One of the things I liked most about The Return—and I liked a bunch of things—was its title. Nearly every series has an episode like The Return, in which the hero returns to his/her place of origin to find things much changed for the smaller; after years of recapping serial television, on seeing that title, I’d originally expected the customary uncreative variation on one of the plots sure to follow—”Going Home,” for instance, or “Homecoming,” or a pun on the idea that you can’t go home again or it’s where the heart is.
She tries to be, but not very hard. Hannah slogs off the plane, lugging the garbage bag full of laundry that’s serving as her suitcase. (In what post-2001 fantasy-land would the Hefty luggage get past TSA? Marnie would have made her borrow a duffel bag, I think.) Mom and Dad are waiting over-eagerly at the curb (next to their Volvo, natch); Dad is holding a sign with a picture of bananas on it, and mentions on the ride back to the house that they couldn’t think of a better way to spend their anniversary than with “our best friend, who we just happened to create.” That idea, simultaneously sweet and inappropriate, comes up repeatedly in the ep; her parents seem to have always treated Hannah as a sort of peer, but now that she’s a real voting adult, nobody quite knows how to deal with that reality.
Mom responds to Dad by mentioning local job listings; she’s doing it because she misses Hannah, but Hannah is immediately defensive. Mom also mentions the “fun Netflix” they’ve got at the house, a spot-on parental detail that Hannah is too busy texting, then stomping out of the room when Mom suggests she’s hungry, to appreciate. (The movie they’re watching: Million Dollar Baby. Rimshot!) Hannah flops on her bed, stares at her Party Girl poster, ignores a text from Marnie asking if she got the rent money from her parents, and calls Adam’s phone but hangs up after one ring—she’s put herself in his mind, but can plausibly claim that she just butt-dialed him.
And Dad assumes that Hannah is going on their anniversary “date,” but Hannah declines—not because it’s kind of weird, although she does mention that, but because she has a date of her own. Eric , whom Hannah meets when her frantic mother sends her on a mission to pick up hot-flash meds, is a sideburned cutie who co-owns a local pharmacy with his father, and a stark contrast to Adam in every possible way: traditionally good-looking; makes good money in a non-creative field; reacts with disbelief when Hannah tries to put a finger in his poop chute during sex, then murmurs to him, “I’m tight like a baby, right?” The look on Hannah’s face when he initiates no-kink missionary intercourse is almost pitying.
He’s a pleasant, solicitous young man with a business-like, adult relationship with his father, and he’s definitively Not Adam. He’s also definitively Not New York, and the automatic, unearned superiority Hannah feels to her high-school classmates—one perpetrated by New Yorkers of all ages—is another theme of the episode. It’s made explicit in the pep talk Hannah gives herself in the mirror as she’s getting ready to go out: “You are from New York, therefore you are just naturally interesting, okay? It is not up to you to fill up all of the pauses. You are not in danger of mortifying yourself.” The latest in a line of unbecoming vintage frocks would beg to differ on that last point, as would the moment where she mentions offhandedly to Eric that she gave up on vegetarianism because Adam had nothing to eat at his place except meat—and because she thought that, if she went out for food, Adam wouldn’t let her back in.
Hannah’s New York bias in favor of, well, herself is even stronger in her interactions with Heather, an old high-school friend. We’ve seen framed pictures of Hannah and Heather in Hannah’s old room, but they haven’t kept in touch; Hannah hasn’t heard anything about “the benefit”—the fundraiser Heather has put together for her friend Carrie, who got Natalee Hollowayed on a spring-break trip. Hannah also hasn’t heard that Heather’s about to move to Los Angeles to pursue a dance career, and when she asks whether Heather has any contacts out there to help her get started, Heather shrugs airily, “I know enough to know that you don’t really have to know anybody.”
In a way, she’s right, because based on the moves we see, no contact short of Alvin Ailey could get Heather a job that wouldn’t involve a pole—but it’s Hannah’s attitude we’re meant to look at, and she believes that she knows better than Heather simply by virtue of living in “the big city” herself. Heather’s belief that she merely has to move to L.A. and go on auditions to “make it” sounds innocent, even silly, but we’ve seen that Hannah cherished the publishing-world version of that belief. (And may yet cherish it.) Yes, the “benefit” is low-rent (to underscore the point, Edwin McCain’s obnoxiously ubiquitous “I’ll Be” is playing when Hannah and Eric walk in), and when Hannah buries her face in her pint to keep from laughing, it’s sad for Heather and her inappropriate booty-dance of tribute to Carrie. It’s also sad for Hannah, who thinks she knows something Heather doesn’t about how to make it in a creative field.
Hannah’s rant to Eric afterwards is revealing; Eric concedes that Heather’s show “was a little cheesy,” and Hannah wails, “It was very cheesy, and nobody’s telling her! She’s gonna go to L.A. and live in some shitty apartment and feel, like, sad and scared and lonely and weird, all the time, but she’s got a good life here. I would like her life.” Noooo kidding—that speech isn’t a prediction for Heather’s life, it’s a description of Hannah’s. When Eric jokes that he knows the florist has a job opening, Hannah retreats to the safety of Gotham-centric condescension, saying she’d get “a real job, like a teacher or something.” Eric, bless his heart, doesn’t point out that she’d need a master’s or certification to do that, just asks what her real job in New York is. She snaps that she’s a writer, like she told him. Eric is surprised: “That’s how you make money?” Hannah non-answers, “I don’t have any money.” I had that “no no no, it’s not what I do, it’s what I am” conversation about my career several times. In those conversations, it’s impossible not to sound like a stubborn jackass who should suck it up and sit for the LSATs before she winds up in bankruptcy court, and that’s exactly what Hannah sounds like. But I can relate.
So can her father, as it turns out, but his “relating” to Hannah is more like “projecting.” He’s filling the space she’s left at the dinner table by worrying aloud about her. “What does a person like that turn into?” he wonders, adding that she’s funny and likable, “but that and ten cents . . .” Such a dad-ly expression, that. Mom thinks his assessment is harsh, but it’s really about Dad’s own disappointments: “At what point will she realize, she’s not gonna get to be what she wants to be when she grows up?” Like Hannah’s comments about Heather moving to L.A., this isn’t so much about the subject of the remarks as it is about the utterer; apparently Dad’s life didn’t turn out like he’d dreamed. Mom is taken aback by his lack of faith, and asks how he knows. “You know that, you’re the one who forced us to cut her off to help her realize that!” Interesting take on what we saw; Mom did force the issue, but according to her, she wanted to have a lake house. Now she’s singing a different tune: “I cut her off so she’d have something to write about!” Dad grumbles that “we don’t even know if her writing is any good.” It’s hard to tell if this is a comment on how Hannah doesn’t produce much in the first place, or if her parents just don’t read it (remember how they left the pages she’d brought them behind in their hotel room?), but Mom thinks that Hannah knows how to have fun, “and she thinks about that fun, and she learns from that fun.” The pronouncement is completely irrelevant to what makes a good, or successful, writer—but it also shows exactly how parents misunderstand what a writer does.
Certainly her parents try to supply Hannah with material later that night. Dad, vigorously pumping Mom from behind in the shower, slips and hits his head on the bathroom floor. Hannah comes home to find them dishabille, Mom trying to revive Dad, Dad naked and worried about a back strain, and has to help Mom haul Dad off the floor and into bed, suggesting repeatedly that he put a towel or a robe on.
After Dad’s safely tucked in, Mom makes a gentle “not Mr. Right, but Mr. Right Now” observation about Eric that Hannah’s surprised to hear the truth in, then asks if Hannah’s doing okay financially, admitting that they cut her off rather abruptly. But they’re proud that she’s “making it work”—and Hannah, after taking a moment to consider asking for rent money anyway, chooses to pretend that she is making it work. Or vows to actually make it work.
Later, Adam calls. When Hannah says she’s at home, he duhs that he is too, but she clarifies “home home,” at her parents’ house. She tells Adam about Dad’s “sex injury,” and about her own Eric-scapade, asking if it’s “weird” that she told Adam that she slept with someone else. She’s hoping it is, and the fruitlessness of this attempt to arouse his jealousy is as familiar to her now as her old high-school life no longer is. But Adam—wearing black undies and a lacy green satin sleep mask—doesn’t react, so she changes the subject to Eric’s gigantic, cheap apartment, wondering why they kill themselves to stay in a city that doesn’t want them. Adam misses her. She’s pleased, because she misses him—but what she really misses is home, the city, her life. She asks Adam to tell her what’s going on out his window, and as he narrates a neighborhood crackhead’s perambulations, Hannah stands on her parents’ silent, dark front lawn, listening.
The Return is well crafted, subtle and smart about that day in every adult child’s life when she refers to “home” as college, or her current city, and her mom goes quiet. It portrays Hannah’s New York tunnel vision accurately without expecting us to sign off on it, and it asks what the definition of “home” is without answering its own question. Nice work by the supporting cast, especially Becky Ann Baker and Peter Scolari as her parents (and Little Scolari, heh), as the show itself “returns” to the exact observations that make it work best.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded TelevisionWithoutPity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She’s the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com.