These questions regard last night’s episode of HBO’s Girls. Please answer the prompts with specific examples from LAST NIGHT’S EPISODE, though supplementary material will be accepted as a secondary source. Please write legibly. No. 2 pencils only. You have an hour to finish this test. See below for questions and sample responses.
1. The celebrity cameos on Girls are starting to seem fraught with significance. Is this an attempt to subtly imply that Petula (played by Rosanna Arquette) is–behind the literally bunny boiler faux-hippy persona–“desperately seeking” a different life? Her flirting with her (maybe) gay son’s (maybe) boyfriend seems to suggest a flipped version of her role in The Executioner’s Song.
And let’s not forget daddy dearest: Ben Mendelsohn, the Australian answer to Gary Oldman, who is probably best known for his role as the corporate snake trying to undermine Wayne Enterprises in The Dark Knight Rises:
Or Russell, the tweaked-out heroin addict in the recent Brad Pitt film Killing Them Softly (based on Cogan’s Trade, about low-level mobsters who fuck up their big heist and then have to skip town.) Or the sleazy boyfriend in the Florence + The Machine single “Lover To Lover.”
What is Girls trying to tell us–if anything–with the recent cameos that seem to reference something outside of the world of the show (i.e., John Cameron Mitchell, Patrick Wilson, Donald Glover, Rita Wilson)?
When Donald Glover first showed up, I thought Girls was engaging in some regular old stunt casting, which does exactly what you are talking about–tries to pull some residue from an actor’s other work into the present show (have you noticed that there is this stable of sci-fi actors, mostly from Firefly and BSG, who show up as guest stars whenever any show wants to give itself some geek cred?). But then his character didn’t seem to have much to do with Troy, and was a Republican. And Rita Wilson was somehow perfect as Marnie’s mom (oh does that mean Chet Haze is somehow Marnie’s pseudo-sister, because please, yes), but again, not the nurturing figure we were expecting. It is almost as if Girls is poking fun at our tendency to typecast actors, and using the huge stable of actors who want to be on the “It” show to be able to do so. John Cameron Mitchell was the most obvious example of this for me, playing a fairly stably gendered and non-sexual (except for his comment that pistachios look like little penises) character.
But perhaps the pendulum has swung back the other way, as Patrick Wilson’s character seemed more like classic typecasting, and Patricia Arquette’s full-on stunt casting: playing the weird hippy-dippy character with a darkness at her center has been her stock in trade for decades now. Whatever the intention behind it, they could hardly have cast the part better. She was pitch perfect, as was Mendelsohn. (And their extremely strong performances in turn brought out better than usual performances from Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke, making this one of the strongest episodes yet of the show.)
2. Pretend that you are an officer from D.A.R.E. program and are giving a lecture to kids about the dangers of doing drugs. Describe Hannah’s relationship with narcotics, starting with the opium tea and progressing to cocaine and whippets. Bonus if you can work in Elijah’s diss that snorting coke wasn’t going to be like “driving around in your mom’s Volvo with a bottle of cough syrup and a box of cold McNuggets.”
At some point in the late ’90s, mainstream TV started to shift away from dealing with drugs in that after-school special/Jessie Spano kind of way, when D.A.R.E. officers could use a “very special episode” of any given show to illustrate the twin dangers of drugs and peer pressure. But even though drugs are no longer presented as the ultimate evil, they’re still always just a metaphor, usually a stupid one that just makes everybody act more like themselves. At least Girls has the guts to make drugs, like sex (see question 5) as weird and complicated as they are. But they’re still dumb metaphors (roughly: opium = painful truth, coke = false friendship, whippets = the stupidity of youth). So, you know, don’t do drugs.
3. The name of this week’s episode was “Video Games,” which meant I was waiting for the other trashy Lana Del Rey shoe to drop for the entire episode. But it’s in fact a reference to Petula’s belief that life is a video game, a simulation like The Matrix or that one Are You Afraid of the Dark? episode. Create a video game for Petula: is it an old Nintendo game, or a really choppy version of the original Doom, or Grand Theft Auto? Is it the Holodeck from Star Trek? Farmville? What is the objective of the video game that Petula calls life, and what are the glitches/obstacles she has come across? Bonus: Describe the Game Genie cheats for Petula’s life.
Petula’s whole life is a series of Game Genie cheats for the video game she calls existence. There is no game here, there is only the shirking of responsibility that comes with thinking life is not real. Everyone is the main character of her own story, but if you think of the world not as a book but as a video game, not only are you the main character, you exist in a world that, for all its threats and pitfalls, was designed specifically for you. Hannah isn’t just a minor character in Petula’s story, she “manifests” her as a “cushion” for her relationship with Jessa.
On this level beyond self-centeredness, there is nothing but destruction: “If you’re not with me, you’re against me, so get out of my way.” Like Amy Jellicoe on that other amazing female-centered HBO show, Enlightened, Petula is a destroyer who believes she is a benevolent healer. She raises bunnies and then kills them for food, and seemingly remains unaware that she is basically starving her son in the process. She can do nothing but destroy. She may think she is in some nurturing Sim Earth-type game, but her language is all first-person shooter. And the enemies, of course, are other women: Jessa, Jessa’s dad’s former girlfriend, her daughter who may or may not still be named Lemon, etc.
4. For two seasons now, we’ve been hearing about Jessa’s mom (and Shosh’s oft-referred-to aunt) as a sort of insane, absentee parent. But meanwhile her father has been living upstate, and there’s been a history of her not showing up when she had plans to visit. Then her dad leaves her at a supermarket, right after their cathartic breakthrough. (“You think I can rely on you? “You shouldn’t have to! I’m the child! I’m the child!”–the most heart-wrenchingly sad thing to happen on Girls, ever.) Does this excuse her behavior at the end of the episode, or make it even less excusable? Haha, just kidding, Jessa is always the worst. Feel free to make up the phone call between Shosh and her aunt regarding her first live-in boyfriend, if that’s preferable.
There is not and never will be an excuse for Jessa acting the way she does. But even though this episode didn’t redeem her as a person, I think it went a long way toward redeeming her as a character. That is to say, there has always been something cartoonish about Jessa, something stupider-than-life that made her hard to believe, when everyone else, for all their character flaws, seemed like real people.
But the truth is I know plenty of people in the real world who seemed that way when I met them too. You know when, usually in college, you meet someone’s parents for the first time, and you’re like, oh, of course! That person makes total sense now. Sort of like that.
Or a commentary on that, because the most telling thing about her dad wasn’t the lateness or the unreliability or the immaturity or the paranoia, but him saying to Jessa, “You know we’re not like other people.” Underscored by that fantastic Aimee Mann song “How Am I Different,” it really drove home the essence of a parenting style that could create a character so obnoxiously removed from reality.
5. Urinary tract infections are the WORST. But they’re often caused by an imbalance of microorganisms that colonize the vagina, also called the “vaginal flora.” With her HPV and now being de-flora’d, there’s definitely a trend of sex = bad, painful things. If you think about it, Sex on Girls is never just a casual encounter, or one that is portrayed as having positive consequences. So far we’ve seen intercourse lead to a) Marriage; b) Being forced to stare at a doll while being starfished; c) Completely speeding up the normal process of a relationship and making it untenable; d) Ruining a perfectly good Ping-Pong table and e) causing gay couples to break up and friendships to be ruined. Is Girls actually sending out a pro-abstinence message? Or does Hannah just need to drink more water and cranberry juice?
It’s not just the consequences of sex, but the sex itself that is often bad on Girls, and whatever else people will say about the show in coming years, one thing is clear: no show to date has shown so much bad sex and shown so much of what can be bad about sex, and that is an important thing for TV. Not only does Girls not look away from bad sex, it also doesn’t make it into a tragedy, or a dealbreaker. After Marnie gets starfished, she cracks up, and then happily calls Hannah. It’s depressing, but it is also realistic and necessary. Sex, and specifically female bodies in relation to sex, are so inflated and elevated on TV that they become impossible to really talk about. If sex isn’t simply tiptoed around, it is treated as a metaphor, something people are either having or not having. For better or worse, Girls is willing to look at real sex, like it is willing to look at real women’s bodies, and say, this is a significant thing, but it is also a part of life, and like everything else, it is flawed and can be weird and ugly and uncomfortable and stupid. And when it is weird/ugly/uncomfortable/stupid, we still get to say, “I want to keep doing this/I don’t want to keep doing this/Here’s how we can make this better” and so on. If all you ever see is sex treated as a holy sacrament, it’s a lot harder to say these things, or even know that you can.