The article below contains spoilers for “One Man’s Trash,” the February 10th, 2013 episode of “Girls.”
Patrick Wilson (“Angels in America,” “A Gifted Man”), the guest star of last night’s “Girls” episode “One Man’s Trash,” has been and to the best of my knowledge still is a resident of the Williamsburg/Greenpoint region in which the show is set, which lends a local twist to his appearance. The North Brooklyn area may be a place for twentysomethings like Hannah (Lena Dunham) to pack themselves three to a two-bedroom (who needs a living room?), but it’s also, and far more frequently these days, a place for youngish professionals (and actors!) to buy brownstones or condos offering more space than they could find in Manhattan.
That’s how Joshua’s (Wilson) beautifully appointed house becomes the place to which Hannah escapes in what turns out to be the weakest episode of the current season and possibly the series. Written by Dunham and directed by Richard Shepard (“The Matador”), “One Man’s Trash” is a two-person show, aside from the opening scene in which Joshua gets into a fight with Ray (Alex Karpovsky) over the way that Cafe Grumpy’s trash keeps ending up in his cans, while Hannah stands by looking flustered. We soon learn why — of course, she’s the one who’s been throwing the cafe’s garbage out in Joshua’s trashcans, though rather than confess to it in front of Ray she uses the opportunity to act santimonious and declare the place a “toxic work environment” before stalking out.
“One Man’s Trash” serves as a kind of counterpoint to “The Return,” the season one episode in which Hannah went home to Michigan for her parents’ 30th anniversary, it wasn’t as provincial as she secretly hoped it would be and she wondered, briefly, if she should move back. This was also a journey away from the norm of “Girls” into, saints forbid, middle aged successes and failures. Walking into Joshua’s house after confessing to her garbage transgressions, Hannah says she had no idea a house like his existed in the neighborhood, but of course plenty of them do. What she’s unintentionally confessing to is not knowing anyone like him, outside of the range of ages, incomes and professions with which she’s familiar. He’s a doctor, he renovated his living space to his specs and he’s married but separated from his wife — he is, to Hannah, exotic.
What makes “One Man’s Trash” feels so weak is that Joshua doesn’t seem like a person, he seems like a mirror in which Hannah examines herself. Even Sandy (Donald Glover), who was largely present in the first two episodes of this season to allow Hannah to say terrible things about race after the show was criticized for its blindness to the topic, had a personality, a political leaning and hints of a life. Joshua is a construct, a handsome, lonely specimen there to offer Hannah kindnesses and physical comforts she apparently somehow didn’t think she wanted.
That Joshua ends up impulsively sleeping with Hannah and then taking a day off to fool around with her isn’t itself implausible — he’s at loose ends and believably wants company, even from a total stranger. But he’s a static thing, there only to present softness — cooking for her, calling her beautiful during sex, goofing off and then rescuing her from the shower when she faints — so that she can come to the frankly annoying weepy conclusion that she’s lived her life thinking she deserves and should seek out mistreatment.
Hannah is meant to be awful much of the time. It’s a part of her character, it is, for many people, a part of being young, and it’s a part of the show’s charm, that it lets her obliviously run her mouth and humiliate herself and only sometimes make up for it. But that only works if the series allows that to happen in some kind of organic fashion, if it doesn’t feel like its setting things up for her to trip over. Long before Hannah has her terrible oversharing monologue of the episode and self-pityingly describes how weary she is of having to seek out experiences to process for her art, she’s already at maximum terribleness, from her explanation about the trash to her spontaneous experiment in dominance to the incredibly sex-unready romper she’s wearing.
As impersonal as Joshua’s initial hooking up with her may have been intended to read, the ways in which he’s so malleable and eager to please her turn him into an object only there for her to throw herself against. Hannah has no interest in him as a person — he accomodates her until she falls apart all on her own simply from being treated well, an instance of the show’s depictions of its characters’ self-interest taking over the structure of an actual episode. It was a rare low point for the show, one redeemed only by the sight of Hannah enjoying herself around Joshua’s empty house after he went to work, before wandering down the street and back to her regular life.