Girls spent its last couple of episodes letting Marnie, Hannah, and Jessa explore life on their own, but this week the crew reunited for a performance in which only Adam acts, but every character is a player.
In its best scenes, Girls provides proof that television can support thoughtful visual storytelling even in the traditional formula of rotating directors — unlike, say, True Detective. This episode built memorable moments out of specific and ambitious writing, particularly as it dealt with Adam’s play, which satisfied every only-on-Girls creative Brooklyn niche, from the apartment staging to the ‘50s stage dancing to the selectively attentive audience.
The most obvious antecedent for this episode of Girls would be Hitchcock’s Rear Window, which also used the windows of an apartment complex to stage its action. But as the camera bounced from room to room and character to character, the play’s supposed audience became its most active characters, sending signals across the courtyard and escaping into private rooms, all tending more to their personal dramas than to the drama being staged for them. Adam’s show resembled a Brooklyn version of the opera house as it might have been imagined by Edith Wharton or Gustave Flaubert, with each window acting as its own opera box for the privileged class of 2016 to spy on the comings and goings of the rest of their closed society.
But even with the creative coup of Adam’s play, this week was a return to some of the show’s most annoying habits, particularly as the episode related to Hannah’s relationship with Fran. Hannah starts the episode off with a spot of inappropriate conduct at Fran’s and her shared workplace, which sends Fran into a patronizing tizzy for the rest of the episode. Or, at least, it’s a patronizing tizzy from Hannah’s perspective. We’re never given a chance to consider Fran’s point of view, because the moment Fran leaves Hannah at the play, he ceases to exist, only to come back into the episode when he’s in a scene with her again.
I get it: This show isn’t about Fran, it’s about Hannah. But that’s an excuse for what in practice feels like a frustrating lack of generosity toward anyone and anything that lives on the periphery of Hannah’s blinkered worldview — especially because the rules shift week to week when it comes to who gets to be a fully rounded and sympathetic person. One week Fran is a stickler for rules, but with a basic sense of care and decorum; the next week he’s so clueless he berates Hannah as she’s having a breakdown two feet in front of him. One week Shoshanna is throwing it all away to date the dream man she met in Japan, the next week he’s a virgin who can’t wait to introduce her to his grandmother. And this carelessness doesn’t just apply to people — entire environments and social dynamics get lost in apathy, with the school where Hannah and Fran work acting as a particular hotbed this season.
In the grand scheme of how good Girls can be, these complaints are trifles. But it’s because the show is so thoughtful that instances of thoughtlessness feel like a betrayal of its own ethics. This isn’t The Ranch; this isn’t Two and a Half Men. Indifference only registers as indifference when you know there is a capability for empathy and insight, which we know Girls is capable of because often its moments of empathy occur in direct contrast to its moments of apathy. Dunham delivers one of her finest moments as an actress in the episode’s final scene, as Hannah resists the opportunity to lash out and calmly and clearly states her needs during an anxiety attack. But this rare moment of maturity happens even as Fran is collapsed into an archetypal Nice Guy Bad Guy. Does the writing for Fran fall apart to give Dunham this moment? Is this a moment of laziness or of vanity?
For years, people have launched vituperative attacks on Lena Dunham and Girls that feel too personal to be about the show. But the best moments of Girls do feel personal, which for better or worse makes its moments of cluelessness feel personal, too. When Hannah flashes her principal Basic Instinct–style to get out of being disciplined for disparaging other teachers, it’s hard not to be reminded that oh, right, it’s possible no one in this writers' room has ever held a job that wasn’t creative. Why else would the scenes set in a school exist with seemingly no basis in reality, while the infinitely more niche scenario of the apartment-complex play feels precise down to the last detail?
Maybe that’s being hard on Girls. After all, it’s not possible to care about everything equally. But you only have to look at some of the gems in HBO’s lineup to see that, actually, it is possible to care about every element of the show you’re crafting. Looking at shows like The Wire or Enlightened, or even something lighter like Curb Your Enthusiasm, every character is treated as a full human being — no matter how small the role, no matter whether they never return to the show, no matter whether they’re played by a known actor, no matter whether the show wants you to like the character. Your attitude toward your characters is your attitude to the world. Who wants to author a philosophy of selective indifference?