“One Man’s Trash” is everything people who hate Girls hate about Girls. It’s like the show read all of the criticism about season one—a self-indulgent show about over-privileged white people and their stupid, pointless problems, with a self-absorbed woman possessing no self-awareness at its center, and she keeps taking off her clothes—then decided, “Fuck it! Let’s just make an episode that lives up to every single one of those criticisms, and make it an episode where absolutely nothing happens, and dare people to like it!” This is almost certainly going to be the most divisive episode of the season. I can’t possibly imagine the show doing anything that would match up to it, unless there’s an episode where Lena Dunham never wears a stitch of clothing and throws water balloons at people of other races or something. This is the part where I tell you that, unsurprisingly, I loved the shit out of “One Man’s Trash.”
Here’s the good news for you if you’re a fan of the show, but think this episode went too far: It seems almost perfectly designed to lift out of the season, so you can pretty much forget about it in the weeks to come, until it’s like a weird, bad dream you had. Years from now, you’ll be looking back at the show, and you’ll say, “Hey, remember that episode where Hannah stayed with Patrick Wilson for a couple of days, and they had a lot of sex?” and the person you’re talking to (apparently) will laugh and nod their head in recognition, and the two of you will either have a big argument about it, or be sympathetic to each other’s dislike of the half-hour. “One Man’s Trash” is very consciously an idyll, a pause in the action that eschews every character who’s not Hannah (but for a wonderful rant from Ray to open the episode) in order to take stock of where our main character is at this point in her development. It’s also written by Lena Dunham and she makes out with Patrick Wilson a lot, so, y’know.
The plot is basic to the point of nonexistence. Wilson plays a handsome doctor named Joshua, who lives alone in a giant house, his wife having recently separated from him. He’s one of the older people in the neighborhood he and Hannah share, a self-described “old ghost.” He comes into the coffee shop to complain about how someone from there keeps dumping trash in his cans, and after a contretemps with Ray, he storms out angrily. It turns out, of course, that Hannah is the person who’s been dumping the trash, and she goes over to his place to apologize. After some small talk, she kisses him and apologizes in embarrassment. Then he kisses her, and the whole thing escalates. The two spend the better part of two days together, and after Hannah opens up a little too much, she leaves the next morning, presumably back to her normal life. Also, they play ping pong in their underwear. That’s pretty much it.
The foremost criticism against this, I guess, is going to be how self-indulgent this all is. Dunham wrote this episode, and there will be the usual hoots about how Hannah’s not attractive enough to hook up with a guy like Joshua. And you know what? Maybe she isn’t. I would counter that there’s an 18-year age gap between the two, that most 42-year-old guys—even ones as good-looking as Patrick Wilson—would be happy to sleep with just about any 24-year-old woman who wandered into their lives and threw herself at them. (I mean, I’m assuming here, but it’s an assumption based on years of pop culture, and we all know pop culture wouldn’t lie to me.) In addition, the episode shows us just how phenomenally lonely Joshua is. He’s trapped in this neighborhood, surrounded by people whom he has nothing in common with, and though he has all the trappings of success, he’s also living in a giant house all by himself. This is all an elaborate way of saying that if you want to call the episode self-indulgent, I’m not going to stop you, but it’s also very successful at feinting toward an explanation for why this brief, intense connection forms between these two people. It proves fleeting, as we knew it must, but I bought the fundamental premise of the episode. If you didn’t, fine.
But, also, who cares if this is self-indulgent? Because, honestly, it absolutely is. The whole show is self-indulgence. The very idea that we would find any of this interesting absolutely reeks of self-indulgence, but so does the idea any artist has when they present a story or sonata or sculpture to us. The act of making art is the act of saying, “Hey, I made something, and you should pay attention to it.” That’s enormously self-indulgent. And, yeah, I hear you saying that Dunham doesn’t just write and direct, but also stars, and that’s somehow even worse, but you know what? So does Louis C.K., and so does Larry David. Self-indulgence is part and parcel of the Girls experience, and so long as the show doesn’t turn into Hannah moving in with strange 40-year-olds on a weekly basis, then I’m fine with it.
One of you said in comments last week—I don’t remember who, and I don’t really care about checking—that Dunham’s strength is illuminating the lives of the bored and depressed rich. While I wouldn’t go that far, I do think that there’s a kernel of truth in there. I said last week that at its best, Girls aspires to the level of short fiction, and 95 percent of short fiction is about bored, depressed rich people. We can see a lot of that in “One Man’s Trash,” which starts out as an episode about a complete rich person problem—somebody is using my trash cans at my private brownstone!—then pivots to be about the existential ennui of being a good-looking 40-year-old man and having everything, but also having nothing. Basically, it’s asking us to have empathy for a guy we just met, who’s ridiculously good-looking, who keeps having sex with our heroine. That could be a tough pill to swallow.
I think it works because of the direction by Richard Shepard, which is very smart about isolating the two players, rarely having them share the same shot (and when they do, the camera is usually fairly far back, so we don’t feel as if they’re establishing real intimacy, but, rather, a facsimile of it). I think my favorite shot in the whole thing comes after Hannah and Joshua play half-naked ping pong. Hannah and Joshua are sitting quietly at his outdoor table while Joshua reads the newspaper. Joshua’s back is to the camera, so we don’t feel a connection with him (and he’s looking at the newspaper, anyway, so he’s not forming a connection with the character we are looking at either). The camera slowly pushes in on Hannah’s face as she unpeels an orange taken from a bowl near her. She’s watching him as he reads, just thinking, and it’s fascinating to watch her do so, to wonder what her thought processes might be. And then we’re close enough to see what he sees in her reflected back at us, and it’s fascinating. There’s something that aches at the center of this episode, all that boredom and depression manifesting, then allowing two people a brief respite from it. But it’s an idyll. It has to be.
This season is increasingly about the signifiers and status symbols of adulthood, the things that we tell ourselves will make us “grown-up.” No one would dispute that Joshua—rich, successful, handsome doctor with a great house—is “grown-up,” but he’s slayed by the same insecurities and issues as Hannah is, and he’s taken in by her forwardness, perhaps because she’s so forward. “One Man’s Trash” never really lets us in on what he’s thinking, but it keeps using Shepard’s direction to give us keys to his thinking. He’s isolated. He’s alone. He’s stuck in the middle of a giant space that will never be finished, surrounded by the symbols of a life that should be fulfilling, but he’s so, so alone. This is territory Mad Men and Enlightened often play in, but it’s not a place TV—a medium driven by always leaving you wanting more—tends to enjoy visiting. What happens when the wanting is still there, when the desire for something more than what you already have never goes away? What happens when you realize you’re empty inside?
If there’s a moment I don’t quite like in this episode, it’s Hannah’s speech to Joshua about how she wants to be happy, too, about how she keeps asking the world to take shits on her because if she experiences everything, maybe she can regurgitate it back out, and the rest of us will recognize ourselves in it or something. It’s a monologue that’s meant to make her make more sense to us at this point in the season—because Hannah’s been a bit of a background character for much of this season, and her motivations have sometimes seemed a little opaque—but it also feels slightly forced. It’s not that I don’t believe Hannah would say all of this; it’s that I’m not sure she’d have the self-awareness to have an epiphany like this. Hannah’s New York life is, in some ways, a rebellion against the kind of life her parents might have wanted for her. It’s a very mild one, and it’s one that’s largely been supported by said parents, but it feels like freedom to her, and that’s all that matters. Yet she ends up in this guy’s brownstone and realizes that, hey, having a life free from worry might be kind of awesome, in the end. Dunham and Shepard save the scene in a very Girls-y way—by having Hannah finally just talk too much and say some stupid things that push Joshua away, even if he says he doesn’t mind—but that monologue struck me as kind of forced, at least the first time through.
The more I think about it, though, the more I think it’s of a piece with everything else. Hannah thinks she has an epiphany, but she doesn’t, really, because she can’t see that the person she’s talking to about happiness is desperately unhappy until it’s too late. And that’s maybe why I keep coming back to that shot with the oranges. When my grandmother was a child, she says, she was so happy to get a single orange at Christmas, to have a yearly, sweet indulgence, to let the juice from it run down her chin and stand in for a year’s worth of happy memories. She grew up in the middle of the Depression, on a farm, and her life was hard, to put it mildly. But that one orange was enough to inspire a happiness that resonated with her across decades, that still made her smile in a life that ended in a place of almost unbelievable comfort.
Yet look at Joshua and Hannah. They have a bowl full of oranges, and they’re both lonely and unhappy and lost. There’s nothing that will fill in those holes, either, because they’ve reached a point where all they have to think about is how lonely and unhappy and lost they are. There will always be a gap, between who they are and who they think they should be, between their actual state and actual happiness. “One Man’s Trash” is self-indulgent and messy and tonally different from every other episode this season, yes, but it’s also boldly experimental and deeply, deeply sad, in a way that resonates like few other TV shows can manage. Hannah is only slowly beginning to realize what Joshua’s known for a long time: To have everything is to realize just how little having everything even means.
- Some excellent work from Alex Karpovsky in the midst of that rant. He needs to be the catalyst for the whole episode, and he mostly is. With everybody else on the bench, he comes off of it in stride, kicks the episode into gear, then heads on out. And, hey, he even stops Hannah from saying “sexit” ever again.
- I’ll single out another Shepard shot: Hannah exits Joshua’s house, presumably never to return; drops his trash into his cans; then walks off down the street. It’s a relatively simple idea and shot, but it’s executed with panache.
- Dunham’s script is enormously perceptive about Joshua and how to establish him with just a few signifiers and moments. I particularly like the way that he keeps correcting Hannah when she says “Josh,” especially when she pushes for more information on his divorce, and that’s the only thing he tells her.
- What the hell is Hannah wearing in the opening and closing moments of this episode?
- Well, Twitter is already telling me I should have just read this as Dunham’s masturbatory fantasies, so I can guess I’m going to be in the minority on this one. Have at it, everybody!