The third episode of Pulling is the first one that doesn’t begin with Donna, and it’s also a pivotal point in the series for Karl. He starts as pathetic, sure, but there’s no question that this is his lowest point. The opening illustrates it neatly: Karl scrounges through his new, still unfurnished house to find something to eat, finally settling on chugging milk from the carton and trying to pry tomatoes from a can with a spatula, and then a pair of chopsticks. He’s like a foraging baby bear, unaware of his filthy surroundings. That is, until he sees himself in the mirror and does a swift double take.
That’s only the beginning of Karl’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day, one that no children’s book in the world can touch. While scraping through his accumulated scruff with a dinky razor, the plastic head flies off into the abyss of an un-flushed toilet—just when Karl has only a tuft of a Hitler mustache left. At his local deli, he attempts to buy another packet of razors, but the South Asian couple at the counter stares at him blankly, in mute horror. While crossing the street to the pharmacy, he gets hit by a car, lands in dog shit, and punched by the driver of the car that hit him, who assumes Karl is making fun of him somehow. So Karl goes home and tries to hang himself.
Sharon Horgan and Dennis Kelly have said that Pulling has no moral center. It’s true that there’s no one in the cacophony of dysfunction who we can count on every week to make sound judgments or even sane ones, which is part of why the show is so funny. Horgan and Kelly don’t take a lot of time to revel in the characters’ social inadequacies and general failings. Their matter-of-factness about it all is part of the comedic appeal. What keeps Pulling from flying off the ground into a kind of dada nihilist nowhere is the relationship between Karl and Donna. It’s unhealthy, it’s unsatisfying, and it’s warped by many factors, but at its core there’s a recognizable emotional connection and real warmth.
Which is why when Donna finds Karl in the middle of his suicide attempt, the scene is sharply funny instead of just plain dark. Her concern for him is mixed with resentment, that he put her in that position, and surprise at his allocation of mental resources. “You put a bracket up!” she shouts at Karl. “Why not put some shelves up? Buy some cups!” Of course, the reason that Karl’s in such a state to begin with is his split from Donna. His vulnerability is partially her fault, but she still feels compelled to take care of him. So she calls in the worst suicide watch team in the world: Louise and Karen.
Karen starts out the episode with a neatly done scene at her dry cleaners, where she jokes about rugby players and inquires after the owner’s daughter before asking for her dress to be stitched up for the night’s festivities. When the good-natured dry cleaner turns her down, she snaps: “Do you think I like listening to pricks like you?” For Karen, small talk for the pleasantry of it is a waste of time. Everyone is trying to get something from each other, and you may as well be blunt about it. Karl’s suicide attempt is just not a huge worry for her. “He’s gotten it out of his system,” she advises Donna.
Her interactions with the hapless suitor Mark, whose main characteristics are a wrinkled suit and a penchant for rape fantasies, are equally as hilariously heartless. When he approaches her in a boutique with offers of marriage and claims of being in love with her, Karen’s reaction is priceless. “Look, you’ve been boxing above your weight, and I’ll give you credit for that,” she considers. But piss off, pretty much. Karen is a lothario mess, but she’s a confident one.
Louise, meanwhile, has another stalker-ish crush on a customer at her café, and arranges for all three friends to go to a film launch party she knows he’ll be at. Donna, itching to go out but feeling guilty for leaving Karl, rustles up Tanya to watch over him while they are out at the club. It turns out that gossipy Tanya’s husband just left her for someone else. “You knew what you were doing,” she sobs to Donna, “You weren’t just being a selfish bitch.” Donna uneasily leaves Karl and Tanya together in his unfurnished living room to go have a good time.
But that’s the thing about Karl. She may have broken up with him, but he’s still on her mind, and watching him move away from her is painful. She refers to him, absent-mindedly, as her “suicidal boyfriend.” At the club, she can’t seem to have any fun. She keeps calling and not reaching Karl. It’s partly alarm at his activities, but it’s also a suspicion that he could do just fine without her.
The film launch scene reminded me of the Bushwick party scene in Girls this season, and it illustrates the difference between the shows. Girls is willing to go into that awkward, stomach-twisting territory without it being completely absurd, but it also has a little streak of sentimentality to it. Pulling is all edge. On Girls, the recently broken up Marnie blathers on about her desirability to anyone who listens. Donna, on the other hand, poses questions about suicide to a guy who Karen gets to buy them drinks. There are your normal mood-killers, and then there are your Pulling mood-killers.
Finally the group leaves after Karen fails to go home with a Russell Crowe look-a-ike and pepper sprays Louise’s crush. They swing by Karl’s apartment to find him peacefully asleep in Tanya’s lap. Donna’s face has a crumpled, ambivalent look. She can’t quite let go of her role as the one who Karl falls asleep on, and Tanya’s comments about how much he hates Donna sting in a weird way. It’s that realization that he’s moving on, and perhaps she can’t both break up with him and be in his life. She leaves with the letter Karl wrote, supposedly a treatise against Donna and their relationship failures. When she opens it in the cab, it’s in all-caps, one fragile phrase repeated over and over again: “Please come back Donna.”
- Pulling definitely has an ongoing fascination with Hitler, and the way that the genocidal lunatic makes his way into everyday conversation. Sometimes, Hitler just happens.
- Karen, helpful as ever when Louise asks her how she looks: “Crazed.” Louise: “That’ll do.”
- Louise’s advances on Liam were so gut-wrenchingly awful. The moment where she took the tip from him to get drinks at the club must rank among one of the most quietly wretched moments on television.
- For those of you who are having trouble following along: Pulling’s available on YouTube.