Let’s cut to the chase: Last night’s episode of Girls is not the kind of thing that lends itself to the kinds of flip, jokey recaps we typically produce. In fact, being the one to discuss the episode at all feels slightly icky, as it focuses specifically on the experiences of young women placed in uncomfortable positions where power dynamics complicate consent. (I re-read that last sentence at least six times, and I’m still not sure it properly says what I want it to.) Still, the episode necessitates conversation, and I hope this post creates space in the comments and social media for others to weigh in with their takes. (Plus my editor shot down my earlier attempts of getting out of this.)
Let’s all try our best, OK?
“American Bitch” places Hannah in the apartment of fictional writer Chuck Palmer (played with both charm and skin-crawling menace by Matthew Rhys from The Americans). He’s called Hannah to his fancy apartment, because she wrote a piece for a “niche feminist website” about his non-consensual dalliances with fans of his work. What follows is a 30-minute tête-à-tête as Hannah tries to explain the dynamics of power and privilege while Palmer laments a lack of privacy and how “so much of your life can be destroyed by something called Tumblr.” As the episode unfolds, Palmer begins to wear Hannah down by praising her work and intellect. He eventually convinces her to lie in bed next to him, just to feel closeness, but once she apologizes for what she wrote, he rolls over and places his exposed penis on her thigh. She’s aghast, she’s confused, she grabs for it for a moment, then leaps up shocked and disgusted. Just when she was coming around to him, Palmer revealed his true self with a sickening grin.
Such a complex story could have easily spiraled out of control, but Girls deftly unpacked the conversation with one of its most successful episodes to date. The show usually soars in its bottle episodes (like season two’s sojourn into Patrick Wilson’s loveshack, “One Man’s Trash,” and last season’s Marnie/Charlie reunion, “The Panic In Central Park”). “American Bitch” is no exception. Written by Lena Dunham, Hannah and Palmer’s verbal sparring was a stand-in for a larger debate (and one that won’t feel unfamiliar to a lot of folks in the NYC stand-up and storytelling community), but the story still felt character-driven without becoming overly generalized or preachy. Part of that is in thanks to Dunham and Rhys’ exceptional work here. This was Hannah at her most confident, but also her most conflicted. She knows what’s right here, but her empathy becomes her undoing when one of her idols transforms into a human and then a predator. Rhys masterfully alternates between man and monster. He’s arrogant enough to arouse suspicion, sensitive enough to earn some trust and, finally, so cocksure and proud of his ability to overcome Hannah’s judgment that it makes you question the intent of every bearded Brooklynite you’ve ever encountered.
The episode is chock full of touches that recall the attention to detail Dunham brought to her feature debut in Tiny Furniture. There were small, literal details — like the portrait of Woody Allen hanging in Palmer’s apartment or the use of Philip Roth’s “When She Was Good” — and larger artistic choices (like Palmer’s daughter playing Rihanna’s “Desperado” on the flute or the swarm of faceless women heading into Palmer’s apartment when Hannah leaves) that made this episodes one of the series’ most powerful and purposeful.
For all of our collective complaining about Lena Dunham, moments like this remind us why she’s such a vital voice.
What did you think of the episode?
Bobby Hankinson is a writer and comedian living in Brooklyn. He will always choose to believe women, and you should, too.
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