It’s Donna’s 30th birthday, and you know what that means: utter despair. The fourth episode of Pulling opens with a neat parallel to the way the series began. The camera scans over Donna’s dresser, where several half-empty glasses of wine stand amongst a litter of Donna’s pictures, her in happier and less uncertain times. And then we catch a glimpse in the mirror of Donna, asleep in the arms of a stranger. In the first 45 seconds of being awake, her face goes from wincing to suspicion to dread to self-berating. After ushering the unfamiliar dudes outside—his name is Gary, he’s apparently the bartender from last night, and Donna made the fatal mistake of licking his hearing aid—they go through a painful conversation about who should call who, Donna at first trying to rebuff him and then wondering why he’d be too busy to call her that day, anyway. “It’s me that doesn’t want you, OK?” she shouts at him as he leaves.
When she left Karl, Donna had the advantage of agency. She was moving on to better pastures; it was him that she was leaving behind. But after Karl’s suicide attempt, that feeling—the one where she’s in control of the situation, and moving to better things—has slowly deteriorated. Everything Donna attempts to do to improve her life so far has ended up thwarting her, sending her further into a spin of self-doubt. Her birthday comes with greetings from the Village Cab Company, and the electricity getting shut off. So she does that thing that every first grade teacher says you shouldn’t: She tries to find someone whose life in more shambles than her own, to reassure herself. Who better than Karl?
It’s a classic mistake, the ex-girlfriend power play. You know you should leave that person alone, go on your separate healing path, but there’s always that nagging impulse to make sure that they aren’t doing better than you at the whole moving on thing. “I want him to be happy, just not so happy at being happy,” Donna complains to Karen. As Karen tells her, “You’re like a two-year-old playing with your own feces. Just because it tastes good doesn’t mean it’s right.” Faced with a cheery, dorky new answering machine presence (“Leave a massage. And a message!”) Donna heads over to Karl’s house, only to be faced with his mother, who would rather eat dog food than see her former daughter-in-law-to-be. Karl is out playing squash at the gym, and, according to Margaret, “He found someone who loves him for who he is.” Donna looks confused. “Is it a woman?” she asks.
The scene between Donna and Karl at the gym is devastating, as so many interactions between them are. Horgan captures that franticness of seeing someone move past you so expertly, and so wrenchingly. “Are you going to kill yourself again Karl?” Donna asks, a little too hopefully, as a newly fitter Karl drinks a juice. He keeps trying to assert himself, and Donna attempts to bring him back down. Karl, finally, says that he’s not sure it makes sense to see each other anymore, and Donna whips out a fictional trump card. “I’m getting married!” Karl’s face falls.
It’s emotionally manipulative and despicable, but the thing about Pulling is that you identify—at least a little—with at least wanting to pull that same trick. Donna’s a mess, self-absorbed and floundering, but she’s not divorced from reality. That’s the trick of a great television show that Pulling pulls of beautifully. It makes you feel like it’s about you even when the situation is upon further examination, nothing like your life at all.
Nor is Donna’s behavior the most reprehensible of this episode, not by a long shot. For that, of course, we have Karen to thank. As Donna’s waking up to her unwelcome visitor, Karen’s brushing her teeth in the mirror, rinsing with Heineken, and spitting into a potted plant. She then complains to Louise about her hapless date, who was so poorly endowed that he got a lecture from Karen. “I said ‘That is tiny. That is insulting. That is pointless, meatless, and quite frankly, it’s making me feel queasy.’” The punch line, of course, is that the guy is standing there, shirtless, munching a bowl of cereal.
But she’s just warming up. Mark, that over-enthusiastic lover that Karen reluctantly takes back, had a heart attack right before he was supposed to pay Karen for a computer she stole from her school. Her visit to his wake rivals the It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia intervention episode and Kenny Powers’ “Candlebox” stunt on Eastbound & Down in terms of sheer, awful, hilarious inappropriateness. Karen is the absurdist comic release of the show; the person who relieves you when identifying with someone gets too painful. She arrives at the wake, takes a slug of beer, pours vodka in it, and then proceeds to terrify mark’s children and trash talk his Mom. Then she frisks Mark’s corpse for money, straddling the casket as she lifts up his body when the family comes in. “He’s alive!” she shouts, grabs Mark’s oldest son who she’d been forcing alcohol on, and flees.
Louise had less to do this week, except for discovering the wild world of internet porn. “What’s bukkake?” she asks, traipsing into the café where she works. She ends up in a parking lot with an internet creeping wanking beside her, and another one in front of the car. It’s funny, but I’m not sure I believe that Louise is quite that naïve. My favorite scene of her this week was when Karen’s shirtless dude looks at her, she smiles hopefully, and then, thinking about it, scowls.
The installment ends in the worst birthday party in the world. Donna sits in a booth, Karen and her young and drunk conquest across from her, and Gary waving awkwardly at the bar. Karl arrives after all, a present in hand, at which point Donna pours out her heart. “I can’t do all this,” she says in desperation. “I just feel lonely without you.” She puts her arms around him.
Cut to the next morning, when Donna again wakes up with Gary in her bed. His hearing aid emits a piercing squeal. “Still fucked!” he shouts.
- The series of failed pick-ups that Donna, Karen, and Louise executed in a row were perfect in their awfulness. But nothing quite beats Karen’s conversation with her student’s son, who she mistakenly thinks is a dude she gave a handjob to in a taxi. “Oh, god, there’s a sale on avocados. Two for one,” she flounders. “Cheap,” the man says, loathingly.
- “That’s how you turn a toilet into a tiara.” Thanks, Karen.
- Karen, again, advising Donna on men: “They’re only off-limits if they’re family or under 14…It’s not pedophilia if you’re a woman.”
- What percentage would you say of Karen’s groceries are alcohol? Above or under 80?