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Girls: “Only Child”

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Girls

"Only Child" 

Season 3, Episode 5
A-

Girls

"Only Child" 

Season 3, Episode 5

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Isn’t it funny how a day can flip from a good one to a bad one? “Only Child” takes place over the course of two days, and in the second, what seems like the best day of Hannah’s life very quickly flips into one of the worst days. (The first features her using David’s funeral as a networking opportunity, which is one of the most appropriate character decisions ever.) If Lena Dunham is nominated for an Emmy again, then here’s her submission tape, because she gets to do nearly everything in this episode. She’s funny in the scenes where she tries to mediate peace between Adam and Caroline, she’s loathsome when she goes to the funeral, she’s winning when she thinks she has a publishing deal, and she’s absolutely crushed when she realizes she signed away the rights to her work. Hannah travels the gamut of emotions in this episode, and though this one is lighter on the supporting cast than some of the others, it’s appropriate. Here’s one of those days that come all too frequently when you think you have the world in the palm of your hand, only to have it yanked away forcibly.

I don’t know if “Only Child” is the strongest episode of this season so far—it’s the rare Girls episode that might have benefited from giving the supporting cast less to do—but it’s certainly a fitting tribute to a Hannah who almost has her shit figured out but can be seriously derailed by a couple of unlikely circumstances. In the wake of David’s death, Hannah learns—from his wife!—that Mill Street is no longer pursuing any of the projects he had set up with them, which means that both Hannah and David’s wife are pretty much out of luck. Having obtained the name of another publisher (by agreeing to leave the funeral), Hannah quickly sets up a meeting, and things go so well that you know the hammer has to fall eventually. Dunham and her collaborators (who include episode writer Murray Miller and director Tricia Brock) have been setting this season up very carefully as almost an object lesson in how it’s much easier to be a strong, stable person when things are going well than when they’re falling apart, and we knew that other shoe wasn’t going to suspend gravity forever.

Which is also a way of saying that the greatest romantic development in the history of the world happens in this episode, as Marnie sleeps with Ray. I’m 100 percent on board with this. I want Marnie and Ray to get married, have two kids, then divorce and spend the rest of their lives bitterly sniping at each other through their children. These two characters are so wrong for each other that the coupling makes a perverse amount of sense. When Marnie showed up at Ray’s apartment to get his unvarnished opinion of her—it turns out he thinks she’s “a big, fat fucking phony,” but also thinks she’s basically a good person—I rolled my eyes at the idea of the two of them hooking up. But the show threw itself into the idea with such gusto that I quickly changed my mind. It was like Girls playing a game of truth or dare with itself, and I usually like when my TV shows launch storylines that could potentially get in over their heads. Yeah, this could be the only time this happens, but you know it won’t be. Now it’s just lurking there, a time bomb waiting to go off.

Caroline Sackler has been a time bomb waiting to go off for a while, too. I was curious to see how the series would define the character outside of “crazier than Hannah,” and “Only Child” takes its first steps toward doing so, mostly by comparing and contrasting her with Hannah. The first time we see her in the episode, she and Adam are having a titanic, colossal fight, one that provides the background soundtrack for Hannah’s phone call with the new publisher. It’s not immediately clear what it’s even about, but it is clear this is a fight these two have been having since they were children, a fight they will continue to have right up until the grave. The first direct comparison we get between Hannah and Caroline comes in this scene, when the latter suggests that her brother’s attraction to Hannah is some sort of unexpressed sexual attraction to his sister. That seems crazy to me, but it’s also the show doing exactly what Adam accuses Caroline of doing: planting seeds that will later bear fruit. But where Caroline wants that fruit to increase the size of rifts between others, the show wants us to think about what placing Caroline into this dynamic says about Hannah and about Adam.

Look, for instance, at the scene where Hannah kicks Caroline out of the apartment after they have their own titanic fight. Earlier in the episode, Hannah says that as an only child, she wanted nothing more than a sibling, but here, we see her in a situation where she’s very much competing with a new arrival for the affection of someone very important to her. I don’t think Caroline and Hannah’s relationship should be described as “sibling rivalry,” per se, but there’s certainly an element of it there, and both of them have a tendency to turn Adam into a parent figure at weird moments. But, also, look at how Hannah describes Caroline as talking all of the time. In the times we’ve seen Hannah and Adam together without Caroline, Hannah’s been the one doing all of the talking, while Adam mostly just listens. Caroline has supplanted that role in some ways, and for as much as Hannah plays at being the emotional touchstone for both of them (mostly as a boost to her own vanity), she wants her centrality in Adam’s life back.

Then there’s the end of the episode, where Hannah throws Caroline out of the apartment, after her already shitty day has gone from bad to worse. She tells Adam this, hoping it will make him happy, but it has the opposite effect, making him very angry and sending him out into the night to find the sister he’s supposed to be looking out for (there’s the parental thing again). And that’s all well and good and self-sacrificing of him, until you remember that the last time he did something like this for a woman, it was when he ran clear across town to kick in Hannah’s door in the last season finale. At the time, that felt like a romantic bridge too far for may viewers; here, we see it’s just part of what Adam does to increase his own self-worth. He helps people. He runs after them and pulls them back from the brink. And, as Caroline suggests, the idea surely worming its way into Hannah’s subconscious, he’s not there when he’s needed, because he’s probably off saving somebody else.

We also get a bit of information that allows us to draw some connections between Adam and Caroline, though not as much as you’d think. (I suspect the only way these two will really start to make sense is if we get a look at their parents and extended family.) In particular, Hannah pointing out to Adam that his description of Caroline—someone with no ambition or drive but an awful lot of criticism—could rebound back on himself. All too often, when we’re saying something about someone else, we’re implicating ourselves in it as well, if we could just step back and take a look at the situation rationally. But in the heat of an argument, there’s little rationality, just more yelling. This idea of both Sacklers being equally devoid of any forward momentum is an interesting one, and it’s telling, I think, how the two of them accuse each other of completely trying to change their entire personas every few months. We’ve seen it happen with Adam; he tries to throw it back in Caroline’s face by telling her that she keeps shifting locations and accents, but how are those two things all that different?

In the midst of all of this Sackler strife is the fact that Hannah has something to be legitimately sad about: Her book is dead and right after she nearly got a deal to make it an actual book instead of just an e-book. When she learns of this, she’s an asshole to her father (and, by proxy, her cousin Rudy), but it’s understandable. As she tells Caroline, she put her whole life into that book, 25 years worth of stories, and it’s not as if she can come up with another 25 years of stories in the next couple of weeks to pull together into a new book. This one had the story about making out with the Cuban refugee and then the glitter thing! In its own way, though, this story point is nodding toward what must inevitably happen as the series goes on. All writers have to learn how to transition from writing about themselves to writing about other things (which just turns out to be a better-coded version of writing about yourself), and if Hannah’s going to get a book together before her e-book’s rights are available again, she’s going to have to do just that. Perhaps that’s part of this season’s increased focus on the supporting cast: These are the people Hannah’s going to write about if she’s going to continue being a writer.

We’re approaching the point where I’ll have caught up with those who watched the first six episodes and gave them rather glowing advance reviews, and I have to say that I can see where they were coming from while still finding the season just a bit lacking (though not much). I can imagine how much fun it would be to devour these episodes in one fell swoop. The storytelling is much tighter, the serialization is stronger, and the comedy has been perfectly pitched from moment one. The series has also given those who can’t stand Hannah or any one of her friends plenty of room to feel like it understands why they can be so hard to take. And yet I find myself waiting for those one or two stand-out episodes that feel like nothing else on TV, a “Return” or “One Man’s Trash.” In its first two seasons, Girls was a much more erratic show than it is now—indeed, the last handful of episodes is probably the most consistent stretch in the show’s run—but it also had the potential to out of nowhere be the best show on TV in any given week. I’d love to see the series blend this new consistency with that quality, and it will be fun to see if the last seven episodes of the season are up to the task.

Stray observations:

  • As has become HBO’s new custom, this episode was up on HBO Go all week and is debuting on a Saturday night, so this and Looking don’t get crushed by the Super Bowl. (And while I’m here, I’ll toss in an earnest plug to watch Looking, which is fantastic and is somehow getting far worse ratings than Girls, already a low-rated show. Since this is HBO, it doesn’t matter if you watch on HBO Go or on television, as they happily count both. Just watch!)
  • I didn’t touch on the Shoshanna and Jessa storyline, but it feels somewhat stuck in neutral and probably could have been excised entirely, outside of the fact that I imagine Jessa will get that job at the children’s boutique and we would have needed to see the setup for that. I did like Shosh talking about her 15 year plan.
  • This might not have been of too much interest to anyone who’s never had to meet with any sort of exec, but the scene with the publisher and her assistant rang true on so many levels—the fake laughter, the assistant who carries that laughter on too long, the way that it’s still exciting to Hannah, etc.
  • So do Hannah’s parents just live in New York now? I suspect not, but that park Peter Scolari was camped out in (reading the excellent detective novel Bangkok Tattoo, no less) looked nothing like a park in the Midwest.
  • Do we have any idea what time of year it’s supposed to be? It seems summery, but everybody’s talking about how cold it is. Maybe early autumn?
  • Jennifer Westfeldt is excellent casting as David's wife, and I hope that we get to see her more than this one time. (She will happily admit that a lot of people thought David was gay. And he was sometimes!)
  • Marnie and Ray 4-ever!!!!! 

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