From the moment Hannah walks into the well-appointed apartment of Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys), the fix is in. He’s one of her favorite writers, after all, the author of such acclaimed novels as Torwater Falls, Test Monkey, and Until Josiah. He lives in a huge, immaculate space, probably on a Manhattan street numbered somewhere in the high double digits or low triple digits. If Hannah took the train, the ride would have taken long enough for her to revisit some of her favorite passages from Shannon’s Rock.
But even beyond the baked-in power imbalance, Chuck goes out of his way to flex. He’s persnickety about the way Hannah stores her shoes, and he takes a long and awkwardly personal phone call in front of her. While he hammers out details of his shared custody arrangement, Hannah sneaks off to the bathroom for a dry birdbath. It’s the second opportunity Hannah has taken in a short period of time to freshen or gussy herself up. She hasn’t been this self-conscious, anxious, or fidgety in years, as if being in Chuck’s space is enough to trigger all of her mood disorders at once.
This is all by Chuck’s design, and on some level, Hannah knows it. She’s suspicious of the fact that, of all the internet screeds written about the accusations of sexual impropriety surrounding him, Chuck has zeroed in on her piece published on an obscure feminist website. She’s also cautious of his praise, though compliments from her favorite writer sail right over the intellect and right into the limbic system. But ultimately, there’s no such thing as a successful defense Hannah can build as Chuck launches into his anti-charm offensive. Chuck has the equivalent of home field advantage in an interplanetary baseball game between two species who have fundamentally different relationships with physics.
Of the many fascinating questions posed by “American Bitch,” the most basic is that of why Hannah agreed to this sitdown in the first place. Not just a sitdown, this sitdown, where he chooses the venue and leads the conversation. Hannah has many reasons for letting Chuck summon her to his place, and a lot of conflicting instincts between her inner-fangirl, her feminist warrior, and her experiential journalist. She’s fully aware of the irony of meeting privately with an author she greatly admires to talk to him about…the way he behaves while meeting privately with women who greatly admire him. It’s an interesting way to spend an afternoon, an intellectual exercise, and a show of solidarity with the young women like Denise, who wrote about her encounter with Chuck on her Tumblr in damning terms. Hannah has basically been turned into an Evil Kermit meme.
Ultimately, Hannah is drawn into Palmer’s Algonquin honeytrap because after years of convincing herself that life wouldn’t screech to a halt if she didn’t become a writer, she’s now certain that writing is her passion. Hannah thinks of herself as a real-life writer now, rather than someone dreaming of becoming one. She and Chuck aren’t equals, and Hannah knows that, but she’s confident enough in her concept of what writers do and how they interact with the world that she can hold her own with him. And to Hannah’s credit, she does keep up with Chuck and occasionally outfoxes him as he tries to portray himself a man cursed with fame, wealth, rakish good looks, and all the power those qualities impart.
Lena Dunham’s script is mostly sharp, and allows both Hannah and Chuck to level valid points. Their conversation careens in many directions, evoking a spate of recent stories about powerful men using their positions to take advantage of women sexually, from Dov Charney to Bill Cosby to Casey Affleck to Dr. Luke. Like Chuck, each one of those men has his own version of the story, one in which they’re only guilty of modesty, of underestimating the power they wield. Hannah thinks Chuck is being willfully obtuse, and she has a good point. It’s hard to believe someone like Chuck, who has built a life and career around getting to the core of who people are, wouldn’t realize that the concept of consent gets muddy when you’re a famous author and she’s a moon-eyed ingenue at your book reading. He wants to treat women who he knows will be deferent to him in any manner he chooses, but still lean on the concept of affirmative consent when he gets called out on it.
I’d have liked to hear more about Chuck’s rationale for why he does what he does. I realize that sounds weird since that’s the entire episode, but a lot of the dialogue from Chuck is smart and interesting, but doesn’t feel totally lived in. The premise is Hannah—a woman much like Dunham—confronting a type of person whose perspective is naturally limited to her. I generally think Dunham excels at creating voices for a wide range of characters, but often the verbal ping-pong between Hannah and Chuck feels too much like exactly what it is—Dunham shadowboxing with a composite douchebag. Credit is due to Rhys for his subtle character work, because without all of his microexpressions and charm, their dialogue would have felt more like computer chess than two people talking.
Of course, Chuck’s goal isn’t to “win” the conversation, it’s to convince Hannah that there’s a genuine person behind the name. Yes, he’s the same guy who wrote some of her favorite books. He’s also the same guy who accepted a quasi-consensual blowjob from Denise and who knows how many other women like her. People are complicated, and there are often mitigating factors even when the consensus opinion is rock solid. It’s possible to maintain conflicting emotions about the same person, and just like it’s possible for Hannah to be really into Philip Roth’s writing despite acknowledging his misogyny, she could also conclude Chuck Palmer is a gross person who writes beautiful sentences.
But rather than leave some ambiguity to their interaction, which would have been welcome, “American Bitch” takes the incident several insane steps further. Chuck asks Hannah to lie down with him, and by this point, he has successfully defanged himself. He has more or less acknowledged the truth of the accusations against him, but also revealed himself to be a likable and self-aware dude. While Hannah’s initial hesitation is warranted, so is her ultimate decision to join him on the futon, all the while clutching the signed copy of her favorite Roth book. Everything happens so fast, it takes a second for Hannah to realize that Chuck’s dick is out of his pants, then lolling on her thigh, then in her hand.
Horrified, Hannah pops off the futon and chastises him, though she can’t get too far into what would have been a lengthy monologue. Chuck’s daughter arrives home ready to show off the progress she’s made on the flute, and Hannah is held hostage for a few more awkward moments. He’s gotten the best of Hannah, but he’s so enjoying himself, he can’t even do Hannah the courtesy of letting her dodge the impromptu flute recital. By this point, Chuck has revealed with a smug grin that he’s been manipulating Hannah all along. He lured her to his apartment to prove to her that despite all of her high-minded hand wringing, she was just like Denise, another girl willing to swap one kind of attention for another kind.
That’s the perfect Girls ending, one with a horrifying sexual sight gag that represents the height of cringe comedy. And turning Chuck into a pure villain is a more interesting idea strictly from a plot perspective. Another part of me, though, really wants to know what that conversation would have sounded like had the whole thing not been a narcissist’s weird practical joke. Still, ”American Bitch” is another episode of Girls that makes me hate that the show has to end. It’s beautiful, thoughtful, and considerate with a labor of love in every scene and turn of phrase.
- Excellent choice to name the character “Chuck,” the perfect name for a really smart, really weird guy who wants to be seen as jes’ folks.
- The Rihanna song in the credits works well.
- As does that final shot of the faceless women being sucked into Chuck’s building. Director Richard Shepard killed it.