact same words: “That’s a good goal.” It’s also not clear whether either of them are listening to her. The truth is that both goals are somewhat self-indulgent — Hannah’s gonna Hannah, after all. But the writing one is much more clear, and it brings other people into the equation. Hannah still wants certain things for herself, but she’s also starting to think more deeply about the impact she can make, rather than about how life makes her feel.
The second scene that feels significant is the closer. In “One Man’s Trash,” Hannah, left to her own devices at Joshua’s after he goes to work, puts one final bag of trash into the garbage can — in this case, it’s his garbage and the act is actually considerate — and then leaves the brownstone. Then we see her walk away, alone, on an empty street. It’s a little sad, as though she’s walking away from that perfect dream that she can never have because she’s, to use her words, the “crazy girl” that a man like Joshua will tire of.
In “American Bitch,” the last shot also finds Hannah walking away, this time from Chuck’s apartment building. But with Rihanna’s “Desperado” blasting on the soundtrack, I saw something empowering in Hannah’s departure — one might even call it a “sexit,” the term she invents in the beginning of “One Man’s Trash.” Saved by the interference of another girl — Chuck’s daughter — Hannah is able to escape from Chuck’s trouser snake and from Chuck in general. She’s still walking alone, but this time, she’s swimming upstream against a tide of women who are going into Chuck’s apartment building, suggesting that there will always be another young lady willing to lay down with him if Hannah doesn’t.
The image of all those women dissolves into a haze, which is the strongest case “American Bitch” makes that perhaps it is all a Hannah Horvath daydream, or maybe a short story she wrote that, like Chuck’s work, is based loosely on reality. Either way, what happens is reflective of a change in who Hannah is. She’s even walking in a different direction, toward the bottom of the frame as opposed to the top, as she did in “One Man’s Trash.”
Hannah no longer “wants all the things,” as she once told Joshua. She wants to be her own woman. She still hasn’t fully figured out how to do that, of course. But that last shot in “American Bitch” affirms that she’s headed in the right direction.