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Girls: “Role-Play”

Illustration for article titled iGirls/i: “Role-Play”
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One of the complaints those who complain about Girls have often leveled against the show is that it’s not very good at telling long-term stories. It will introduce a dramatic situation, then largely drop it in the next week’s episode, and the few times it has tried to tell a larger, overarching story, like with last season’s OCD stuff, it’s been handled fairly poorly. I’ve always countered that this is true, more or less, but also not the point of what the show is trying to do. Girls, as I suggested last week, has always struck me as stories that will make up the collection Hannah eventually writes in the series’ final season or so, and as such, it’s less about telling a novelistic story than one that apes a bunch of short stories or essays. It doesn’t matter if all of the pieces add up, so long as the events fit together in each episode. The world and characters of Girls remain consistent, and that’s enough for me.

“Role-Play” is an episode I’m of two minds about. On the one hand, I was really into the A-story, and I thought the episode ended in one of the series’ most devastating scenes. (The B-story… well, we’ll get to that.) On the other hand, it definitely points to one of the shortcomings of this more short story-centric approach. Adam moving out to go be with Ray is something that has seemed inevitable for a few episodes, but it’s also something that feels oddly rushed. Just a couple of episodes ago, Adam and Hannah were reassuring themselves that they were going to be okay, and while that’s often the sort of move those in troubled relationships undertake right before their relationships fall apart, it was still jarring to open this episode by establishing that things have taken a turn for the staid in the Horvath-Sackler coupling. It felt like we had skipped an episode (and maybe several), no matter how many warnings we got from Patti LuPone and Hannah’s mom.


And yet the story of Hannah’s ill-fated attempt to get her boyfriend to notice her while he’s in the middle of one of the biggest periods of his professional life was so well-handled that I have trouble faulting the show too much for its haphazard methods of large-scale story construction. For one thing, relationships in your 20s often are just abruptly superseded by something else, because trying to build an adult life is tough stuff, and you can’t always place the professional and private at the same level. For another, Lena Dunham is really a terrific actress at this point of the show’s run. I know that people weren’t always certain if what she was doing was just some variation on herself early in the show’s run, but I think she’s showed enough sides of Hannah that it’s obvious how much she brings to the character at this point. Her attempted seduction of Adam by putting on a blonde wig, going to a bar, and pretending to be the wife of a hedge fund manager who’s out of town was perhaps the funniest stuff she’s ever gotten to play on the show, and it took Hannah out of the realm of verbal retorts and into the world of purely awkward hilarity.

That’s not to downplay what Adam Driver adds to the scene, of course! He’s like a tightly coiled spring throughout the episode, just waiting to explode, and by the time he’s finally telling Hannah that he needs a little space to get himself together for the play, Driver makes it feel like something Adam’s been thinking about for quite a while and not just this episode. He doesn’t make it feel malicious, but he does understand how heartbreaking it would be for Hannah to realize she’s no longer the number-one thing in Adam’s life. The two actors play the different sides of this discussion so beautifully. For Adam, it’s just a pause between other things—for now, at least. For Hannah, it’s a dissolution, and it’s also a push back against her identity as a writer. (When he says that his play is not the same thing as her job, it’s perhaps the cruelest thing he’s said to anyone on the show, and everybody on this show can be so cruel.) There’s no middle ground between those two views of the situation, so maybe it’s best to just take a break. Dunham and Judd Apatow, who co-wrote the episode, are both so good at taking a funny situation and turning it in an instant into a tragic one, and this is a great example of that. Hannah pushes too far. It’s all she knows how to do.


Yet for as wonderfully as the actors handle that scene and for as beautifully as it’s written, I can’t shake the feeling that Hannah and Adam had this fight because this was the episode they had to have the fight in. (You also know that, inevitably, the two of them will interpret this fight very differently, with Hannah treating it as a breakup and Adam just seeing it as a pause while he took care of his professional life.) I sometimes feel about plot development on Girls like Dunham and her writing staff put up a certain number of index cards on a bulletin board pertaining to the episode order for the season. Then, it sometimes feels like they write major season events on some of the cards and figure that’s good enough for plot development for the year. By the time those moments arrive, they’re always crystalline and beautifully handled, but the bridging material between them often feels like it’s not building to anything in particular.

This isn’t always such a big deal. Again, Girls is a short-story show, and when it wants to not show us Grandma Flo’s funeral, for instance, I don’t really care, because that’s not the point of what’s going on. But the whole center of this season has been the relationship between Adam and Hannah and how it gave the both of them a strong base from which to pursue their individual dreams. If the show is going to plant cracks in that foundation, they need to be a little more subtly handled than it has to this point, and if it’s going to do something as dramatic as place a road bump this big in the way of that relationship, it either needs to come completely out of nowhere or have better-handled foreshadowing. The middle ground the show has tried to walk hasn’t worked as well as it might. And yet the last scene is so good that I can feel my arguments against all of this fading away already. That’s the power of good material, I guess.


It’s the B-story that really holds “Role-Play” back. For as much as I like Felicity Jones, the scenes where she played Jasper’s daughter didn’t really work, outside of Shoshanna’s facial expressions (which were great). I get on a macro level what the show is going for here—another father figure has left Jessa behind!—but the show’s handling of the Jessa and Shoshanna plots has felt so aimless this season that it almost feels like this will be the last we see of them until season four, even as I know we’re headed toward some sort of reckoning for Jessa, at the very least. The character was actually kind of fun and funny when she was in rehab, and then the show seemed to forget what to do with her entirely once she was out. Meanwhile, Shoshanna has been handed basically nothing to do all season. Maybe it’s part of some long-term plan, but if it is, there are only two weeks left to have it snap into place.

Stray observations:

  • The handling of the supporting characters has always been another thing people who don’t like Girls point to as a problem with the show. And I’d certainly agree with them on Shoshanna and Jessa this season. What makes this even weirder is that Marnie has been getting a pretty interesting little arc. I don’t know what it’s adding up to yet, but I think it’s mostly been well-handled, and I like the ambiguity of whether Desi genuinely likes what Marnie does or if he’s just trying to get her into bed while saying he’s hopelessly devoted to his girlfriend Clementine. (It’s almost certainly the latter.) Marnie’s story is aimless, sure, but that’s where her character is at, too.
  • I mean, yeah, Adam, it’ll make you look bad, but you did invite Hannah to rehearsal. You could at least take the blame. I get why you don’t want to, but make the situation less awkward for all involved! I beg of you!
  • I feel like Zosia Mamet’s performance this season has been guided by which facial expressions will make for the best .GIFs.
  • I’m intrigued by the way that Hannah’s life at GQ has slowly become an integral part of the show. I would not be opposed to more time spent there, or to that becoming a major focus of the next season. Also: She’s clearly going to have sex with Joe at some point in these next two episodes, right?
  • Not everything about the “Adam’s in the play and it’s all he can think about” storyline worked, but I really liked the way that the show used the coat he constantly wore as a way to keep it in the back of viewers’ minds.
  • Among Adam’s sexual fantasies, apparently: a woman with the body of a baby. Not among his sexual fantasies, apparently: being the school weirdo who gets to fuck the cheerleader.
  • He had sex with girls to keep from drinking, and it was just whatever he could do to get off, but now he’s in love, see? I don’t know how, but the show juxtaposing this straightforwardly romantic material with Driver’s performance almost always works. It shouldn’t work, but it almost always does.

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