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‘Girls’ Talk: “The Return”

Girls
HBO

Welcome to our weekly edition of ‘Girls’ Talk! We’re joined by two critics to discuss this week’s episode of the hit HBO show ‘Girls,’ created by and starring Lena Dunham.

ScreenCrush.com editor Britt Hayes is joined by Kate Erbland and David Ehrlich to discuss this week’s episode, titled “The Return.” Kate is the Associate Editor at Film School Rejects and a contributing writer for MSN Movies and Box Office Magazine. You can tweet her @katerbland. David is a contributing writer for Movies.com, Box Office Magazine, and a host of Criterion Corner. You can tweet him @davidehrlich.

Britt: In this week’s ‘Girls,’ Hannah returns to her home of East Lansing, Michigan. It’s a completely Hannah-centric episode, and aside from a brief appearance from Marnie at the beginning, the entire episode takes place in Michigan with Hannah and her parents. “The Return” is a beautiful episode about the comforts of home and the push-pull of living your dream vs. the temptation to resign yourself to sensibility. Hannah could move back in with her parents and they would be more inclined to help her as she tried to get a job and a life in Michigan, but that’s just not who she is. How did you guys feel about Hannah’s return home? Was it an accurate portrayal of homecoming?

Kate: There’s no question that Hannah has some serious growing and maturing to do, but few episodes have so illuminated that fact than “The Return.” Hannah’s snotty attitude towards her parents, her desire to shun them in favor of hanging out with a new love interest, that trash bag full of laundry — while all those details ring (frighteningly) true about coming back to the nest after time away, they’re stunted responses, the sort of thing that a frat boy coming home for his first college break would do. Not Hannah. Hannah is a college graduate who lives on her own (kinda) in big, bad NYC. She’s not a bratty eighteen year old, but that’s exactly how she acts in the first part of “The Return.”

But as the episode progresses, Hannah actually shows moments of self-awareness that have been few and far between in the series as of now. She can picture her life if she came home to stay, and while it’s something she would like, it’s not something she wants. Hannah needs to figure out what she really wants, and if that means figuring out what she doesn’t want first, well, at least that’s some kind of progression.

David: I found Hannah’s return home to be both fascinating and problematic in equal measure, a backhanded compliment for a show that has spent the previous two episodes nosediving into gross sitcom territory. I guess I was initially surprised that Dunham would jettison the majority of her characters for a stand-alone episode like this so early in the show’s first season, but it all made sense by the time she was getting thumb-sucked by a believably small-town Lou Taylor Pucci. I think, in broad strokes, the episode made for a fairly accurate portrayal of homecoming for folks like Hannah and her ilk.

It’s the little things that the show does so well, but doesn’t seem to know it (or trust it). Because for every moment of shrewd observation — moments that are “teehee” funny and not “haha!” funny — it’s as if ‘Girls’ needs to batter it in two moments of broad comedy that come at the expense of truth. Hannah is supposed to be a girl who’s in the long process of figuring things out, but the whole conceit of the character (and the show) falls apart if she becomes an idiot or a crazy person.

In this week’s episode, her bedside manner with the doe-eyed boy from home (read: she essentially acts like Adam, because I guess she presumes that’s what guys like and/or wants to assert her big city cred) is psychotic and hopeless. She’s been so informed by her brief NYC experience — she exhibits no capacity for reason or plasticity, and the episode is gutted out of its drama because no one so senseless is ever going to be even momentarily tantalized by the prospect of moving home and leading a more manageable life. The episode eventually seems to get there on its own, as she calls Adam and forces him into his first genuinely human moment (tellingly moving from her room to the outside of her house). But as the protagonist of a show boosted by fans who conflate relatability with quality, she just can’t afford to become more of a caricature, ‘cause her humanity and her bank account are the only things keeping this show from becoming ‘Sex and the City: The New Class.’

Also, the less said about her parents, the better. They worked as constructs in the pilot, but they’re back as parodies who underline my tonal issue with the show.

Britt: I think a lot of us find Hannah’s return home relatable, especially as writers, and I don’t think Hannah would ever seriously consider the prospect of moving back home, just as I wouldn’t. The point is that there is a certain comfortable allure there, the idea that it could be easier if she just threw away that pesky dream of writing a book. Where something like ‘Sex and the City’ painted being a female writer in New York as easy and cute, ‘Girls’ portrays Hannah’s struggles more honestly. Would I like to see her struggle just an inch more, perhaps getting her electricity shut off or eating Ramen noodles twice a day? Yes, but it might be a little too on the nose. The show flourishes more with honest ideas than with accurate details.

Where I really disagree with David is his assessment of her parents. Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker make a delightful couple, and their chemistry is so natural. I don’t think they’re used as parodies at all. I think they represent a dichotomy in the viewership, where her father is the one who bemoans her lack of responsibility, personal growth, and her poor life choices, while her mother is probably more in my corner — she thinks Hannah’s having fun, doing what she wants, and she’ll learn from that fun in her own time because she’s young. Scolari and Baker do get the one wacky comedic gag this week, but it also carries a little emotional weight. In the scene when Scolari falls out of the shower, I was genuinely concerned for his well being and what this could mean for Hannah as a person if something happened to him. We’ve only had two episodes with her parents, but I think it speaks to the strength of the show’s writing that I could feel so connected to her parents already.

Kate: One of the aspects of Hannah’s homecoming that really did speak to me were the reactions of her parents — we see her as flawed and immature, but they still see her as their shiny little kiddo. As a fellow only child, I get that — man, do I get that. Hannah’s floundering, but they still think she’s amazing.

I think that we also need to consider that Dunham wrote this episode with Judd Apatow, and his fingerprints are all over two of the essential Horvath Parental Scenes — their honest discussion about Hannah and her future over their anniversary dinner, and their wacky little gag in the shower. While I don’t think we need more of Hannah’s parents, what we have seen of them is welcome and real. They also do something pretty essential: they humanize Hannah. She’s an immature little girl sometimes, but she’s their immature little girl. Hannah doesn’t feel like she has a place, but she always has a place at home (even if she doesn’t want it).

Britt: You know what else they showed us of her parents that was real? Peter Scolari’s penis. I never thought in the history of ever that I’d be seeing Scolari’s penis on television. Or Becky Ann Baker’s breasts! Not that there’s anything wrong with it, and God I hope my body looks that great when I’m older, but I’ve been watching ‘Freaks and Geeks’ with my boyfriend lately and I kept thinking, “Mrs. Weir! This is not you!”

Kate: I saw more of the Horvaths this week than I wanted (or needed) to.

David: I was initially irked by the decision to show Hannah’s parents sharing a private moment at their anniversary dinner, away from Hannah, because it established them as their own independent characters in a way that I didn’t feel the show has supported. I respect their unconditional love for Hannah, who — as their only child — is always something of a trial-run, and I definitely wouldn’t want to deny them an active sex life, but I’m not sure the show can have its cake and eat it too — so far as Hannah’s parents are concerned — because even when they’re on their own doing their own thing, they still feel less like people than they do manifestations of how young adults view their parents once they’ve left home.

Insufferable, invaluable, patronizing, loving… to me, they come across as the kind of idiots who might have a daughter defined by the types of problems that I have with Hannah. I just think they’d be more valuable characters as a reality-check, as a glimpse at how an adult relationship — foibles and all — can actually work, instead of just being the parents that Hannah would so obviously have.

I mean, it’s no accident that ‘Girls’’ first penis came courtesy of Hannah’s father, but all of the broad beats that surrounded those silly antics deprived the episode of the most painful thing about homecoming at that age: The foreignness of normalcy. You expect the world to be on its ear when you go home at that time in your life, but what you often get — what can be most crushing, and what sends you running back to the city — is seeing that nothing’s changed, you’re just on the outside now. It’s the sorta thing that the memorial fund and the lawn phone call really effectively conveyed for me, but the Pucci sex and the parental caricatures derailed.

Britt: And thanks David for bringing us to our next topic: Hannah having sex with Eric. Eric is a nice, seemingly normal fellow with a reliable job and no big aspirations outside of his small(er) town life. It’s the sort of thing Hannah needs right now, like Marnie needing to get out there and experience dating and adventurous sex with guys who aren’t Charlie. Hannah has been doing some sexual exploring with Adam, and it’s this exploring that informs her horribly awkward attempts at spicing things up with the vanilla Eric. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” is a jaw-dropping, cringe-worthy line, but it’s such a Hannah moment. Her decisions are informed by the people she surrounds herself with — Jessa, Adam, etc. — and these decisions are pretty bad, but without making some mistakes, how will she ever learn?

Later in the episode, Adam calls her and tells her that he misses her, and it’s the first time we’ve seen one ounce of caring from this shirtless jerk. (Still, where the hell are his shirts?! Did he get robbed and then just decide life without shirts was easier and made him more mysterious?) I hesitate to praise the progress too much because there are few things more grating than a cliched story about a girl who falls in love with an emotionally distant jerk and somehow manages to crack his hard exterior, helping him open up and find true love or whatever. That’s the kind of Young Adult stuff this show needs to avoid, but I don’t think it’s going that way. I think Adam’s keeping Hannah close because he enjoys these games with her and she’s emotionally weakened by him. Or maybe they’ll be friends? And I think that this little relationship can and is teaching Hannah a lot about herself, just in really messed up ways. The Adam floodgates have opened. Have at it, guys.

Kate: Let’s also not forget — Adam is also incapable of buttoning his pants.

The last two episodes have been hugely important in developing Adam’s character. Last week we all cringed as he set Hannah straight on the nature of their relationship yet, last night’s episode was the first time I didn’t want to actually reach into the TV to slap Adam — if only for a minute or two. Does he genuinely care about Hannah or does he just like having someone around to yank (or, as it were, to yank him)? Have we ever seen another lady around Adam’s house (hovel)? Hannah shows up at all sorts of times, and he’s always alone, despite that sexting slip.

Hannah calls Adam that first night at home because she has no one else to call. Look at her iPhone favorites. It’s dismal. Adam is the only available male in her permanent life (even if he’s not available and he’s not really permanent), and she needs to reach out if only to feel that some guy might want her (even if it’s awful Adam). Adam likely doesn’t have anyone else around, and I think he might be actually starting to respect Hannah’s guile (as misdirected as it is). Is Adam a bad guy? No. Is Hannah a bad girl? No. But the two of them are so deeply ill-suited to being in romantic relationships with anyone that their pairing is the most trainwreck-y of trainwreck TV.

Britt: You know, Kate, your observation that we’ve never seen another girl at Adam’s place even though Hannah shows up at weird times, unannounced, has me thinking: What if Adam’s that guy that with unearned cockiness? Not that anyone deserves to be cocky, but having dated my fair share of Adams, I feel confident theorizing that maybe Adam doesn’t have a bevy of women at his disposal. Maybe it’s all a part of his game to make himself more unavailable while also inspiring some lusty feelings of jealousy in his current lady. Maybe this is all just a ploy to make himself look more desirable in general, and maybe it makes him feel more confident and aggressive. I’m not saying this is 100% accurate, but I think it’s a distinct possibility.

David: Yeah, I don’t know if Adam is a bad guy, but he’s definitely a sociopath. He’s completely succumbed to his super predictable issues, and if Hannah rescues him from himself then… I just don’t care. Their dynamic is so obvious, mapped out from the very first sex scene, there’s just not much of interest.  Also, that dude is a terrible fake masturbator. The part requires him to be the Brad Pitt eating of fake masturbators, and as someone who pretends to masturbate for several hours of any given day (I’m a freelancer with big windows, what can I say?), I can assert with confidence that he is no Brad Pitt.

I think he cares about Hannah as much as he can care about anyone, I just don’t really care about him. The extent to which his social world magnetizes to him whereas Hannah feels as if she has to actively sustain hers is interesting, but already excavated. I will concede that, at least at this point, they totally deserve each other, and I buy their mutual attraction. But there hasn’t been a real human male on the show yet (and I’d argue that Marnie is the only recognizably human woman, though the free-spirited blonde has her moments). The artist guy was all faux cock, a pointed juxtaposition for Charlie who wanted to be mothered. Adam is abusive, the Alex Karpovsky character is an angry child, her ex-boyfriend was a flamboyant stereotype… maybe it’s Eric, who Hannah rediscovers at home, who was the first real man Hannah has met thus far, and she did everything in her power to dismiss his appreciable sincerity.

Kate: Adam is gross, yo. Also, seriously, WHAT does he do for a living? Besides cashing checks from his grandma?

Britt: I don’t know that I particularly care about Adam, but I care about Hannah, and she cares about Adam, so I’m involved in this plot. I’d argue that Charlie was a pretty reasonable representation of a man, but I think David is hitting on something here — for all the conversations we have about how women are genuinely portrayed on the show, we’ve been ignoring the fact that the men aren’t portrayed as genuinely. Adam is largely cartoonish, but he has enough elements that keep me relating to this plot in cringe-inducing ways every week. Eric was a pretty fair character this week, too. I’ve been on dates with those sorts of guys — really nice, normal, but just a little too safe and unadventurous. That’s not to say that nice guys are bad, but you can have nice guys that are interesting, take chances, and also satisfy your desire to experience new things.

I think the theme in this week’s episode is self-awareness and whether or not that awareness validates Hannah’s poor choices or indicates her ability to change. She knows that she does bad things, but she likes the stories they bring to her life, and she does realize that she needs to grow up, as evidenced by her refusal to take her mom’s financial help when offered. Her awareness belies the genesis of change beneath the surface, but her willful ignorance indicates that she’s just scared — and she should be. Becoming a responsible adult is tough stuff, especially when you rise to the occasion a little later than most of your peers. Hannah is 24, and the change isn’t coming that late, but these poor, regressive choices allow her to stay in her comfort zone. For those who think Hannah isn’t showing any signs of growing up, I think this week’s episode is proof that they’re wrong. What say ye?

Kate: I do think that Hannah is showing signs of growing up, but I keep going back to her trash bag-laden arrival in Michigan. You’re an adult now, Hannah, the least you can do is get a damn suitcase. I think, however, that Hannah is torn between growing up and having a “story” to write about. Did she turn down her mom’s money because she’s growing up or because she thinks it will be more interesting to pen stories about her twenty-something poverty? She has no other income, and I find her decision to not accept help to be more immature than if she did. What’s she going to do now? Run back to the breast-groper? Have another date rape-referencing interview? Borrow money from Marnie? But, at the very least, I think that Hannah thinks she’s making more mature decisions, and that’s something.

Britt: I think that’s a continued theme, week to week. That she isn’t quite succeeding or thriving, but she’s making tiny steps in roundabout ways, which has to count for something. I think the second season promos should be like, “Hannah can’t keep a job and her boyfriend treats her heart like monkey meat, but she’s a really good friend, so that has to count for something, right?”

Kate: Wait — do we think Hannah is a good friend? Because I re-watched last week’s episode before I saw “The Return,” and that moment when she asks Marnie if she would have liked her journaling if it was just a story stung me, even more so than it did the first time I heard it. Is Hannah a good friend?

Britt: I think Hannah is definitely a good friend. She was pretty insensitive in that moment, but Marnie and Jessa can be pretty insensitive and self-involved, too. Hannah and Marnie have a really strong bond, and even the way Hannah talked to Shoshanna about her virginity was really sweet. She’s a good friend, just sort of oblivious sometimes.

David: Yeah, I mean, getting perspective is the hardest part of changing, and I think at the very least she’s starting to step outside of her head a little bit. But at the same time, I fear that her recent epiphany that she can’t go home again might give credence to her self-mythologizing. Maybe it all goes back to the first scene of the pilot, where Hannah’s parents mock her for writing a memoir before she’s done any real living. I’m glad Britt brought us back to the idea of Hannah doing things “for the story,” cause I think that’s fundamental to her character, eminently relatable for everyone whom the technologies of the 21st century have bent back inwards, and obviously speaks to Lena Dunham herself, who has made an entire career out of broadcasting her experiences. I hesitate to conflate she and Hannah into one person, but if there’s any one thing that bridges them together at all times, it’s that.

Britt: Before we close this week’s discussion — what was your favorite moment in “The Return”? Mine was the exchange between Hannah and Eric when he asks what her real job is and she says, “I’m a writer,” and he asks if that’s how she makes money, to which she responds, “I don’t have any money!” It was hilariously sad and just so damn true.

How about you guys? Favorite moments or lines this week? Any thoughts on what might happen next week?

Kate: Oddly, I really enjoyed when Hannah was singing that Jewel song in the car. It was this weird, sweet moment that just sort of allowed us to enjoy her, something we don’t get a lot.

I have no idea what will happen next week because I watched this episode OnDemand and they did not show previews. I was really disappointed.

Britt: I never see the previews for next week, either, so I’m always delightfully in the dark. I do hope we get more Shoshanna, though. And Kathryn Hahn! That woman is a national treasure.

David: I definitely thought that Hannah and Adam’s phone chat was the show’s strongest scene since episode three, and that altogether the episode did a pretty commendable job of starting to make amends for the potentially show-ruining “diary song” debacle.

My guess for next week: ‘Cloverfield’ monster attack. A more conservative man might wait for the season finale to make such a bold prediction, but anyone who’s really watching closely can see how all the pieces are moving into place.

Oh, and I wanted to leave this link to an epic quasi-love letter I wrote about ‘Tiny Furniture,’ just in case this discussion made me seem like a huge turd/since I inevitably came across as a huge turd:

Criterion Corner: ‘Tiny Furniture’ and the Future of Important Films

Britt: You were not a huge turd at all! And I’m very interested in reading this love letter to ‘Tiny Furniture’ of yours.

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