Revisiting the Patrick Wilson Episode of ‘Girls’ and Where the Debate Went Wrong

Patrick Wilson Girls

Arguments about looks missed the point

It’s been six months since the 2012-13 TV season’s most polarizing episode of television aired — polarizing, sadly, for all the wrong reasons.

But perhaps enough time has passed for it to be debated on the terms it deserves.

HBO’s Feb. 10 episode of “Girls” paired creator/star Lena Dunham with “Little Children” alum Patrick Wilson in 27 minutes of television that some found revelatory and others ridiculous.

To an unfortunate degree, the debate about the episode settled on whether you could buy Wilson’s handsome doctor being attracted enough to Dunham’s Hannah enough for the story to even take place. The obvious answer — that of course, two people can connect, regardless of looks, if other elements are there — managed to overshadow the main problem with the episode, which had nothing to do with anyone’s beauty on the outside.

Here’s what happened:

Wilson’s character, Joshua, comes to Grumpy’s coffeehouse, where Hannah works for Ray (Alex Karpovsky), to complain that someone from the establishment has been dumping trash in the cans outside his brownstone. Ray is (ridiculously, as Hannah acknowledges) hostile toward the accusation, and Joshua leaves, decidedly unsatisfied.

Hannah next ventures to Joshua’s house, where she will soon confess to being the trash-dumper. It’s at this moment, five minutes in, that trouble began for many of its detractors in the audience.  As Hannah stammers for “the right way to phrase this,” the conversation having barely begun, Joshua invites her into his home.

The invitation is abrupt. Even if the woman in question were as attractive or more so than Joshua (and again, it’s best to simply concede the relative lack of importance of these judgments), it seemed hasty for him to jump ahead when the situation hardly called for it at that point. It felt forced.

At the same time, this doesn’t deserve to be a dealbreaker moment for the episode. We don’t know Joshua that well, and there is some electricity between him and Hannah, so while Dunham (the episode’s writer) could have finessed the invitation a bit more credibly, it’s a little close-minded to balk entirely at the moment.

Similarly, when Hannah makes the first physical move toward Joshua, lunging toward him with a kiss, and he reciprocates (and then some), the idea that she doesn’t have supermodel looks or that this is all happening too fast is pretty far besides the point — however much this feels like a fantasy come to life for Hannah. They have had time to click, with Hannah bringing a combination of self-deprecating wit and sexual hunger that easily fits with what the “recently separated” Joshua needs.

Their whirlwind affair lasts the better part of half the episode, until, with about seven minutes left, Hannah and Joshua have a conversation that is going to show us what everything has been leading up to.

Hannah (weeping): Please don’t tell anyone this, but … I want to be happy.

Joshua: Of course you do. Of course you do. Everyone does.

Hannah: Yeah, but I didn’t think that I did. I made a promise, such a long time ago, that I was going to take in experiences, all of them, so that I could tell other people about them and maybe save them. But it gets so tiring, trying to take in all the experiences for everybody, letting anyone say anything to me. Then I came here, and I see you, and you’ve got the fruit in the bowl in the fridge with the stuff. … I realize I’m not different. I want what everyone wants. I want all the things. I just want to be happy.

Then there’s all these experiences that I just feel like I’ve asked for, things where it’s like, “Who in their right mind would want that?” Like one time, I asked someone to punch me in the chest and then come on that spot. Like that was my idea — that came from my brain. And it’s like, what makes me think I deserve that? Then I remember when I was 3, I told my mother that my babysitter had touched my vagina in the bath. And my mom thought I was lying, obviously, and probably I was. But whether I was lying or whether I was telling the truth, something’s broken inside of me!

This is given the power of remarkable insight, and this is where the episode fails for me, though I would certainly welcome debate on that. (Hence, this post.)

I get that misery, pessimism and alienation are fundamental for many twentysomethings — I was one of them, albeit all too long ago, an aspiring writer no less, feeling every bit of it, minus the Q-tips. I get that for some people, material goods or companionship might be low on the list of priorities, especially compared with living life to the fullest, whether you’re doing it to write or just doing it to do it.

But there’s a problem with this on two levels. One, Hannah’s “I actually do want to be happy” is such an uninteresting revelation in a general sense. All this set-up, to realize nothing more than a sad person doesn’t really, deep down, want to be sad? This is not news. This is not uplifting in its inspiration; this is deflating in its banality. If it’s even ironic (and I’m not sure that it is), it’s irony of the most simplistic kind.

Level two: Is it more interesting or significant that it’s Hannah who is experiencing it? If so, that would have been redemptive. But I’m not buying it. It’s been clear from the start of “Girls” that Hannah has issues, not the least of which involve self-worth and self-loathing. But the idea that happiness, in whatever form, isn’t on her agenda? That she can’t envision a happiness that doesn’t involve punishing herself? That she doesn’t know that suffering for her art is different from making suffering a lifelong goal? That she had no vision of the joy that would come from her experiences becoming a successful piece of literature? That her desire to be happy is something so alien that no one else can know? (And anyway, who would Joshua tell?)

I don’t believe that’s the Hannah we’ve seen in “Girls.” Because the Hannah in “Girls” also likes to have friends, to have fun, to have a decent place to rest her head. She also wants the reward — the charge — of feeling significant. She has no resume of being in a war against happiness.

The Hannah in “Girls” — at least, the Hannah I thought I knew — might value the negative experiences to write about, but not without knowing that they are negative. She’s also aware that money is necessary to live, and that more money can make it easier to live. She’s not sleeping on the street to further her writing career — she’s taken the best possible situation she can have (including, at certain points in the recent past, the humbling task of asking her parents for support) — and there was absolutely no indication, prior to meeting Joshua, that with more money she wouldn’t improve her situation.

And then there’s the fact that Hannah is exclaiming about something being “broken” inside of her, as if that’s the first time she’s had that thought. Do you believe that?

Hannah is a remarkably complicated woman, but while this episode is designed to showcase that complexity, it actually turns her into something way too simple.

It’s going to seem like I’m arguing that I understand Hannah better than Lena Dunham does, which is about as arrogant (and, of course, preposterous) an argument as one could make. That’s not what I mean to do. She’s not my character — she’s Dunham’s.  What I’m really trying to say is that whatever insight Dunham is trying to communicate about Hannah, I don’t think it came through in the episode no doubt titled with a double meaning, “One Man’s Trash.” It’s not making sense, a problem only partially mitigated outside the episode by Dunham’s explanation for it. As a result, it’s leading me to think that there’s an inconsistency, that something’s gone haywire with this episode.

In any case, the nature of happiness, which is one I’ve thought long and hard about for the better part of three decades, and these related aspects of self-image and self-loathing, are the ones that remain absolutely rich for discussion. Rather than something as downright stupid as “She’s not hot enough to get that guy,” the nature of happiness is a conversation I’d have liked this episode of “Girls” to have initiated and would like to be a part of.

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  1. Eunice Apia says:

    I think what Hannah realizes after having sex with the handsome stranger is that, it’s not what she wants. She’s always chasing after something and most of the time it’s sex with strangers, but she finally realizes that she’s been subconsciously sabotaging her happiness…by doing things that she thinks would make her happy but they don’t.

    She had a good boyfriend whom she accused of having commitment issues. When he decided to have a serious relationship, she got scared and broke up with him; and made it look like he did something wrong. She’s afraid of being loved, because she either doesn’t think she deserves it or doesn’t know how to love anyone including herself. That’s what I gathered about the character.

    • Emily LaVigne says:

      I agree with all of your comments. It’s funny, I am a married mother of three boys, and I find myself loving this show. I think because I see so much of my self respect and self consciousness reflected through Hannah. I’m on the other side of dealing with those “issues”, but it’s helping me gain clarity on my own twenties.

      I do believe Adam is the only one she can truly be happy with and be herself with, safely.

  2. Koye says:

    As others have said, this was my favorite episode of the series thus far. One thing I don’t think I’ve seen brought up yet, though, is Hannah’s penchant for self-sabotage. That, to me, was the most affecting part of the “breakdown” scene (obviously, this says more about me than the character, but I digress).

    I get why Mr. Weisman sees the scene as unearned because Hannah hasn’t spent previous episodes purposefully eschewing happiness and material comforts. But I do think the scene is consistent with her possibly subconscious need to torpedo opportunities for advancement when they appear on the horizon. Compare this scene to the job interview in Season 1 (the scene with Mike Birbiglia’s guest spot), or the moment when she tries to “seduce” her boss at Jessa’s suggestion.

    The conversation with Joshua was one of many times Hannah has looked a gift horse straight in the mouth. This, however, was about emotions, sex, and relationships rather than a job, so I think it hit many viewers harder. We know that Hannah comes from an affluent family, so even though her parents have refused to support her financially, we know (and we know that Hannah knows) that safety net is still there should things get desperate. But it hurt to see her implode a potential relationship with someone who shows concern for what she has to say and what she wants sexually because we knew she would probably end up attaching herself again to a man who often made her feel compromised— which she did, but that’s another episode and another conversation.

    I think the “confession” felt honest to the character because I think it’s typical of twentysomethings, particularly self-obsessed twentysomethings like Hannah, to have those “That was the first time I ever said it out loud” moments that feel internally like revolutions but seem externally like so much navel gazing. And on some level I think that’s what elicits such strong criticism and praise for the entire series, so it makes sense that this episode would create the same divide. It was nice, though, to read something about this episode that didn’t center on Lena Dunham’s body shape. And it’s amazing to see a comments thread on anything that hasn’t descended into hate speech and name calling. So, thank you for this. :-)

  3. R. Paul Dhillon says:

    For me, the episode was about vulnerability! The handsome doctor had at the beginning because of his marital problems and thus his reasons to have quick sex with a physically underwhelming yet intellectually arousing Hannah! And as the episode and their freewheeling sex went on, it was Hannah’s turn to get emotional as she realized she could have it all – a handsome man and his wealthy lifestyle, her innermost desire for happiness but she is a negative person by nature and deep down she knows she is just living a passing dream and she can’t have this happiness, which is relative anyway for her. And that’s when the happiness comments come! It was a rather tame episode of Girls but still a thought provoking one!!

  4. announcergirl says:

    Jon, John, and Jorge, your analyses are far deeper than mine will ever be. This episode has been on my mind since I watched it. Other than the usual commentary on forums where patrons debate the idea of someone being “out of a league,” which is just stupid, I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t let it go. It’s because it struck a chord. Jon thanks for writing about this and revisiting this episode.

  5. Jorge says:

    Way, way off. Like someone that can hear notes playing but can’t hear music. I’ll leave aside the petty quibbling as to how she was invited in the house. It was completely credible and those fixated on that are those with a point to sell.

    The entire series and character is about a person who sports her non-traditional, carving out her own path and damn what the world or her parents say about it. It is firmly-believed construct–and until it’s a reality, it is a pose. Her character dates (?) men who disrespect her, settles for less, and convinces herself that this is her path, and she’s content with it.

    There is a huge difference between being content with what gets you through your day, and being happy beyond what even you dreamed for yourself.

    When she says, “i want to be happy”—it is after she has gotten a dose of what it is to be adored (and also surrounded by the material trappings that are part and parcel of a TRADITIONAL love and domestication “happy ever after.”) For most of the weekend, Hannah was able to play like this was just a fun, playful, sexy memory. But as that last scene settles in, she’s realizing how much she LOVES all of this, and how different it is (and not just materially) from what she accepts normally.

    It reminds me of that great scene in “Terms of Endearment”, where Shirley McClain’s character is telling her daughter Debra Winger about her affair with Jack Nicholson. After laughing about the more-purient details of their sex life, McClain gets choked up, and drops this line…”I never thought for a second I’d start to need him.”

    THAT’S what it was about when Hannah cries in the scene–she realizes that same moment, she’s been lying to herself. She can’t deny that she expected less from herself, her lovers, her life. There was a ceiling, and in the span of a weekend, this doctor let her see and feel what it would be like just beyond that ceiling. When he pulls back at the end, she makes his bed, takes in the last of what that momentary fantasy could be, and then leaves. Heartbreaking.

    Sometimes the saddest thing is tasting a better life, because then you know what it’s like. And to know it’s out there, but may never be yours? Or that you don’t think you’re good enough to ever get or have it? That’s pain that you don’t have to be a twenty-something to get.

    • announcergirl says:

      Jorge, yes, that’s it! And, that was beautiful. How sad to taste something you may never have. Thank you for getting it.

    • Jon Weisman says:

      I hear you, but I don’t believe Hannah has never fantasized before. I don’t believe she has never experienced happiness before. Perhaps not on such a blissful level, but certainly, the concept of happiness as she knew it. I believe Hannah wants to be unique and believed in her own uniqueness, but I don’t think a complete absence of happiness was part of that.

      This dichotomy she sets up of either living life to its fullest or behind happy is a false one, even for someone like Hannah, in my opinion. Misery for the sake of misery was not the goal. It was live life, be in touch with yourself … speak to others and be understood. Being understood is a key part of her vision, and with understanding would come happiness. And, sorry to say, book sales, material wealth and yes, potentially a life partner who doesn’t need to punch her on the chest.

      I don’t believe that Hannah hasn’t thought that far ahead at any time in her life before this. And believe me, I know what it’s like to think you’re never going to have what you want. It doesn’t mean that you don’t want it.

  6. Jon, glad to see you taking your writing for Variety in this direction. Whether you’re writing about baseball or movies/TV, you’re at your best when you probe for meaning like this.

    My perspective, as someone even older than you are, is that the worthwhile distinction to be made about this episode is between how Hannah behaves (e.g. with her friends and family, where she shows evidence of an inclination toward happiness), and what Hannah is saying in this monologue to a stranger, reflecting on her inner self. I think it makes sense that obsessive, damaged Hannah, comes to believe she has pledged to endure misery for the sake of being able to write about it, and that she has separated herself from most of humanity in this quest. The fact that her behavior often belies this sense of mission makes her like everyone.

    Think of people who, in a different context, might confess to you that they dedicate their life to their love of God. Sports heroes, for instance. Many of our favorite athletes say they put God first, and they sincerely believe that to be so. But they don’t behave that way 100 percent of the time. I’m not talking about rank hypocrites here — Jimmy Swaggert types. I’m talking about Christian athletes who compete on Sunday, or who yell at their teammates for making an error, or give in to discouragement if their curveball isn’t working. These aren’t un-Christian, but they aren’t examples of putting God first.

    Hannah’s god is the one worshipped by the likes of romantic poets and kitchen-sink realist playwrights, by Henry Miller and Hunter S. Thompson, and even old Ernest Hemingway. Immerse yourself in experience, survive it somehow, and come out the other end to write about it. Write about war, about eroticism, about poverty, about obsession, about pain. Moreover, if Hannah is aware of the literature that precedes her, she knows she would have to go even farther than her predecessors into the realm of sensation, because so much has already been done. It is this sense of mission that is in crisis in this scene. And perhaps she is becoming aware at that moment of the same incidences you cite, which show that her dedication to this mission has always been half-hearted — and that’s a scary thought to her. Can she be a part-time sensual adventuress? Perhaps not. So should she abandon this path? That’s the angst that having sex with a well-off, handsome fellow, from all appearances a more solid male figure than her own father, has prompted.

    • Jorge says:

      Jon,

      it’s not about whether or not she’s fantasized about happiness, or can understand it as a concept. Of course she has. There is a vast chasm between intellectually wanting/understanding something, and experiencing it firsthand.

      Of course, we all have fantasies. We want things. When we don’t get them, or don’t believe we can get them, we construct rationalizations as to why they aren’t important to us, or why we want something other, that we ourselves may be afraid to admit is lesser. That is what I believe Hannah has done for the entire show, and at the end of that episode, her facade of rationalization came crumbling down. Hence the tears I, and a great many others, thought it was raw and beautiful.

      No one, not me nor I believe the show, ever said that her goal was to be miserable. She just never thought she’d get a taste at being that happy.

      She experienced bliss, and it was fleeting. Best episode of the series.

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