Lena Dunham is not Hannah Horvath. Girls is not nonfiction. Hannah Horvath is her own character, apart from Dunham or any real person, even as Girls responds to and incorporates real-world criticism.
I say all that because “American Bitch” is the most excessively, openly, frankly self-aware episode Dunham has ever written. If an episode of Girls could also be a think piece about the show Girls (think pieces also being a genre of internet writing that blossomed hand-in-hand with the Girls era of TV), the first three-quarters of “American Bitch” would be it.
The setup is this: Hannah arrives at an unbelievably fancy apartment building, which we soon learn is the home of an acclaimed novelist named Chuck Palmer (played by Matthew Rhys). She’s not there to interview him, or to ask him for mentorship, or for any other likely Hannah scenario. She’s there because she already wrote about him. After discovering that Chuck had sex with several college-aged women while on his book tour — it’s implied that he used his celebrity to take advantage of those women — Hannah wrote a piece for a feminist website about her anger at discovering that her literary hero is actually a disappointing creep. Now, improbably, Chuck has asked Hannah to come to his home so they can talk about what she wrote.
Chuck wants to share his side of the story, he tells Hannah, and to explain why she was so mistaken in writing a takedown. She’s a good writer, he tells her repeatedly. She’s funny. She should be “using [her] funny to write about important stuff,” and his sexual encounters with college students are not important. Sitting there in his fantastically furnished apartment, surrounded by his Pen/Faulkner awards and photos of himself with Toni Morrison and piles of his own books, Chuck Palmer is unquestionably an asshole. You’re prepared for that probability from the moment Hannah walks into his home and he tells her to make sure her shoes don’t touch his suede boots. You’re pretty sure of it when Hannah compares his four accusers to victims of the Salem witch trials, and Chuck shoots back, “I’m the witch!” And then you know without a doubt when he stands in his gorgeous kitchen and says, “Look, I get there are kids dying in Africa, blah, blah, blah, but this is fucking hard for me,” while pouring himself coffee in a mug that says “I <3 Chuck” on the side.
He’s terrible. Hannah repeatedly points out that even if the women consented, Chuck’s overwhelming privilege still makes those sexual encounters sleazy at best. What’s more, she defends her own rightness in writing about the accusations, even if her only sources are the internet posts written by some of these young women. “I’m obligated to use my voice to talk about things that are meaningful to me,” she tells him. Hannah’s trying to give more voice to marginalized figures, and it’s infuriating that Chuck can’t see the “power imbalance” baked into his sexual encounters. “She admires you,” Hannah tells him, describing the college girls. “And then you unbuckle your pants. What’s she gonna do next?”
The whole thing has the outlines of a Socratic dialogue, with two characters giving voice to opposing sides of an argument. On the one side, Palmer stands up for the right to privacy, for what he views as consensual sexual encounters, and for his own righteousness and victimhood. On the other, Hannah argues that however much Chuck might like to see himself as being punished, he cannot remove his privilege from the equation. Nor, she tells him, can he expect his sexual relationships to go without remark if he’s a public figure who insists on having sex with vulnerable younger women.
The Socratic sensibility would seem overwhelming, except that everything about the episode — the direction, the set design of his apartment, Rhys’s performance — refuses to let Chuck become an undifferentiated, featureless voice. Though he’s pushed into the role of Privileged White Male Literary Elite, your eye and your ear keep catching on details. He has what looks like a framed honorary degree hanging up in his bathroom. In the hallway outside the entrance to his House Beautiful–worthy library is a photograph of the entrance to that same library. Rhys plays Chuck with fabulous opacity, alternating between edgy frustration, flattery, candidness, and self-absorption.
And so, there are two tricks to “American Bitch.” (Okay, there are many tricks to this episode, but for the purposes of this recap, let’s stick with two.) The first is that much of the episode is an argument about a young woman who’s standing up for her right to write about her own perspective in the face of overwhelming, establishment-enforced privilege. But in that argument, Hannah is not the Lena Dunham stand-in — Chuck Palmer is. Like Dunham, Palmer has a position of immense privilege and a massive public platform. He is critically lauded, and now he’s also publicly loathed for various elements of his private life. Do people have the right to write unconsidered, uninformed things about him on feminist blogs? Of course they do. Yet Chuck’s complaints about his aggrieved, embattled public image are also fair. There are children starving in Africa and it’s fucking hard for him. Both are true.
Of course, the added fillip of Chuck Palmer’s gender twists the debate, pushing it far beyond a simple identification with Dunham’s own circumstances. Hannah’s right to say that Chuck’s masculinity insulates him from criticism and distances him from the women he’s taken advantage of. When he congratulates himself on giving those women “a story,” and Hannah counters that they’re doing it so they can feel like they exist, that’s a case of privilege versus invisibility. Hannah’s account of being rubbed by her fifth-grade teacher is a more specific indictment of a paternalistic, culturally protected breed of privilege, one that values male attention as the only way to demonstrate worthiness.
The second trick of “American Bitch” is what happens at the end. It certainly feels like a trick, anyway. Hannah walks into Chuck’s home, full of wariness and defensive self-articulation, and then she’s slowly wooed by his flattery and apparent openness. The trap is set: Hannah gamely follows Chuck to his bedroom and even voluntarily lies down next to him. When she finds herself touching his penis, we’re as surprised as she is. (For all his stellar moments in the episode, this is when Rhys really runs away with it, as his handsome, intelligent impression of curious engagement is suddenly transformed into a delighted, wicked, wolfish smile.)
It’s a trick because we, like Hannah, have been taken in by Chuck, and then we’re stuck sitting through his daughter’s flute performance and marveling at our own naïveté. It’s also a trick because this is the moment when Girls reasserts itself. The first section of this episode is so nakedly, blatantly nonfictional — it’s such a direct take on all of the issues swirling around Dunham, not to mention feminism and privacy and privilege and creative license and internet culture — that we feel like we’ve suddenly been taken behind the curtain, beyond fiction. That sense is bolstered by Hannah’s quiet, uncharacteristically self-contained argument, and also by the constant real-world signifiers of literary culture. Chuck’s awards, the very real discussion of Philip Roth novels, the offhanded mention of a negative piece about him in the Awl and a positive review in the Times: This isn’t Girls anymore. It’s an essay about Girls.
That’s when the trap is finally triggered — when Chuck’s dick pops out from his pants like a trapdoor springing open — and we realize, no. This is an episode of Girls. This is still Hannah Horvath, experiencing the kind of misadventures Hannah always does, finding herself in another improbable, inappropriate, unlikely scenario. And now she’s caught in the bizarre, unnerving hilarity of sitting through a teenager’s home flute performance next to her fallen, then risen, and then fallen again literary idol. The meat of “American Bitch” is a fascinating snarl of metafictional, philosophical ideas about culture and the self (capped off by the possibility that the titular “American Bitch” could well be Dunham), but the foundation is a beautifully constructed, very simple, almost fairy-tale-esque narrative. Girl arrives for battle; girl befriends a villain in disguise; villain waits until his prey is in position and then pounces.
The moment Chuck unzips his pants is the moment the fictional machinery clunks back into place, framing this entire argument within the world of Girls. As is so often the case, though, the last shot of the episode offers a final twist. Hannah walks away from Chuck’s apartment, fully freaking out. In the out-of-focus background, we see a dozen women breeze past her and then, unerringly, walk into Chuck’s building. It’s the fairy tale again, the monster luring new heroines into his fortress. Maybe Chuck invited them all there to discuss their writing. Maybe the women will accuse him of something. They’re faceless; we can’t know. That facelessness, that invisibility, is precisely the point.