Jemima Kirke as Jessa.
The upside of Girls’ gorgeous, striking, often elegiac stand-alone episodes, like last week’s “American Bitch,” is that they’ve become central to the series’ identity, and they are some of the very best things that Girls can do. They feel like stories out of space and time, separated from not just the world of the show but the world more generally. Their self-containment lets them be quiet and motivated more by their own internal aesthetics and logic, rather than be overburdened by a relationship to a long-term narrative. The stand-alone episodes often get extra oomph thanks to some tie-in with other plots in the series — I’m thinking most particularly of Marnie running around the city with Charlie in “The Panic in Central Park” — but they’re mostly free from the forward-grinding motion of plot mechanics.
The downside of the stand-alone episode is that when you come back to Earth, you feel a little as though you’ve been thrust unceremoniously back into a normal timeline, where everything looks a little more obvious and a little less interesting. We cycle through all the characters, doing a routine check-in about what we’ve missed while we were off in highly theoretical, self-referential Matthew Rhys think piece land. The sudden necessity of stories that have to move forward toward some foreseeable goal feels onerous. We’re supposed to dive back into plot development and character arcs, but Girls is not and has never been a show to watch for plot development. Plot is always just an excuse for Girls to push characters into new, interesting dilemmas. It’s an opportunity to test whether or not they can change, while the premises that get them into new circumstances are usually beside the point.
All of which is to say, “Painful Evacuation” might have struck me better if it hadn’t come immediately after “American Bitch.” The previous episode is so well wrought, and so canny about twisting and subverting expectations, that the far more earth-shattering and long-lasting implications of what happens in “Painful Evacuation” come off as more ham-fisted than they otherwise might.
So, the big reveal: Hannah does not just have a UTI. She’s pregnant. She’s pregnant with water-ski instructor Paul Louis’s baby, after enjoying a carefree weekend with him while on a writing assignment. She discovers this, to her significant surprise, after finally bracing herself and going to the ER, where she encounters none other than Joshua, the handsome doctor she spent the night with in the series’ other most noteworthy stand-alone episode, “One Man’s Trash.” They recognize each other. Joshua tells her about the UTI, and then the pregnancy. She is astonished; he immediately offers to help arrange her abortion, which she quickly (and understandably) dismisses as incredibly presumptuous. She goes home and tells no one, instead putting her head in Elijah’s lap and closing her eyes as he strokes her hair with his greasy pizza hand.
The presence of Patrick Wilson in this episode is pretty brilliant, even as it also feels like a massive in-joke. “One Man’s Trash” is one of the best episodes of Girls, the show’s trademark, critically divisive stand-alone episode, and it’s an episode about putting pressure on exactly what Hannah wants, and the tension between her desire for ordinary human happiness and writerly ambitions. It’s also one of the ways — an admittedly masterful way — that “Painful Evacuation” responds to the events of “American Bitch,” and incorporates some of that episode’s subtle, winking self-referentiality. One of the questions about “One Man’s Trash” has always been whether to read that episode as “real” within the world of the series, or as something more like a dream sequence. To whatever extent that line of thinking is valuable, the same question holds true for “American Bitch,” which likewise feels like an episode outside the usual space of the series.
Patrick Wilson’s role here is such a great, funny, pointed barb of a response to that criticism. Hannah’s brownstone weekend was real! Joshua has come back, and this time is deeply enmeshed in the plot-iest move the series has ever made. He and Hannah recognize each other and acknowledge the awkwardness of meeting again. Not for nothing, “One Man’s Trash” is about Hannah interacting with an older, far more successful and established man (as in “American Bitch”), but its bare bones are about Hannah having unplanned and potentially irresponsible sex with a stranger — which is what leads to this pregnancy revelation in the ER. It’s also the smoothest, most immediately plausible way the show could’ve found to perform the pivot that it gestures toward at the episode’s end. Joshua’s instant, unthinking assumption that Hannah will want an abortion is the surest way to help us sympathize with her reluctance to do so.
But for however lovely and sly that Patrick Wilson cameo is, the rest of “Painful Evacuation” feels as clunky as Marnie’s eye makeup. Jessa and Adam’s plan to fund their own movie based on their past with Hannah may turn out to be more Fun With Referential Narrativizing, but in this moment of brainstorming, they come off as hyper and buzzed and utterly disconnected from real emotional stakes. This is partly the point: When they track down Hannah in the stairwell and beg her for her permission to use their joint story, she’s now in the fog of knowing she’s pregnant. She’s rounded some unseen corner into grown-up-hood, and now Jessa and Adam seem like children with childish antics. But it’s also disappointing, given the intensity and depth of Adam and Jessa’s world-destroying fight scene at the end of season five.
The Ray story, likewise, should have major plot ramifications for the show and potent emotional resonance within this episode. After happily coasting along in Hermie’s wake for much of the series, Hermie finally dies, and Ray is obviously devastated and bereft and stunned. But that event comes only after some of the most heavy-handed signaling the show has ever done. Not only does Hermie give Ray a full-on “You’re wasting your potential!” speech in his last scene, but the impetus for that speech is that a charming, occasionally inconvenient regular at the coffee shop collapses and dies on the sidewalk outside. With a more openly manipulative soundtrack and some gauzy, golden-hued editing, that same basic story structure would’ve had any viewer rolling their eyes at the obviousness of Hermie’s subsequent death.
Marnie’s story is the most openly comic of the episode, and works or doesn’t work for all the same reasons you either find Marnie unbearably annoying or hilariously annoying. In the competition for most openly funny line of the night, Adam’s mid-foreplay realization that “we have to shoot [the movie] on film” loses out to Marnie telling Desi that his addiction has hurt her: “I have bruises all over my body from the two hour massages I need to deal with the stress of his addiction.” Desi and his counselor (played by Hamilton’s Okieriete Onaodowan) are nonplussed.
The end result of Hannah’s pregnancy remains an open question, and its implications for the series will be fascinating to watch. But the potential pressure of it is made painfully obvious by the clunkiest aspect of “Painful Evacuation,” something that pains me to say as it’s also the part featuring a typically excellent performance by Tracey Ullman. The episode opens with Hannah interviewing a famous author — yet another callback to “American Bitch,” but this time Hannah’s interviewing an established and extremely voluble older woman. She talks about how much bullshit it is for male authors to insist on removing themselves from the world and writing in isolation, and how the “room of one’s own” is a myth that could never be achieved. She rags on male authorship and the resulting “horrible solipsism,” name-checking Martin Amis, Woody Allen, and Saul Bellow.
In the same breath, she tells Hannah to write down some dogmatic advice for how to be a woman and be a writer at the same time: “Childlessness is the natural state of the female author,” she decrees, and Hannah receives this wisdom seriously. It’s hardly subtle foreshadowing for Hannah’s later pregnancy revelation. The question will be whether Girls is interested in tackling the underlying ideas of that statement in serious, nuanced ways, and whether Hannah’s final decision on the subject will have the careful consideration we saw from her in “American Bitch.” Or will she instead revert to a state of childhood, retreating from the question altogether?
Ask your interesting lesbian friend to get you invited to the New York mag party and I guess we’ll find out together.