Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Girls: “The Return”

Illustration for article titled Girls: “The Return”

A cultural and political blogger I read who’s based in San Francisco has written a couple of times about how he finds the myth of the American small town vaguely repugnant. When, at the 2008 Republican National Convention, Sarah Palin quoted Westbrook Pegler by saying, “We grow good people in our small towns,” he went on a real tear about how the nation’s small towns are increasingly filled with people who hold the rest of the nation back with their beliefs. He also insisted that if you wanted to live in a place that had actual culture and interesting things to do, a city was the place to be. (He phrased it a lot more nicely than I’m boiling it down to, I’m afraid.) In that respect, certainly, it was hard to disagree with him. There’s lots more to do in Los Angeles or New York or San Francisco or Chicago than there is in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Why then, he asked, would anyone ever want to live anywhere other than a cultural mecca, particularly if you were of a politically liberal persuasion?

Tonight’s episode of Girls gets at that push-and-pull between the ties of a sleepy, Midwestern, small-town life and the more exciting life in the big city, a more exciting life that very well might be doomed to failure and disappointment. The city is a fun place, full of fun experiences and people that are different from anyone else you might meet. The city tends to attract people who have giant-sized dreams, and that’s fun to hang around for a while, particularly in your 20s or 30s. But there’s something to be said for the sleepy quiet of a little town, too, and the scenes where Hannah slots uneasily back into her old life are among my favorites of the series. She’s clearly ill at ease, but there’s also a part of her that feels as if it still belongs here in East Lansing (presumably).

She outlines this in that scene where she is sitting in the car with Eric, after he’s taken her to the benefit for Carrie, a girl who apparently disappeared under mysterious circumstances on a vacation. They’ve left, and she’s started tearing down the dance her friend did in Carrie’s honor—the one major false note in an otherwise perfect episode—but Eric is mystified by what she’s saying. It was a little cheesy, he says, but he doesn’t seem nearly as gung ho about this opinion as she does. The conversation turns to what she does in New York, and she admits she’s a writer, with no money coming in. And for an instant, you can sense this alternate Hannah snapping into place, the one who does move back to Michigan and does get a job as a teacher and does have a relationship with Eric. The temptation flits across her peripheral vision for just a second, and then it’s gone.

The episode never comes out and states any of this. It focuses almost entirely on Hannah’s adventures in and around her childhood hometown. We don’t go back to New York unless she’s talking to someone there. We don’t have her give a big speech about how she doesn’t know what she’s doing. Indeed, the only time we really spend without her is spent with her parents, who celebrate their anniversary without the daughter they’ve flown out to celebrate with them by having a nice dinner, then having sex in the shower. (The show’s casualness about how healthy the Horvarths’ marriage is works very well.) But even this is allowed to be a kind of alternate Hannah world, one where she, too, settles down in the Midwest somewhere and has a daughter who causes her constant worry. Her parents are worried, but they’re also not. They remember what it was like to be 25, and they know Hannah will get through it like they did, even if she doesn’t end up a famous writer on the other side.

This is the first episode directed by Lena Dunham since the third episode (and also the first she has not written solely on her own; she shares a script credit with Judd Apatow), and outside of some curious choices in the scoring—namely that the music is often overbearing—it’s a really lovely piece of television. Dunham excels at giving her characters private moments, even when they’re in conversation with someone else, and she’s great at just watching, say, Becky Ann Baker’s eyes crinkle up in a half-smile as she says that her daughter knows how to have fun, and maybe that’s enough for now. She’s also got a great sense for the way that the parent-child relationship starts to shift the second the kid’s out of college. Hannah has to run and get her mother’s prescription now, but her mother’s still annoyed with her for sleeping until 11. There are remnants of their traditional parent-child relationship still intact, but the shift is already happening. When Hannah and her mother talk in the hallway near the episode’s end, it’s as two adults, relating to each other on the same level. Considering how poorly Hannah’s treated them throughout—which is completely realistic—it’s nice to see that there’s plenty of affection there on both ends.

What this episode nails that the blogger I read misses is the way that a small town can start to feel like home, particularly if you’ve lived there for any length of time whatsoever. Dunham captures the way that Hannah both relates to her old friends and feels oddly distant from them perfectly, and the scenes where she attempts to make everybody realize that Heather’s plan to move to Los Angeles to become a dancer is completely insane suggest the ways she’s wiser about certain aspects of the world than her friends are without harping too much on that point. It would be easy to make this episode something about how Hannah is triumphant because she’s from the big city, and she knows things nobody else does, but the episode is far more muted than that. There are good and bad things about living anywhere, and Hannah’s at once out of her depth and attracted by her old life. There’s nothing saying that moving back would be the “wrong” choice any more than getting on the plane to head back to New York is the “right” one. Lives don’t work like that.


The episode ends with Hannah talking to Adam—who’s finally started to actively give a shit—while standing on the front lawn of her childhood home. It’s dark out, and she has a flight to catch in the morning, but for the first time, there’s a real sense that flight will bear her back to her real life, not the old one she could so easily be re-ensnared by. Sleeping in your childhood bedroom and having your parents take care of you is always a nice fantasy when you’re in your 20s, but at some point, that fantasy has to end, and you have to get back to the process of playing at being a grown-up. Not everything will fit, and maybe someday you go back to the life you once led. But you have to try. You have to give it that shot. This episode so richly evokes that feeling—one that I’ve had so, so many times—that it would have had to have been a lot sloppier to fail. Fortunately, it’s just about perfect.

Stray observations:

  • Well, we can all officially say that we’ve seen Peter Scolari’s penis now. I don’t know that any of us would have thought we’d end this day being able to say that, but we all can now. Good for us.
  • I mentioned above that I don’t think the dance scene worked, and I think it was the one place where the episode was just a touch condescending toward any of the characters. I’m not sure the Heather character “works,” beyond the general sense we get that Hannah always needs to have a tall, pretty friend to be the back-up to.
  • Any Michiganders want to say if that episode was filmed on location in the state? It seemed like it to me, but I’ve never been to East Lansing, so what do I know?