So what do you do if you’re the producer of a popular TV show, and you want to introduce something to one of the characters that comes out of nowhere? Let’s be charitable here and say that this has always been in the plans for your character from the start, but you just haven’t had a chance to work it in so far. After all, you can’t tell us everything about a character straight off the top. That would be boring, and there are things that people try to keep hidden—even from an omniscient camera and a bunch of people watching them. But now’s the time. You want to get to this important piece of your character’s motivation out there, and you think it will help establish their arc going forward. My question is this: Is there any way to do this and not make it feel incredibly clumsy?
I suspect you know what I’m talking about here, but let me swerve a little bit. Shoshanna bumps into a friend in the park tonight, and it’s someone she’s very close to. She just hasn’t seen this woman all summer long, because she’s been with Ray. The woman’s name is Radhika, and she invites Shosh to a party, wherein she realizes that she’s not as into her old friends as she once was. She ends the evening making out—and probably more—with a very attractive doorman. (If you’ve been wondering who in Girls has been having the wild, multi-cultural existence the other characters probably should have been having, it’s Shoshanna, who’s been slowly trapped into the world of everybody else’s suffocating whiteness.) The plot details aren’t important. What is important is that Radhika was a major part of Shoshanna’s life, and this is the first time we’re hearing about it, because this is the first time Radhika was important to the story.
We accept this, but there’s a good reason for that: Television does this all the time. Last week, I linked to that essay comparing this show to The Sopranos, and if anything, that show was the biggest abuser of this trope in television history. The fifth season—the show’s best!—is based entirely around the idea that Tony Soprano has a cousin named Tony who was one of his best friends as a child, took the fall for a crime Tony was supposed to be at (but missed because of a panic attack), and withered away in prison ever since. Now this other Tony wants to go legitimate, and our Tony isn’t sure how to feel about that. This isn’t just some friend or random acquaintance or gangster. This is Tony Soprano’s best friend from childhood, and it’s someone he has a rich, textured history with. And this is the first we’ve ever heard of the guy. The four previous seasons didn’t so much as mention his name.
We accept this trope because we accept that all filmed narrative is editing out the boring parts. Maybe the other Tony was all Tony Soprano talked about in his spare moments, but we didn’t see them, because those moments weren’t important to the story we were seeing. So we accept that when Radhika comes up to Shoshanna, and Shoshanna acts as if they’ve been friends for a very long time, that we just entered the story at a point where Radhika was no longer as important to Shoshanna’s life as she once was. She’s a convenient way to split up Ray and Shoshanna for a night, for Shoshanna to realize that she’s not into what she once was, and for Shoshanna to have the sort of young, stupid fling she should be having at her age. Radhika’s a one-dimensional character, sure, but by design. She’s there almost entirely to be a plot point.
The question is this: Can you apply this trope to a mental illness or major character motivation? My answer is that I don’t know. It can work in some cases. Take, for instance, when Marnie says she wants to be a singer. That’s clearly meant to be a moment where the other characters are as surprised as we are, and the show treats it as such. It’s comedic punctuation for a scene that was making some solid points about how the characters on this show spend too much time thinking and not enough doing. Again, it’s a plot point, a dream that Marnie has that’s maybe not realistic but is certainly one that’s vaguely plausible. She’s not a bad singer. She’s just probably too late to really break into that world (unless I’m reading this really incorrectly). Also, it’s a good punchline, particularly since the show takes it seriously after that point.
Something very different is going on with Hannah and her obsessive compulsive disorder. This is, if I’m not mistaken, the first we’ve heard anything about this. (It’s possible Hannah’s parents made a throwaway reference in season one; it would make sense that her friends didn’t know about it. If her parents did indeed, please speak up in comments. I forget about tossed-off references like this all the time. Did you know Amy on Enlightened has a sister? Because I’m always forgetting that.) (Update: See in comments for a place in the ninth episode of season one where Marnie brings up Hannah having to masturbate eight times every night. So this was in the works!) Now, I can rationalize this all day, so let me do so for the bulk of this paragraph. If Hannah had truly put something like this behind her, it makes sense that she wouldn’t ever talk about it again. Similarly, it would explain why Hannah’s parents are so protective of her, to a degree that seems beyond most parental protectiveness (though isn’t Hannah’s mom kind of bitchy to her?). In addition, Hannah has always been defined by a free-floating anxiety, and OCD is certainly on that spectrum. It’s not hard to imagine a version of Hannah who, in high school, went through a phase where her anxiety heightened into OCD, then grew out of it as she made her way through adolescence. As much as we like to pretend mental illness is omnipresent, or the single most important driver in any person’s life, it can be a thing that comes and goes.
Actually, let’s pull back and go personal for a bit. When I was a junior in high school, I hit this point where I was alternating between really crazy highs—to the point where I was obnoxious to be around (I know, hard to believe)—and incredible, depressive lows, to the point where I contemplated suicide fairly frequently. To my credit, I told my parents, and to their credit, they took me to a psychiatrist. A lot of what I was going through was just adolescence—which is sort of the definition of manic depression as a state of being—but some of it was, indeed, a very, very, very, very, very mild form of manic depression. (It has a clinical name to differentiate it from the serious, life-threatening manic depression. That name is cyclothymia. My psychiatrist never said, “Hey! You have cyclothymia,” so I’m, of course, hesitant to self-diagnose 17-year-old me.) My psychiatrist thought it was treatable sans medication, and over the course of about a year, he and I came to a place where I was better able to regulate my emotions. As it turned out, this tendency toward wild emotional swings had been present since I was a little kid, to the point where my pediatrician had told my parents to keep an eye out for it when I was an adolescent. And my psychiatrist encouraged me to get occasional mental health checkups, something I’ve done since that point every so often (including a more extensive period of therapy a few years ago). But by and large, the methods that I developed in my high school therapy have worked to keep my emotional swings at bay. I’m lucky. Whatever’s cracked in my genetic code can be handled without medication. Many aren’t, but you know that.
Here’s my point: I’d never tell you any of the above, except for the fact that we’re talking about an episode of Girls where Hannah has a serious psychological disorder that seems to come out of nowhere. There are very much people who are defined by their mental illnesses, who are swallowed whole by depression or anxiety or schizophrenia or you name it. But there are also people who have milder conditions, ones that are livable, with the proper coping mechanisms. (Honestly, this probably describes essentially everybody on Earth who’s in a secure enough place to not be worried about their own survival 24/7.) The problem with most mental illness narrative is that it essentially turns mental illness into the omnipresent villain, which is not exactly how such a thing operates for everybody on Earth. Mental illness can come and go. It can get worse, or recede. And when you’ve been in as long a fallow period as Hannah has (or as I have), it makes sense that you wouldn’t bring such a thing up, because there’s still such a stigma around the whole thing. Hannah’s not going to walk up to people and say, “Hey, I had an OCD incident in high school” because even if she’s unusually open, nobody’s that open.
So I get it. I can make sense of it. I can defend it as a story choice. But I still don’t really like it. It led to a couple of really great scenes—Hannah in therapy (at the all-night therapist, apparently) and then riding home on the subway with her parents—but it still feels like a weird thing to drop on the characters out of nowhere. And I mean nowhere! If one of Hannah’s parents had said in “The Return,” “Hey, are you doing the counting thing again?” which would have been perfectly reasonable for them to do, then there would have been that question hanging over the rest of the show (and, again, maybe I’m just not remembering it). Instead, Hannah ignores a call from Adam, and she starts counting to eight, and it just feels utterly random and bizarre and unmotivated. It is utterly plausible that Hannah’s OCD would have never come up before this, but the audience is so accustomed to certain ways that mental illness is used in narrative that it still feels incredibly cheap.
And I don’t know a better way to put it than that, nor do I know a way to make it work! I like the basic impulse, but I also don’t know why the show couldn’t have pushed Hannah’s already existent anxiety to a darker, more self-defeating place. (As someone working on a book proposal, I know how she feels.) This just feels like a bridge too far in a lot of ways, and even if this has always been in the plans for Hannah, this reveal, it’s always going to be difficult to defeat the notion that somebody in the writers’ room one day just randomly pitched, “Hey, what if Hannah started manifesting OCD?” and everybody else thought it was a good idea, and nobody stopped to think if the proper groundwork had been laid for that to happen. And, honestly, the groundwork would have had to have been laid in season one. Even if Peter Scolari had called in to say, “Hey, Hannah! Don’t have OCD again, right?” in the second season première, it would have felt cheap, because we’re savvy TV viewers, and we know that something brought up in the first episode is going to drop in the seventh or eighth.
Here’s the thing: All of this is really unfair. The goal of criticism is not to weigh a show against our own expectations for it, but against what it’s trying to do. And as examples of sudden on-set mental illness narrative go, this wasn’t a bad one, particularly because that therapy scene hit such great notes about how hopeless this would all feel for Hannah. What’s more, the Hannah storyline is a surprisingly small part of this episode, to the degree where she disappears from the screen for long sections of time in a 30-minute episode. To a real degree, the A-story of this episode is about Adam, and it’s pretty much perfect. Plus, the guest cast is amazing here (Carol Kane! Judy Collins! Peter Scolari! Becky Ann Baker! Bob Balaban! Shiri Appleby!), to the degree that the rest of the episode could have been Jessa ritualistically sacrificing a kitten, and I probably still would have given this a B. Shoshanna was fun—if a bit too fluttery—and that scene where Ray tells Marnie to convert her potential energy into kinetic is one of my favorite in the series (yes, even with the “I want to sing!” punchline), and I really liked the idea behind Charlie’s app and how it provided a thematic foundation for the episode. But the Hannah thing just came out of nowhere, and it disoriented me, and it made me feel the show was playing a cheap trick, like a horror movie villain had sprung back to life at the least opportune time.
But here’s the rub: Maybe that was the point. And if so, this becomes much harder to discount. The next two episodes will tell the tale.
- It is very strange to me that everybody on this show is at least seven years younger than me, but they all have musical references that are roughly the same as my own. I understand that we’ve all been listening to the same music, but it still seemed odd that Marnie was singing “Don’t Know Why.”
- As Natalia, Shiri Appleby is great. She’s always been one of those actresses nobody figured out how to use, and I would not object to this show slowly turning into a series about Adam and Natalia settling down in Westchester, with her wacky mom living upstairs.
- When it comes to Adam, the episode does a great job of immediately sinking us back into how rudderless he feels in the past few weeks. And I love his recounting of his relationship with Hannah at the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. So many relationships start out as somebody who just refuses to exit your life when they’re supposed to, I think, and it makes sense that’s what happened with Adam and Hannah.
- Judy Collins is, as the kids are saying nowadays, the bomb diggity, and if you don’t already know that, well, maybe somebody should do a Gateway to Geekery on her or something. (Not it.)
- Charlie’s office felt sort of like a TV writer’s idea of what an Internet startup office would look like, but every time I see one of those photo essays when a famous cat visits the Buzzfeed offices, I think that maybe the Hollywood version of an Internet company isn’t all that far off from the real thing.
- One of the smartest pieces of writing advice I ever read was from my friend, the writer Julie Bush. She said that people are rarely all that honest about themselves, but when they tell somebody else what they think that person is feeling, then they’re usually unconsciously revealing their own feelings via projection. Mad Men uses this all the time, and Girls has gotten much better at it this season. I’m thinking of this, because it comes up in that Marnie and Ray scene, where she whines about how broken Charlie is, while she’s put together, and it’s pretty clear the opposite is actually true.
- Shoshanna and the doorman: On the one hand, what?! On the other hand, he was very handsome. I’ll allow it.