Note: Because of the Oscars airing the same night, HBO made this episode available to watch on HBO Go and HBO Now ahead of Girls’ usual airtime of Sundays at 10 pm. Accordingly, this article contains spoilers.
“American Bitch” is a snarling challenge of an episode title.
It’s no surprise, then, that it belongs to Girls, Lena Dunham’s HBO comedy that often seems like it makes more headlines than it even has viewers. And make no mistake: “American Bitch” — the third episode of Girls’ final season — is absolutely meant to provoke a strong reaction.
As with season two’s standout episode “One Man’s Trash,” “American Bitch” is essentially a two-person play that throws Lena Dunham’s Hannah … well, not exactly against an older man of means, but not exactly with him, either.
“One Man’s Trash” tackled Hannah’s conceptions of intimacy and comfort with sympathetic divorcé Joshua (Patrick Wilson). “American Bitch” takes place a few years later, sending her to the gorgeous apartment of acclaimed but controversial author Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys) — and digs far deeper into the larger concept of power imbalances between older men and younger women on both a societal and personal level.
That’s a whole lot for a half-hour of television to tackle. But the episode — written by Dunham, directed by Girls standby Richard Shepard — is searing, even when it ends on a decidedly, purposely confusing note.
“American Bitch” isn’t so much about Hannah as about the inherent power imbalance between younger women and older men
The episode jumps right into the interaction between Hannah and Chuck without any preamble or context. We have to learn about what exactly happened between them as their dynamics constantly shift, which makes the entire interaction even more tense than it already is.
We eventually come to learn that Hannah is there not because she’s a lucky fan of Chuck’s work, but because she wrote a righteous blog post about sexual assault allegations against Chuck that have been detailed on Tumblr by several college-age women he encountered on his book tour. The two circle each other, defensive and suspicious, each trying to convince the other of their arguments.
Just as Hannah does with Chuck — not to mention vice versa — the episode dares its viewers to stare it in the face, question it, and decide for themselves how they feel about what’s unfolding both onscreen and between the lines. Chuck makes the case — in front of a prominent painting of Woody Allen — that he’s a misguided person who can’t resist an attractive woman throwing herself at him, and why should he, anyway? Hannah maintains that women don’t just accuse men of sexual assault for fun, and that he should be way more aware of being a powerful author with considerable influence no matter what — but as the episode wears on, her resolve visibly starts to fray.
Dunham’s script is sharp and pithy as per usual, but maybe the smartest thing “American Bitch” did was cast Rhys. The actor — who boasts one of TV’s best performances with his brittle Philip on The Americans — manages to make Chuck both menacing and pathetic. He’s deeply sad in a way Hannah recognizes, but it also becomes clearer with every passing minute that Chuck runs just as much on latent fury as he does self-loathing.
So it’s not a shock when — after an afternoon spent wearing down Hannah’s steely resolve into something softer and more malleable — Chuck finally reveals himself to be the creep she suspected all along. It’s more like a resigned sigh. Of course he’s that creep, Hannah’s face says as she looks down at Chuck’s floppy dick resting against her thigh. What else could she have possibly expected?
But in the episode’s boldest choice, Hannah reaches down and wraps her hand around it anyway, as if she can’t quite help herself from finding out what Chuck Palmer’s penis is like for herself. The smirk that Rhys unfurls across Chuck’s face as a result is mischievous, but downright chilling. In that moment, Chuck knows he won whatever game they’ve been playing — especially because him making that power play and having Hannah succumb to it means she gets no satisfaction out of knowing she was right in the first place.
“American Bitch” knows exactly what it’s doing. It’s a half-hour designed to generate discussion and make people think about interpersonal power dynamics. It’s a good episode with strong performances at its center, but a better and more obvious vehicle for social commentary.
As far as Girls trying to make a larger point goes, though, “American Bitch” is a particularly merciless chapter that gets at a very real divide between powerful men and the women they hope to impress and/or control. Yes, Hannah is a 20-something woman with a hell of a lot to learn about the world. But Chuck and equally aimless older men like him who think they have all the answers may never truly have to reckon with the fact that they don’t — a luxury most women will never be able to afford.
Girls airs Sundays at 10 pm on HBO. Previous seasons are available to watch on HBO Go, HBO Now, and Amazon Prime.