I like TV best when it takes me into a world I’m not already familiar with, then shows me how much the people in that world bear similarities to me. For that reason, “Vagina Panic” is my favorite of the three episodes of Girls HBO sent out to critics, and also one of my four or five favorite episodes of TV this season, up there with things like Louie’s “Duckling” and Homeland’s “The Weekend” and Enlightened’s “Consider Helen.” (When I was just doing this thought exercise—and that’s all it is right now—the only network episode I considered for even a moment was Community’s “Remedial Chaos Theory.” Get it together, broadcast networks!) “Vagina Panic” is so great because it’s so simple: Jessa is going to get an abortion. Her friends are all supportive, but somehow make the whole thing about themselves nonetheless. There are incredibly funny scenes here—like the opening one or the scene where Marnie tries to get Charlie to be more of a man or that hilariously cringe-worthy job interview scene—but the real focus is on what the doctor says in the final scene: “You couldn’t pay me enough to be 24 again.”
That’s the point-of-view of this show, I think, and that’s something the series struggled a bit to establish in its pilot but finds with laser-sharp focus in “Vagina Panic.” Lena Dunham, of course, isn’t that far removed from 24, but just given the success she’s had, it would be hard to argue she’s all that much like the listless Hannah Horvath. (Like many writers, Dunham is probably exacerbating her own worst tendencies for comic effect with Hannah.) I’m less than a decade removed from that age, but I still don’t think I’d go back. I was a venal, self-obsessed idiot who didn’t look outside of my own bubble nearly enough. And while that’s probably terrible material if you’re trying to make a tear-jerking story where the audience has to identify with the main character, it’s a superb area to set a comedy or dramedy in. Girls’ best scenes are often the scenes where Hannah starts off as the likable, supportive best friend, then branches off into her own weirdness.
Take, for instance, that job interview scene. In the early going, you can easily see where Hannah can be personable and charming, exactly the sort of person you might hire for an entry-level office position. I think the intelligence of the scene arises from the fact that Dunham makes the shift in the relationship occur because of one moment and doesn’t make it a steady escalation. Hannah’s already intruded on perhaps too uncomfortable material for a job interview—particularly when she’s talking with the guy (who’s played by Mike Birbiglia!) about what bars he likes to go to—but she always brings everything back to an acceptable place for a job interview. Still, we in the audience, who know Hannah, are wondering just when she’s going to blow this by going too far. And then she makes the joke about incidences of date rape going down at Syracuse once he graduated, and the whole thing goes off the rails (hilariously). Maybe that’s a joke you tell your friend at the bar, but it’s not one for work, as she’s reminded.
If there’s a theme to Girls other than “growing up is the hardest work you’ll ever do,” then it’s probably “drawing boundaries is not something that comes easily to young people.” Hannah and her friends are so wrapped up in every element of each other’s lives that they rather expect the rest of the world to be as into them and their drama, jokes, and situations as they are. The sad truth, however, is that the world just doesn’t care. When Marnie lightly admonishes Hannah for her fears—possibly secret desires—of contracting AIDS (not AIDS, but HIV that turns into AIDS, Hannah haughtily corrects), the doctor puts it into perspective when Hannah is blithely talking about the positive sides of contracting the disease. Millions of women die from this disease every day, most of them in poverty-stricken, hopelessly unfortunate circumstances. And Hannah wants to get it to teach her boyfriend a lesson? How full of herself is she?
Girls dares us to both like and hate all of its characters. For a series with its title, it’s interesting that Charlie may be the most purely sympathetic person here. He’s doing everything right, in regards to getting an education and a job and a good girlfriend, yet he’s still spectacularly fucking everything up, because he can’t understand that Marnie just wants something different after four years of being with him. Break these two kids up for a year and let them get some strange on the side, and they’ll both probably seem like a much better option to each other once it’s all over with. But Charlie’s incapable of seeing that, because he’s working so hard at being the modern, sensitive man that he can’t understand why that wouldn’t appeal to someone. (In the world of Girls, men are still problem-solvers; they just approach problems with entirely different skillsets than the typical sitcom males.) Charlie’s almost certainly got a few hard lessons coming his way, and I like that the series doesn’t make him an asshole, just a guy who thinks he knows what he’s doing but is hopelessly in over his head.
But when I talk about this episode opening me up to a world I’m not horribly aware of, I’m talking about the scenes surrounding Jessa’s abortion. I’ve never been to an abortion clinic, nor have I been a woman contemplating having one, but the episode does a great job of establishing the amount of weight such a decision holds for these young women. Jessa’s malaise as the appointment approaches—she takes off and hangs out in a bar for much of the day—feels well-earned, and I liked both her and Marnie’s freakouts about whether they’ll ever get pregnant again. If you’re a woman who wants to have children someday—just not right now—an abortion is obviously something that carries with it a lot of frightening weight. What if you can’t ever get pregnant again? What if the man you choose to have children with is unable to help you conceive? How do you sort through all of this?
If I have a complaint here, it’s that Jessa apparently gets her period when she’s locked in the room with the guy from the bar. (He’s with someone named Morgan, and I like that the episode makes both of them complicit in a horrible act but doesn’t pass judgment on it, leaving us to do the math.) It feels ever so slightly like a TV copout. I get that Jessa’s flighty, but you’d think she would have used a home pregnancy test or something that would have let her know her period was just a little late. (I suppose it is possible she is having an early miscarriage, but she seems awfully happy for that. Maybe just to have the decision off her plate?) Yet at the same time, I didn’t mind, because the series connected these women to the person I was at 24: a scared, cocksure kid who didn’t know what the future held but was secretly starting to suspect it wasn’t all good things, as he’d been promised at one time. It doesn’t matter how “likable” a character is, if they open themselves up for empathy, and the characters of Girls do so in spades.
- The opening scene of the episode is also hysterical, and I love Adam’s character development. He’s so unconcerned with literally anything Hannah does, and the moment when he questions whether they always use condoms is spot-on. I also liked Hannah describing her encounter with him to Marnie as a “platter of stuff,” ranging from hooker stuff to daddy stuff. (The look of slowly dawning horror, followed by disappointment, in her eyes during the sex scene was great, too.)
- I find it appropriate that both Shoshanna and Hannah have read Listen Ladies, though Hannah claims to have only “hate-read” it in the Detroit airport.
- I was going to do a whole thing about the backlash to the show, but Film Critic Hulk wrote a great, great piece about it here, and I think this episode more than speaks for itself. It much more exemplifies what the show will be going forward than the pilot did (though, admittedly, I’ve only seen one more episode, so maybe every episode after that is just rich people throwing money in the air and firing at it with shotguns).