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

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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