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Girls: “On All Fours”

Illustration for article titled iGirls/i: “On All Fours”
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“On All Fours” is an episode of Girls that shows virtually all of the characters at their ugliest. It takes the concept of cringe comedy and mostly removes the “comedy” part of that equation, skewing more toward something like cringe drama. Yes, there are funny scenes, and yes, there are funny moments, but this is mostly just a dark episode of television that ends with a desperate woman jabbing a Q-Tip into her ear, knowing it will puncture her eardrum, to achieve the proper sense of balance. It’s not exactly pleasant TV, and even if it feels like the whole season has swum off in another direction these last two weeks (in which I would defy anyone to watch the first seven episodes of the season and predict what would happen in these episodes), it’s a direction I enjoy. I tend to appreciate the show’s dramatic elements more than its comedic ones, so if the finale can make all of this come together cohesively, I’ll be very pleased.

One offshoot of Jessa leaving at the end of “Video Games” that I didn’t think of was that it would leave Hannah, essentially, all alone. She’s become an island on her own show, to the point where this episode minimizes her presence even more. She struggles to finish her book. She gets a splinter in her thigh. She abrades her eardrum with the aforementioned Q-Tip and goes to the hospital. On the way back, she sees Adam, but he’s out with his new girlfriend. And, really, that’s about it for Hannah this week. She’s out there in her own orbit, living the writer’s life, which can be solitary and miserable and despairing. The show has always depicted writing as this sort of wacky fun thing that Hannah was going to do someday, and even if she was pretty good at it (and John Cameron Mitchell sure seems to think she is), she was mostly just writing about the experiences she was having. Now that she has a hard and fast deadline, she’s falling apart.


This is a totally understandable reaction. For the most part, we’ve seen Hannah write for herself on this show, detailing the stuff that perhaps only she would care about. The one time she got an assignment that we saw was for a website that gave her a very specific idea of what to do, the kind of piece that’s fairly easy for a mostly competent writer to just shit out, even if you don’t have inspiration for it. (Like this review!) But now she’s got this huge assignment, an editor who’s giving her mostly vague and nebulous direction for it, and basically no support network. Her parents are in Michigan. Jessa’s God knows where. She and Adam are through. Her other two friends are having their own problems. If ever there was going to be a time when she’d absolutely fall apart, now would be that time.

Because this is a TV show where people have storylines that run in rough parallel, Marnie, Adam, and Shoshanna are falling apart, too. The “lightest” of these storylines—in that it’s the most like a more traditional cringe comedy—is Marnie’s attempt to congratulate Charlie on his 20,000 “amus” (I’m just going to start pronouncing this like Shoshanna does, because that sounds better) by performing the song she apparently wrote just for the occasion. (It’s a weird parody of Kanye’s “Stronger,” but she means it completely sincerely, performs it over solo piano, and has rewritten the bulk of the lyrics. It’s all very bizarre.) It’s a hilariously bad song. Her voice is nice, but her songwriting needs work, and as the other party attendees turn away in horror, only Ray cheers for her. This leads to Charlie and Marnie hooking up again for the first time since early season one (right?), in a scene that suggests so much about their relationship and how he continues to view her as a weird rescue girl to be “fixed.” Hell, maybe some part of her views herself that way. She’s certainly doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing with her life. On some level, it would seem, Marnie always viewed herself as Charlie’s girlfriend and is trying desperately to get back to that state, because at least she understands who she is in that equation. In this new version of the world, she’s flailing.

This wouldn’t work if Charlie really was coming to her rescue. But he’s not. He’s essentially thinking with his dick, and this sure doesn’t seem like the reignition of a dormant relationship. Remember how unhappy he made her? Remember how unhappy she made him when the whole thing finally fell apart? These are two dumb, clumsy, young people who’ve fallen into an old pattern, because it was a pattern that made them feel good at one time. This is a show that’s always been sold on how it’s about these characters trying to build a better future for themselves, but a lot of season two has been about how the past keeps rising up to strangle them.

Perhaps that’s nowhere more apparent than with Adam—whose alcoholism resurfaces brutally—and Ray—whose past is entirely of being the dismissive guy who doesn’t get too involved. Let’s start with the former, because it’s around him that the darkest, most horrifying parts of the episode are built. He’s having fun with Natalia, sure, but he’s also gotten into something very much like a conventional relationship. There are parts of that he really enjoys. When she tells him exactly what she wants in the bedroom, he views it as a relief after Hannah’s neuroticism in the same sorts of situations. But when he goes to the engagement party with her, it’s clear that he doesn’t quite feel comfortable having to play the usual socialization games. He can’t drink, and he’s not sure what to make of Angie, and when other guys at the party talk about how sad he must be to miss the game, he can only say, “Yeah,” in a tone that’s slightly withering.


He already feels as if he doesn’t fit, when he steps out into the night air and has a chance encounter with the woman who sent him on this spiral, Hannah. She tries to hug him. He shies away. She mentions the Q-Tip. He tells her not to do that and calls her kid. It’s all weirdly heartbreaking, even as I found myself simultaneously rooting for Adam to make this whole thing work out with Natalia and run away to the suburbs. But there’s something dark and unsolvable at the heart of Adam—maybe at the heart of every character on this show (except Ray, who’s very upfront about how he’s unfixable)—and when he heads back into the bar, he orders a drink. He wants to show Nat a good time, and she deserves that. It’s another nadir in an episode filled with them.

It culminates in one of the darkest, nastiest sex scenes in a show filled with lots of awkward, horrifying sex. This is horrifying just because of how far it goes. It starts out… well, I wouldn’t say playful, but it’s well within the vibe one would expect from a preface to rough sex. But the more Natalia crawls along the floor of Adam’s hallway, the more she complains about how dirty and messy it is. She’s already called his workspace disorganized, and if there’s one thing we know about the artist characters on this show, it’s that they view their work—or, in Adam’s case, his living space, which has become an extension of his work—as an extension of themselves. This is typical of young artists, who don’t always know how to differentiate from the pieces they carve out of themselves to share with their whole, true selves. Adam picks her up and tosses her on the bed. And then he has sex with her. I wouldn’t call it rape or even sexual assault—though I’ve seen others calling it both—because Natalia’s disgust becomes more obvious to both of them after the fact. But it’s decidedly emotionally abusive, Adam picking at a scab in his own soul and then thrusting it out on a defenseless woman who doesn’t know any better. It’s such a horrific situation that even Adam knows he’s gone too far and expects to be kicked to the curb. And, honestly, he should be.


Let’s pull back to Ray and Shoshanna, because that’s not exactly “light,” but it’s at least a situation that seems to have some degree of hope to it. One of the things that’s fascinating about the gender politics of Girls is that the men frequently find themselves trying to “save” the women they love, be it from their own flailing or Q-Tips, without realizing just how damaged they, themselves, are. And the women on the show often seem to like this, even if they don’t realize how easily it breeds codependence. This is a show about people trying to fix themselves by fixing other people, and that’s an approach that rarely works too well. The men and women on it are constantly falling into outdated gender roles because they’re in love with fantasy versions of those tropes. But that’s not how real life works. Isn’t it enough for Charlie and Marnie or Adam and Hannah to realize that being in relationships with each other makes all of them better people, then figure themselves out as individuals from there? No. There’s always the sheen of protectiveness, of everybody trying to be a knight in white shining armor, without a single one of them admitting they’re all actually, the men included, the damsels in distress. But, in some ways, that’s being callous and too cool and in your 20s.

Anyway, Ray’s different because he long ago realized that he’s probably just going to be this for the rest of his life. And as much as Shoshanna wanted to turn him into another project—shades of Adam’s messy apartment—she’s starting to realize that the cranky, cantankerous man she loves is always going to be this way. When she tells him that she “held the doorman’s hand,” he forgives her unconditionally—and I have to think Ray would know what she mentions extends beyond that—because he’s just so grateful to have Shoshanna in his life. But she’s the one who’s started to make a turn. She still wants to be with him, but also, some part of her doesn’t, and she’s only just now realizing that. When Shoshanna is capable of taking advantage of somebody, even unintentionally, well, you know you’re in a fairly dark episode of Girls.


What I most love about Girls is that it’s emotionally brutal and uncompromising. It holds its characters to some fairly high standards, and though it obviously loves them and understands why they can’t match up, it also gives them moments when they fail miserably. Particularly when directed by Lena Dunham (as it was tonight), the show is rarely afraid to keep looking, to keep watching, to keep studying. It pins its characters to the wall and forces us to examine their flaws in intricate detail. That’s not for everybody, and sometimes, it’s not even for me. But when the show digs deep and gets as critical as it can be, there are few shows that can match it. This is one of those episodes.

Stray observations:

  • I’ve seen some Twitter chatter about how the shot of Adam’s semen spilling on Natalia’s breasts was “too far” for even HBO. Now, maybe it’s because I watched this episode on HBO Go, which has a lower resolution than my HDTV does, but it just didn’t seem all that graphic to me. Tell me I’m wrong!
  • Tonight in Girls music: That’s “Valentine” from the latest Fiona Apple album playing at the bar, and the song that closes out the episode is a live version of Daniel Johnston’s “Life In Vain.” Some great choices tonight.
  • The show is really sticking with the OCD storyline in a way I feared it might not. (It would have been easy to make the pills an all-purpose corrective and just have Hannah suffer the “really tired” side effects mentioned last week.) And the further it goes into it, the less it feels like a thing that was just tossed into the show to heighten conflict and the more it feels deeply observed and brutally honest.
  • Marnie’s hoping to add a little bassoon into her track. Really pep it up a little.
  • Realization from this weekend: The Hannah/Adam relationship is really similar to a gender-flipped version of Annie Hall. Think about it!
  • I dunno. The thing I find least plausible about this whole Charlie plot is that 20,000 people would really want to download Forbid. Then again, I’ve been married for 75 years. Dating folks: Would you download Forbid?
  • As mentioned, I love Dunham’s direction of this episode. The slow zoom at the end of the episode skirted the line of being too obvious, but worked masterfully, I thought. (The script, by Dunham and Jenni Konner, brought Dunham’s perceptiveness about the characters to Konner’s love of calling them on their shit. It worked well, too!)

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