Since premiering almost two years and twenty-something episodes ago, Girls has demanded attention and opinions. Engineered to be polarizing, it divides people along familiar lines of bias: it’s either too white, or it’s a function of privilege, or it’s too obsessed with Lena Dunham’s body. These are the arguments of countless think pieces, and I’ll leave it to the professionals. This is not a think piece.
I’ve watched Girls since it premiered, and I’ve generally enjoyed it for what it is: a hilarious, satirical appraisal of a very specific culture in a very specific time and place. It has consistently out-performed its Sex in the City-for-millennials log line, thanks to unmatched comedy writing and some pitch-perfect performances from previously-unknown actors. The fact that it comes from the mind of a 27-year-old, as jealousy-inducing as that may be, is just astonishing.
Girls has rebounded from an uneven second season with some of its best episodes yet. Everything has been fascinating: Hannah’s attempts at domesticity and responsibility, Marnie’s descent into viral video celebrity, Jessa’s rehab bomb-throwing, and Shoshanna’s… well, I’m not sure what she’s doing, either. Yet it wasn’t until the fourth episode, ‘Dead Inside’ (written by Dunham and Judd Apatow, directed by Jesse Peretz) that I was reminded how brilliant this show can be at its best.
From the first shot of the episode — Hannah pratfalling in the lobby of her publisher — everything is kinetically-charged with failure and anxiety. Comically harried employees, gasps and tears, an under-siege receptionist, and the audience can probably guess what is coming next. It’s the first of many moments where we await the drop of the other shoe. David, Hannah’s editor, is dead (David being cranked on who-knows-what in the last episode was a solid clue, too).
The episode becomes not only a litmus test for the characters’ feelings on death, but the clearest portrayal of who these characters are at their core. Hannah’s self-aggrandizement and narcissism are even starker than usual: as she recounts the story of David’s death, her outrage that no one has updated her on the status of her e-book is — as expected — either at or just below the surface at all times. Like a sociopath trying to mimic normal human behavior, she keeps looking for the best way to describe David, her often-distant editor who is then upgraded to close friend and collaborator in later retellings. As she tells Caroline, when her OCD flared up, she couldn’t see outside herself, and now medicated, she doesn’t want to. Ray, whose only encounter with David was getting knocked on his ass, stands in for the audience: “Why don’t you place just one crumb of basic human compassion on this fat-free muffin of sociopathic detachment and see how it tastes?”
As ever, Jessa is blasé (death is like “jury duty, floods”) and pseudo-intellectual (her time-space bullshit). David’s death has shaken up memories of Season, “her favorite friend” who she’s a bit shaky on the details (is she buried in a tomb, a sarcophagus, or a grave?), and for the second time in the episode, the dramatic irony is too rich: Jessa is such a bad person (taking an addict to an Ayahuasca) that people would fake their own death to remove her from their lives. It didn’t even take too much work: they knew that Jessa wouldn’t even attend the fake funeral. Her reaction to a very-alive Season is predictable: indignant and bitter, she lashes out with more of her rehab-trained venom before finding peace in her self-satisfaction.
Shoshana, busy finding her identity in a bandana collection, has a death story, too. After grieving through poetry, she took over her friend’s position in the friend group; they really only needed on “practical yet goofy confidante,” after all. Shoshana continues to see her life through possessions, imagined hierarchies, and fictional tropes; unlike Hannah and Jessa, her delusions only hurt herself.
Elsewhere, Marnie doesn’t have to ponder death: she’s getting into fighting-shape, gasping the “faster, better” lyrics of her cringeworthy ‘Stronger’ performance. She doesn’t really get zen, though: her Oprah-approved self-help book-on-tape is drowned out by the blending of a coconut water smoothie. Despite her efforts, she can’t focus on her job because of how her Edie Brickell cover video (her “music-fail”) has had a life of its own. Marnie is even more delusional than the others: “Do you know what kind of work I’m qualified to do in the world?Tthe kind of people who want me?” She’s about to be reminded that no one does (whither the “fancy people?”), as she quits her job.
When Caroline — Adam’s unplucked, unshaven manic pixie dream girl parody of a sister — tells Hannah a Sad Story from Adam’s past, Hannah’s reaction (or lack thereof) is frightening. Even the obviously damaged Caroline has to ask, “what is wrong with you!?” Later, in a brilliant play on the first two instances of dramatic irony in the episode, I was convinced that Hannah’s retelling of the story to Adam would blow up in her face: surely, Caroline had lied about lying, for whatever reason, and Hannah was about to look like the monster she is. Instead, like a blind man grasping in the dark, she finds a way to look human for her painfully earnest boyfriend.
If ‘Dead Inside’ simply used death to peer behind the curtain of the show’s characters, it would go down as one of the funniest and most illuminating episodes of Girls. But that’s not all: there’s also a scathing takedown of the show’s (and Dunham’s) frequent critics on and around sites like Gawker and Jezebel. Describing herself as “a media-ist,” Hannah paints Gawker as a “web portal” that “celebrates the written word” and Jezebel “as a place feminists can go to celebrate each other, where we need in this modern world of slut-shaming,” rose-colored appraisals when compared to Adam’s take: “judgmental creeps, celibate against their will, snarkily [reporting] on every fucking detail of your body decomposing,” “a bunch of jealous people who make a living appealing to our basest desire to see each other kicked while we’re down.” Which sounds closer to Dunham and Apatow’s true feelings?