The article below contains spoilers for “Only Child,” the February 1st, 2014 episode of “Girls.”
At HBO’s “Girls” panel at the Television Critics Association press tour last month, someone asked Lena Dunham if she actually liked the characters in the show. “I love them, and I think that they accurately reflect people I know, people we’ve all been,” she answered. “I think that they are trying their hardest, which is the most you can ask of the people in your life, and I feel sad when they struggle, and I feel happy when they triumph.” This is essentially the conversation that Ray (Alex Karpovsky) had with Marnie (Allison Williams) in “Only Child,” directed by Tricia Brock (“Killer Diller”) and written by Murray Miller, when she traveled to his new apartment to neg both him and his neighborhood before asking him what’s wrong with her in her quest for self-betterment.
Ray pointed out, not incorrectly, that Marnie is extremely judgmental, acts like she’s above everything while expecting to be included in it all, is uptight, uses people, and is “a huge fat fucking phony.” But even after that brutal but requested barrage, he allowed that he still likes her, because “behind it all, I think you mean well” and that her issues stem from “a deep, dark, toxic well of insecurity” that allows her to be “a sympathetic character.” This kind of meta-analysis is a direct confrontation of that TCA question, one that gets asked of the show a lot and is its primary challenge, and I think that — all respect to Dunham and to Ray, the idea of how much these characters are expected to be liked is the wrong one.
The watchability of “Girls” isn’t based on an idea of likability, gendered or not — if that was the case, than where to put this episode, in which Hannah goes to the funeral of her late editor David Pressler-Goings and can only think to ask his surprise wife Annalisa (Jennifer Westfeldt, of “Kissing Jessica Stein” and “Friends With Kids”) about whether she had any leads on new publishers after learning that Millstreet had dropped all of David’s projects?
It’s a flat-out awful thing to do, and Hannah was called on her lack of empathy and mercenariness — “If I do give you another name, will you get the fuck out of here?” a disgusted Annalisa muttered. And it’s a reminder that the question shouldn’t be whether or not Hannah and her friends are likable but whether we like watching them, whether there’s something understandable in their behavior that we don’t need to approve of to recognize. And while the funeral sequence featured some exaggerated terribleness for squirmy comedic effect, the rest of the episode was more grounded and more genuinely sad for Hannah as the thing that was central to her dream and to her identity slipped away from her, and she lashed out at those around her in retaliation, only making her situation worse.
“Girls” is a show about being young and being coddled, and then being ushered out into a world that has little interest in indulging these facts, and Hannah’s reaction is wrenchingly halfway between an adult facing a wrenching loss and a child hurling things around the room in a tantrum, with the knowledge that she’ll be sorry afterward, when Adam (Adam Driver) comes home and finds out that she threw his annoying but desperate sister Caroline (Gaby Hoffmann) out in a fit of pique.
Hannah has always had a life plan, which is why it’s so devastating for her to come close to seeing it realized — with that chance at a real book deal, with people who see her as a Mindy Kaling who actually “takes it there,” only to have it pulled away. Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) has even more of plan, one that has more to do with escaping the apparent ne’er-do-well pattern of everyone else in her family than a passion for the work — though she’s starting to panic about it after a brief bit of indulgence.
But Caroline and Adam and Marnie and Jessa (Jemima Kirke) are all drifting — Jessa drifting into a job at a children’s store, Marnie drifting into sex with Ray (a storyline I’m not looking forward to seeing more of, as funny as their conversation in his apartment was), and the Sackler siblings drifting back into an apparently aggressive dynamic they’re always shared. Their lives may have an aimlessness to them at the moment, but there’s some comfort in that, in not getting hurt the way Hannah does here, terrified that the quarter century of humiliations she’s managed to accrue have all come to nothing. Fortunately, despite her fears, new humiliations are something it doesn’t seem she’ll be short of anytime soon.