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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Girls: “I Saw You”

Illustration for article titled Girls: “I Saw You”
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“Everything is my business.”—Hannah

The journey of Girls is two-fold. On one path, we see Hannah moving toward becoming a published writer, as her best friends try to figure out what to do with their lives. On another path, we follow Hannah as she moves from complete and utter lack of self-awareness to just a smidgen of same. Put another way, the Hannah of season one likely wouldn’t have been as aware that everybody at that table full of actors was judging her when she shared the story of how she was fired and tried to turn it into a wacky anecdote. Hannah’s default mode is seeing a self-destruct button and pushing it to see if the warning is accurate. Sometimes, people let her get away with it, figuring that’s just how she is. But in almost every relationship in her life—save for the one with her parents, perhaps—she’s eventually pushed that button too many times and blown everything up. Now she’s lost her job, and she doesn’t seem to understand she might be pushing her boyfriend too far as well.


Though Hannah is basically a comedic character—a cringe comedy heroine, more or less—what’s underneath her is a sort of tragic gulf between how she perceives herself and how the world actually sees her. When the show works, it gets us to empathize with her by reminding us of all of the times when we’ve been humiliated because we failed to understand the right way to read the situation we were in—then plowed right ahead anyway. That kind of humiliation is universal enough of an experience to carry the show along when it’s going really well. When the show doesn’t quite work is when it insists on empathy for its characters at every turn, just because it’s earned it before. The cringe comedy is a really weird genre, because its characters have to behave awfully for the thing to work, but the rules of drama require us to follow a character who’s, at the bare minimum, relatable. So a show like this is always running against whatever goodwill it has built for its characters in the past, so that when they do stupid things or blow up their own lives, we treat it with gentle exasperation instead of swearing off the show for good.

I say all of this because “I Saw You” is an episode where Hannah blows up her life but good. Even the decisions she makes that don’t blow up in her face are bad ones—like bringing Elijah along to that interview with Patti LuPone. What’s more, she manages to ruin the life of her once best friend and her secret lover as well, barging in on Marnie and Ray when they’re hooking up again, immediately after Marnie got to meet Desi’s girlfriend, Clementine (played by Natalie Morales, who’s always a welcome presence on my TV screen). If there’s a linking structure within “I Saw You,” it’s the idea that the series’ central women—well, not Shoshanna—all get news or see things that make them unhappy, so they then go out of their way to spread that unhappiness elsewhere. Hannah does this when her evening at the LuPone home gives way to her yelling at her colleagues about how they’re not real writers at her work meeting the next day, and Marnie does this when the sight of Desi’s girlfriend chases her back to Ray. Even Jessa goes from a desperate attempt to blow out her emotions during the comedown from her addiction to showing up at Marnie’s place of business and randomly getting a job from Louise Lasser. (Okay, Jessa just keeps falling up. I’ll grant you that.)

All television shows ultimately learn to return to the status quo, because that’s where so many of the stories come from. Even shows that change up that status quo will rarely do so in a huge fashion, and if they do, they usually make sure to stick to the new status quo for a few episodes (or even a whole season) before shifting on to something else. TV shows can evolve, but they usually need to do so slowly, so that they don’t throw viewers off by too much. What’s been interesting about this season of Girls is that it’s been an extended exercise in waiting for shoes to drop. There was a long section of the season when the only thing viewers could count on was the connection between Hannah and Adam, and the season’s midpoint blew up the friendship between the four central women in a way that’s still having reverberations. By making Hannah the stable one, the show was able to examine how well she’d be able to handle things like compromising her dreams in order to have stability in the moment. And it was able to throw the struggles of the other women—especially Marnie—into that much sharper of relief.

But because this is TV and because this is Hannah, we knew that everything had to fall apart sooner or later, and with the end of “Role-Play,” things begin to crumble with astonishing rapidity. When this episode opens, it seems like maybe Hannah has realized that Adam moving in with Ray to focus on the play doesn’t have to be the end of their relationship. But she’s unable to leave well enough alone, finding her way to Ray’s apartment later on (ostensibly to deliver Adam one-and-a-half bananas) and just generally being sure things are about to start disintegrating because of something Patti LuPone told her once. And when she goes to LuPone’s house and finds that Patti’s husband—played by Greg from Flight Of The Conchords!—is a frustrated writer who never realized his dreams, she starts hitting the self-destruct button wherever she can, right down to barging into that bedroom when she hears Ray having sex. If there are walls she can tear down, she’s going to do that, even if it means isolating almost everyone she knows. It’s a skillful bit of plotting, and even if I wouldn’t have pegged the Marnie and Ray relationship as something that came out right before the season finale, it feels, weirdly, like the justification Hannah needs in that moment.

Because, see, what Hannah craves above all else is control. She’s a writer, after all, and writers are used to being able to arrange events on the page in the way that makes them most interesting. (Even writers of nonfiction will pick and choose what to highlight to play up the stuff that will have the most impact.) Hannah says that everything is her business when Adam tells her that whomever Ray is sleeping with is none of hers, and there’s a sad ring of truth to that. Hannah, who thought she was going to take over the world and become the voice of her generation (or at least a voice of a generation), has been stable all season, but she’s also been drifting further from what she believed to be her true goal. And as Adam pretty much backs into something good and Marnie manages to not completely embarrass herself at the open mic and Jessa gets a job handed to her and Shoshanna is about to graduate from college—Hannah can’t have that pass without making things all about her all over again. It’s all a stunning act of narcissism, the protagonist refusing to play a supporting part in someone else’s story. What makes “I Saw You” work is that it frames this not as that lovable Hannah, stomping all over and making a mess, but as a central tragedy of who she is. And if she doesn’t tamp it down, she stands to lose everything.

Stray observations:

  • That was Louise Lasser as B.D. (Beedee?), the photographer whose show is the first exhibit at the gallery Marnie works at. Lasser was the lead of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, an important precursor to this show, and if you think this series is good at making you feel uncomfortable, you should probably check that one out post-haste. (It’s also a rich, involving tapestry of a show, filled both with amazing humor and unexpected poignancy. Highly recommended.) Also: The scene with B.D. was really beautiful, particularly when she talked about how TV always portrays old women as shells.
  • I still don’t entirely know what’s up with the Jessa and Shoshanna stuff this season. It sort of feels like the writers inserted some stuff that said, “There will be a storyline here later,” then forgot to do anything with it. The other strands of the story are so compelling that I don’t care, but this all feels like a lot of setup for season four, I guess.
  • Ray and Marnie hooked up again, in a way that suggests perhaps they aren’t the all-time true love pairing I dared dream they were. I liked the way that Ray tried to talk about the relationship with Adam, though, offering up the sort of big talk he thinks dudes are supposed to use, then laughing it off.
  • I don’t really see why Hannah would want to be around Adam when he’s running lines and stuff. That is one of the most spectacularly annoying things in the world.
  • Hannah getting fired from her job is vintage Girls, with everything from the way she makes everything all about her to the way that she tries to make other people’s reactions to her bad behavior into the real problem to the lack of a graceful exit. And she was so mean to poor Joe!
  • Marnie tries to claim that the YouTube video that’s haunted her all season was some other girl who sort of looks like her. Desi thinks that’s good because it made him uncomfortable.
  • Sorry for the lateness of this one. Didn’t have a screener, and it was a weird one to write about. So much of this season hinges on next week’s finale, and I’m hopeful the show nails it.