Gillian Jacobs, Lena Dunham

Lena Dunham frequently referred to Sex And The City when Girls first started, saying the characters in her show represent the generation of young women who idolized Carrie Bradshaw and used Sex as the template for their fantasies about making it in the Big Apple. As Girls established its own voice, those references vanished—the Sex poster in Shoshanna’s apartment hasn’t been seen in ages—but similarities between the shows remain even as their differences become more glaring.

The city was a significant character in Sex, and its influence is just as prominent in Girls. In fact, at this point, the city might be Girls’ most likeable character. New York City’s superlative population density makes living there a pain in the ass, but the intoxicating, infuriating bustle gives the city its frisson of excitement and possibility. Anything can happen, anywhere at any time, but New York City is one of the few places where, as people go about their daily business, they remain palpably aware of life’s unpredictability. “Ask Me My Name” offers more proof that Girls comes alive when it taps into that manic, urban energy, following Hannah as her first post-Adam date morphs into an eventful, splintering Gotham night.

The episode begins with Hannah off to a promising start as a substitute teacher at St. Justine’s, where she manages to work the term “MILF” into a discussion of Oedipus Rex. Enough time has passed for Hannah to find a groove in her teaching gig, and after the flaming disaster that was Iowa, it’s a rare treat to see Hannah comfortable in her skin and confident in what she’s doing. Everything keeps coming up roses when a trip to the teacher’s lounge results in a invitation for drinks from Fran (Jake Lacy), which Hannah promptly accepts, then prepares for her date in a hilarious scene with Elijah. If Adam is on Hannah’s mind, she certainly does a thorough job of concealing it.

These early scenes in “Ask Me My Name” are so effective because they trick the audience into accepting Hannah’s brokenhearted delusion. Break-ups are emotionally devastating and the recovery never takes a linear path. Total composure in one moment is followed by abject hysteria in the next, and the moments of composure are worse because they’re misleading. In the hysterical moments, you know you’ll eventually calm down, but in the composed moments, you become convinced the worst of it is over and the sun is out to stay. Hannah struts through St. Justine’s like the cock of the walk, casually high-fiving a kid as he passes by, then lands a date with an adorable guy, a date during which she’s perfectly affable and charming. It’s hard to blame Hannah for thinking she’s exorcised Adam when the illusion is this convincing.

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During her date with Fran, Hannah blithely suggests they check out a terrible art show, and it isn’t until they arrive that the illusion of Hannah’s progress is shattered. The featured artist is none other than Mimi-Rose Howard, and Adam is there too, along with Marnie, Desi, and Jessa. At that point, it becomes clear to the audience that Hannah is in a bad state, but it’s still not apparent to her. She’s so blinded to the reality of the situation, she can’t grasp how inappropriate, rude, and deranged it is to invite a date somewhere you know you’ll run into your ex, then transparently use the date as a pawn to push the former lover’s buttons. The unfamiliar Sunny-Day Hannah of the opening scenes becomes tragically recognizable again and betrays how consumed she is by the break-up.

Hannah’s destructive streak isn’t satiated by the art-show awkwardness, so the evening continues as she heads to a party with Mimi-Rose, Adam, and Mimi-Rose’s ex Ace (Zachary Quinto). Mimi-Rose suggest the boys and girls split into two cabs to get better acquainted, which goes even worse than expected. In Adam and Ace’s cab, Ace needles Adam, planting seeds of doubt and insisting Mimi-Rose’s relationship with Adam is an intermission until he wins her back. Meanwhile, in Hannah and Mimi-Rose’s cab, New York City starts being its weird, magical self. One wrong turn leads to a collision with an elderly woman crossing the street, which leads to the theft of a coconut popsicle as an act of protest, which leads to a laundromat, where Hannah and Mimi-Rose properly have it out about Adam.

By the end of “Ask Me My Name,” the bloom is off Mimi-Rose, and it’s a wise choice by the writers to turn Mimi-Rose into another odd, screwed-up person rather than drawing her as the anti-Hannah ideal. Mimi-Rose doesn’t have a grand vision of her life or career any more than Hannah does. Her self-doubt doesn’t prevent her from creating the way Hannah’s does, but while she’s executing her ideas, she doesn’t know what’s driving her to do so. She’s also deeply manipulative, dangling the prospect of giving Adam back to Hannah like he’s a newly adopted pet. Mimi-Rose’s art is a facet of her manipulation, which is why she can’t get to the bottom of where her creative drive comes from. She cranks out work easily because she doesn’t much care whether the output is good, only that she can use it to shape people’s opinions of her.

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Hannah was doing the same thing, but to shape her opinion of herself. Some people accept “writer” as a title after years of passionate devotion to the craft, regardless of any kind of recognition, money, or prestige. Hannah appears to have called herself a writer and assigned significance to that title without giving much thought to what it means or why it’s so important. She starts to wrap her mind around this while talking to Mimi-Rose, and in a crushing moment, she admits that maybe she simply lacks the talent to fulfill what she always thought was her life’s purpose. She makes a tenuous peace with Mimi-Rose and Adam, and attempts to drown her sorrow in falafel and seltzer, the perfect end to a deeply flawed night in the city.

While Girls’ New York City fetishism mirrors Sex, its notions about friendship do not, and “Ask Me My Name” continues to call into question the nature of Hannah’s closest relationships. Marnie confronts Hannah about why she’s at Mimi-Rose’s show, but Hannah isn’t the least bit curious about why Marnie is there. Yes, Marnie is dating Desi now, and because Desi and Adam are friends, Adam will remain in Marnie’s orbit even if he isn’t in Hannah’s. Still, something feels off about her presence. It would be one thing if Marnie came to a new play Adam was starring in, but turning up at Mimi-Rose’s art show smacks of disloyalty. Meanwhile, Elijah still hasn’t registered a reaction of any kind to the break-up, and Jessa reveals to Adam she hooked him up with Mimi-Rose to serve her own selfish purpose. Honestly, what kind of friends are these?

After break-ups, factions form. It’s the way it goes. Hannah says, “We’re all just part of one big friend group,” but that’s not real life. Even when people are explicitly told not to take sides, they do so anyway. The end of a romantic relationship invariably reroutes the connections of a social network, and it’s not clear why that isn’t happening here. Marnie’s initial response to the split was even-keeled, but it looked like it may have been a tough-love approach intended to help alleviate the pain by undermining Hannah’s belief that she had been emotionally victimized. Now it appears as though Marnie really doesn’t have a dog in the fight. The only person who has taken a side is Shosh, who isn’t at the show, and still doesn’t care to know anything about Mimi-Rose. Making Shosh the vessel for this brand of friendship is interesting choice because she’s the naive, simple one. Given that context, as well as her general tone-deafness in this season’s job interview scenes, Shosh’s loyal, protective reaction to the break-up now comes across as though it was offered as more evidence that poor, simple Shosh doesn’t understand the way of things.

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There are definitely advantages to treating the characters as equals. Doing so allows Girls to keep a fundamentally peripheral character like Ray within its view. But when the writers’ refusal to take sides between Hannah and Adam extends to the characters, it suggests Hannah doesn’t have any true allies. Perhaps that’s the whole point, and perhaps the surface similarities to Sex created unreasonable expectations for a show about female solidarity that Girls never intended to be. Or maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I want Girls to be about Hannah and her friends, and I no longer understand how that word is defined in this fictional universe.

Stray observations:

  • Wow Jessa. I thought I couldn’t find you anymore abhorrent, so congratulations on beating your personal awfulness record.
  • With Jessa peeling back her human visage revealing the succubus underneath, and Marnie continuing to be Marnie, I feel like I actively dislike too many people on this show now. I get that the characters on Girls are not supposed to be likable, but it’s unrealistic to expect viewers to keep showing up to hang out with characters they loathe.
  • Shosh and Ray are missing this week. Maybe they’re woodshedding.
  • How refreshing that Hannah and Elijah have committed to creating a masturbation-friendly living space. Good for them!
  • Desi to Hannah: “I think it’s beautiful that you’re here, not contributing to this pervasive, toxic culture of women in the arts just cutting each other down, maligning each other.” Seriously, how punchable is that dude?
  • The Dangerous Minds TV show is an awfully esoteric and unusual reference for Hannah to make, but it was funny. I also loved that Hannah used Beyonce as an adjective.
  • Also hilarious: Chezza, the laundromat patron so delighted by Mimi-Rose’s poem, she insists on reading Hannah the first line.
  • Mimi-Rose doesn’t wear deodorant. So…yeah.
  • Ace: “Shall we into the night?”

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