The question with Girls has always been just how self-aware viewers believe creator and star Lena Dunham to be. Does she get that Hannah Horvath, the character she plays, can be intensely off-putting? Or does she somehow believe we're supposed to find the character at least somewhat heroic?
In its best scenes and episodes, Girls finds a way to have it both ways. We find Hannah hard to take, but we also empathize and identify with her, because we've been hard to take on more than a few occasions. The show puts this right there in the title. This is about the journey from girlhood to womanhood, and about one woman who believes over-sharing about her life will act as the best form of armor. If Hannah tells you all of the worst, most embarrassing things about herself, then whatever you say can't really hurt her. Except that's never true.
These sorts of questions often bedevil women who are artists. In a post for Buzzfeed, novelist Curtis Sittenfeld wrote about 24 things she had learned after a decade writing books. Among her lessons was this:
Female writers are asked more frequently about all of the following topics than male writers: whether their work is autobiographical; whether their characters are likable; whether their unlikable characters are unlikable on purpose or the writer didn’t realize what she was doing; how they manage to write after having children.
Outside of the final question, all of these queries have haunted Dunham since Girls began.
But in last night's episode, "Triggering," the show makes clear that Dunham is very aware of these questions and of what the show's harshest critics think of Girls. What's more, she doesn't particularly care. It's the kind of directly confrontational sequence Girls is known for, and it's the highlight, so far, of a season that's pushing into new territory for the show.
Heading to the Midwest
Truth be told, Girls sort of ran out of story for itself at the end of season one, when Hannah realized that she was driven by different impulses from many of the people in her life. The first season was a near-perfect five-hour movie that the show has always existed within the shadow of in subsequent years. Season two took a hard-right turn into being a series of short stories that were of variable quality, while season three was more consistent but also occasionally kinda boring.
Season four has taken Hannah out of her Brooklyn comfort zone and deposited her in the Midwest, where she's taking part in the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop. The show has always struggled with how to depict Hannah's writing and whether we're meant to see her aspirations as a joke or as at least somewhat realistic. (Notably, we very rarely hear excerpts from her work.) By sending her to Iowa — the toughest graduate program to get into for a young writer — the show is casting its lot with "somewhat realistic."
But we're also not meant to see Hannah as some incipient genius waiting to be discovered. What talent she has is unrefined and needs shaping. In embracing this thought, Dunham allows Girls to lob many of the most persistent criticisms of the show (and its creator) directly at Hannah herself.
As a member of the workshop, see, Hannah has to take part in writers' groups, where other writers look over her work and offer their thoughts. And the gripes they offer will sound awfully familiar to anyone who's followed the lengthy discussion around Girls over the years. The protagonist of Hannah's story, her critics say, is too obviously a gloss on Hannah herself. She's unaware of her privilege. The story is unsympathetic to the male perspective. And on and on. Even her defenders come off as vaguely condescending, asking why anybody should care that the narrator is obviously meant to be Hannah.
Yet just when you think that Dunham is using the scene to mock her critics, she flips it back around on Hannah, who seems unable to accept that anybody would read what she has written and found it anything less than brilliant. Hannah might have talent at writing, but she doesn't have a lot of the talents that inform the best writers, like learning how to take good feedback, or empathizing with others' viewpoints, or learning to get out of her own head.
Lena Dunham's hall of mirrors
This is something Dunham loves to do. She'll introduce a situation that seems obviously meant to validate Hannah, then turn it into a reason to mock the character. Or she'll do the exact opposite. She'll even have scenes where she seems to create reasons to believe Hannah is essentially Dunham — except how could anybody be that ridiculous and lack that much self-awareness?
In this way, Girls has always functioned as a hall of mirrors. Just when you think you've found the way out, everything flips back around on you, and you're forced to reconsider your route through the material. Truth be told, Dunham sometimes outguesses herself, leaving even fans of the show scratching their heads as to her intentions. I suspect she prefers it that way, because it keeps the show on people's minds.
But after a point, this just becomes exhausting. Chasing the show down long rabbit trails can end up feeling pointless when those trails don't go anywhere. Except at the same time, isn't that more or less a perfect metaphor for growing up? Life is just a long series of seemingly pointless journeys that eventually culminate in a destination that either delights or disappoints. There's often little rhyme or reason to it.
That's why I love the writers' group scene in "Triggering" so much. It's Dunham — hugely driven writer/director/showrunner/actress Dunham — reaching out to remind us that she exists, and she and Hannah are very different people, even if they share a face and several personality traits.
It's the equivalent of Dunham thrusting her fists in the air and shouting, "Sorry, haters," a defiant flipping off of all who find her tiresome or maybe just feel ready for Girls to be over and done with (a category I have occasionally fallen into). And, yes, maybe this show has lost a step from its early days, but so long as it's capable of complicated, twisty scenes like the writers' group one, I'm going to be watching.