To me, the biggest flaw in Girls is that it remains resolutely Hannah’s show in ways that hurt it when it tries to tell stories about the other characters. Now, this has gotten much better as the show has gone along. In the early going, it sometimes didn’t always make sense why certain characters behaved as they did, but the motivations for everybody, at least, are fairly clear at this point in the show’s run. The assorted other characters aren’t as well-developed as Hannah is, but they also don’t seem like simple foils for her actions. They have drives and goals, too, and the show has gotten better at articulating them. And, honestly, the show doesn’t need to be about these other characters. It’s decidedly Hannah’s story, and so long as everybody else more or less makes sense as a fictional human being, I’m okay with that.
Where the show struggles is when it tries to turn the story over to those characters. It’s commendable that it’s spent so much of this season doing just that, but it’s also resulted in some storylines of wildly variable quality, storylines that didn’t really snap into place until Hannah was somehow made a part of them. (This has particularly been the case with Marnie.) This makes “Video Games” an excellent test case. It takes Jessa—perhaps the least-developed of the four central characters—and deposits her in upstate New York to visit her father and his girlfriend, Petula. However, it also sends Hannah along for the ride, and the story becomes as much about Hannah having a breakthrough as it does anything else. “Video Games” is, thus, a good episode, but not one that necessarily lives up to its full potential. Maybe it’s silly to hold against this episode that it’s as much of a Hannah story as a Jessa story—Hannah is the lead, after all—but I found myself wanting more time between Jessa and her father, and less time of Hannah being awkward.
There’s plenty of good to be celebrated here. Girls shines when it steps away from Brooklyn and depicts a world outside of its characters immediate frame of reference, and there are the same knowing details about, say, going out into the upstate wilds to ride around in a car with idle and bored high schoolers that have driven previous episodes of this ilk. Directed by Richard Shepard and written by Bruce Eric Kaplan, “Video Games” absolutely nails the Hannah side of the equation, deftly capturing in just a few touches what happens when you go home with a friend to visit their hometown, their family, and their old friends. It’s like the lack of center that drove “The Return” has multiplied itself, but since Hannah’s also a stranger in a strange land, she’s able to break free, to some degree, and just have a good time, even if she’s sleeping with a 19 year old who orgasms into her thigh crease in about eight seconds.
The actors cast as Jessa’s dad and Petula are also pitch perfect. As Jessa’s father, the Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn wonderfully captures the kind of guy you could easily imagine being an infrequent presence in Jessa’s life, thus driving her into the faux-Bohemian life she so celebrates now. As Petula, Rosanna Arquette is the more traditionally “funny” of the two (I particularly like when she’s rambling on about how life might be a video game and responds to Hannah’s request for scientific proof with the statement that scientists are liars), but she anchors her performance in a kind of malaise that seems at once cold and very practiced. She’s good at seeming involved in the lives of her boyfriend or his daughter or her own son, but she’s also terribly self-involved. In some ways, right down to how similar Arquette and Jemima Kirke look, she seems like a sort of cautionary tale for Jessa, a path that it would be all too easy for this young woman (or, honestly, Hannah) to find herself trapped on, should things go a certain way.
There are also some wonderful sequences in the episode, but, then, there always are on Girls. In particular, just about everything in the first day Jessa and Hannah are at Jessa’s dad’s house has the right, lazy feel, from Jessa smirking as Hannah pees right in front of two older people to Hannah realizing that she’s eating the family’s “pet rabbit.” (“A rabbit a day keeps the doctor away,” says Petula.) There’s also some great, guarded stuff between Jessa and her dad, as the two circle each other carefully, trying to figure out what their relationship status is after several years apart. (Jessa has barely had contact with her father for three years, but the intervening years haven’t made him the most punctual father; then again, she gave him very little notice about her arrival.) And even if it’s more of a moment for Hannah, as mentioned, the conclusion of the episode is pretty great, in particular when Hannah finds the note Jessa left her, saying that Jessa won’t be returning to New York. Presumably, this storyline was cooked up to accommodate Kirke’s real-life pregnancy (which is very obvious in this episode), but it’s still a great gut-punch and perfectly in keeping with Jessa’s character.
And, hey, if we have to make this journey to upstate New York all about what Hannah learns from the experience, there are worse things to do than have her make a phone call to her parents—the welcome Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker—and tell them some things she’s probably needed to say for a while. Hannah has breakthroughs so rarely that it’s always nice to see her become just a little more adult, and the moment when she thanks her parents for providing her with a hammock of support is a very nice one for the character, and it’s the perfect summation of what her journey through the episode has been. That it comes while she’s wincing in pain while trying to pee (she has a urinary tract infection, see) makes it all the better. (I quite liked how this confluence of events led Hannah’s mom to become convinced that her daughter was playing some sort of long con on her.)
My issues here stem almost entirely from the final scene between Jessa and her father, the one where the two talk on a swingset and she begs him to have been a better father—to maybe start being a better father right now. I don’t know if the actors aren’t up to the task—I suspect not—or if the script just doesn’t quite have the right oomph to make the moment land. To boil all of what makes Jessa Jessa down to parental issues—both problems she had with her mother and her father’s absence—feels a little easy. Now, granted, much of being in your 20s is figuring out various ways that your parents let you down, but it’s also about taking responsibility for the things you can. Maybe Jessa’s journey is just beginning here. Maybe we’ll see her in future seasons and realize that this was the point where she started to figure out what she wanted to do with her life, or where she finally took control of her considerable talents, or where she made peace with all of the things Thomas John accused her of being and learned to live with them. But it doesn’t feel that way in the moment—or when Jessa’s dad abandons her and Hannah at the grocery store later. It feels like we’re supposed to be putting together the puzzle of why Jessa is who she is.
The answer, I suspect, lies in the episode’s title. The “Video Games” there aren’t literal electronic games. They’re, instead, Petula’s method for dealing with life, the idea that everything is just another level you’ve got to get through until you can slay the boss and move on to the next thing. Granted, it’s heavily implied that Petula at least somewhat believes this to be literally true. But it’s also a great way to look at Jessa’s central conflict for this episode: She needs to move past the ultimate boss fight in her life, the one with one of her two parents. She needs to move past that to actualize herself as a human being separate from being the child of her parents. And when the chips are down, she just can’t. She disappears and bails off to who knows where.
To grow up is to realize that you can’t control everything, but also to realize that the people who raised you were in the same boat. In her own way, Hannah figures out her way to the end of this level, proceeding along to the next one that will define whatever she becomes. Jessa, however, is frozen, stuck in this position like she’s in the Ice World of Super Mario Bros. 3. There are other worlds and levels past this one, but just when she should be doubling down and pushing harder, she bails. It’s not that these ideas are inherently flawed, or that they don’t work for the show or the character, but it does seem like we’re dropped right into the middle of a conflict we know nothing about, then forced to watch as Jessa shares that with Hannah (that the main character may have her epiphany by the end). There are several very good episodes within “Video Games,” and they make the episode ultimately a worthwhile one in the midst of a season that’s shaping up to be a weird, messy improvement on the first season. But they don’t mesh together as well as they might.
- If you haven’t already checked it out, this piece by Film Crit Hulk on why Girls is remarkable is a must-read. The comparison of this show to The Sopranos is particularly inspired, I think, and helped clarify for me a big part of why I responded to both programs so instantly.
- The conversation between Jessa and Hannah about whether they were splitting apart to have sex with their respective “dates” was pretty funny.
- The construction of this episode is so short-story-esque that I’m all but certain Hannah’s infection is meant to symbolize something, but I can’t decide what. It’s probably just something I’m trying to make mean something when it’s really just a urinary tract infection.
- Some nice music selections in this episode. It’s always nice to hear Rilo Kiley’s “Silver Lining,” and the Aimee Mann song that drives much of the story’s climax is also good.
- I assume this episode was shot mostly on location. Even if it wasn’t, then I commend whoever found that cemetery, which was a perfect setting for Hannah’s brief tryst with Frank.
- Jemima Kirke’s pregnancy has finally reached the “carrying grocery bags” stage all hidden TV pregnancies must go through.
- It was a little thing, but I liked that Jessa's father seemed genuinely kind of bummed about the end of Jessa's marriage.