Illustration by Alex Bedder.
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. Throughout this episode, Hannah is the most levelheaded and mature person onscreen. She is kinder to her family members than any of them are to her or one another, and she calmly tells them how she feels when they are not being nice. Why does she act this way here, when in other environments she is self-centered, careless and avoidant? It can’t simply be her response to being around awful people, or she’d be like this around Marnie and Jessa too. What is it about their screwed-up family dynamic that makes Hannah come out looking like the sane one?
I only know this because I do it to my family as well: Hannah is able to separate this world from her “real life” responses because she’s able to view her family at a kinder distance. When you don’t live with them, the monarch familias can take on the rosy glow of the Golden Girls. My grandma, who can literally be the worst person I’ve ever met, I find incredibly entertaining. Haha, she’s always calling me fat! Ha, she drives my mom crazy! She’s basically Jessica Walter’s character on Arrested Development! Now that I’m not living at home, my grandma’s bad behavior and my mother’s frazzled response to it doesn’t seem like the angst-causing existential crisis it did during my teen years (Will this be me when I’m old??), but rather the lovable crankiness of a sitcom character. The old have so much to teach us!
You can tell this is how Hannah views her relationship with her aunts as well, but as soon as she starts spending time with Rebecca, someone she views as unfortunately a contemporary of herself, she immediately loses perspective and becomes awful again. The reason she can’t let Rebecca’s comments slide off her is that Rebecca is too much in her own world–someone her own age, whose respect she’d like to cultivate, whether she admits it or not–which ironically leads her down a path of hi-jinx that she’d probably laugh off, if it had happened to any other member of the family.
2. Despite Hannah’s suggestion that wanting your daughter/granddaughter to get married is somehow antifeminist, and despite her saying that the marriage talk is “a conversation that I never wanted to have,” Hannah seems to be realizing that deep down she does actually want to get married. Describe Hannah’s dream wedding. Would her mother’s women’s book group approve?
Hannah’s dream wedding would be like Joan Didion’s, where she went down the aisle in a red dress and sunglasses. Hannah, who thinks she is more subversive than she is, would want something perhaps a little less shock-and-awe than Jessa’s pop-up nuptials, but her whole relationship to weddings might be described as “not approved by my mother’s book group.”
Jessa would officiate, and in an upset, it wouldn’t be Marnie as maid of honor, but Elijah. Hannah would actually spend a lot more time dealing with the drama fall-out of her bachelorette party (where Shosh got drunk during their ironic Baja sojourn and disappeared in Mexico with a bartender for a full 24 hours) than on planning her actual wedding, and she would use the ensuing stress as the crux of her next memoir.
3. There is clearly something very wrong with Rebecca. Not that having a mother like Margo and a father in prison whom you haven’t seen since you were six wouldn’t screw someone up pretty well, but there also seems to be a sexual component to her arrested development. (Would you go to a doctor who calls vaginas “chachis”?) She’s not nearly as upset at Hannah for spilling the beans about her father’s crime as she is over the (incredibly normal) sexual self-exploration they did together as kids. Do you think Rebecca was actually molested as a child? If so, is Hannah just being flip with her references to molestation and sex trafficking, or does she know about it on some level? And if not, why all these weird references to sex crimes?
It’s interesting that you mention the sexual molestation thing. I didn’t pick that up on that as a subplot for bringing Hannah’s OCD masturbatory issues back into play. When children touch their chachis, it’s usually because they are stressed out and want to soothe themselves. That makes sense for both the way Hannah sees the world, and why she would want to share her newfound game with her uptight cousin whose dad was sent to jail.
But GIRLS also has a weird way of dealing with dark issues (death, inappropriate sex, drug abuse, racism ) by starting out flippant and becoming more of a deep delve later on, so that is perhaps what is happening here. Will Rebecca turn out to have been molested? Perhaps, but if so, it won’t be just referred to once in an aside and never brought up again. We’re not all Jessa’s lesbian friend from rehab, after all.
4. When Rebecca and Hannah clash over whether Hannah’s writing is funny, Hannah says that she only sends Rebecca her less-funny material, since she wouldn’t get her “funnier stuff.” So we finally get to ask: Is GIRLS a comedy? Is this Lena Dunham’s funny material, or her serious stuff? While there is definitely something funny about three adult sisters sitting around divvying up their mother’s painkillers, there is a marked lack of jokes in this episode. (I only laughed once: “Don’t just text ‘car crash’!”)
So which TV genre are we in here? This is more than just a question of labels: a common response to the claim that GIRLS is a bad show because its characters are unlikeable is that Seinfeld was a comedy about unlikeable people, and it was critically lauded and wildly popular. But of course people seem more forgiving of terrible characters when they’re in a comedy. So why don’t critics of the show treat Hannah & co. the same way?
Well, GIRLS isn’t trying to be It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a show that’s hysterical precisely because it’s about sociopaths with no feelings, an argument that ostensibly extends to the Seinfeld crew as well. What’s great about GIRLS is that despite its half-hour format, it’s very clearly positioned itself as a dramedy about narcissistic young women, something that, if tackled on any other network, would require an hour-long approach to keep the same tone. (Think: Parenthood.) That’s the wonderful difference between network tv and HBO (as well as streaming content! See: Transparent!): GIRLS doesn’t have to be constrained by its formatting. If that makes any sense.
Think of it like the clinical Rebecca reading Hannah’s Jazz-hate piece about doing cocaine: She might not realize the humor because its in a #ItHappenedToMe style blog post, but when we watched it last season as an episode in a longer narrative about Elijah, Laird (Laird!) and a mesh tank top, it was really, really funny.
5. The episode closes with a cover of Warren Zevon’s “Don’t Let Us Get Sick,” which contains the following lines:
The sky was on fire
when I walked to the mill
to take up the slack in the line.
I thought of my friends
and the troubles they’ve had
to keep me from thinking of mine.
How many different ways might these lyrics apply to this episode?
When Hannah texts Adam “car crash” and nothing else, she’s trying to get him worried enough to come visit her, so he’d “take up the slack” in the relationship, which he’s currently busy putting on a back burner because of the play.
Hannah’s darkly obsessive and “numb” reaction to David’s death was her way of “thinking of her friend’s troubles” to keep her from thinking of her own. She was obsessed with finding out how this would relate to her book, which, sure, might have been about her own problems, but it also kept her from actually processing his passing. In this episode, we don’t see the fallout from her grandmother’s death, since it ends with her shocked face outside Grand Central while getting the news, but it’s hard to imagine she’s not devastated.