We’ve already seen how Hannah handles death with the mid-season episodes “Dead Inside” and “Only Child“—with what can best be described as cool detachment with a spoonful of selfishness tossed into the mix. It’s a reaction that could perhaps be chalked up to her age, where death is distant reality, or seen in this week’s “Flo,” a learned behaviour from a dysfunctional family that bickers over the fate of heirlooms as a grandmother lays on her death bed.
With Flo (June Squibb) laid up in the hospital battling pneumonia from which she may not recover, Hannah is called by her mother (Becky Ann Baker) to come as soon as possible to see her grandmother before she passes away. And so, in the grand tradition of upper-tier “Girls” episodes, the format is shaken up, with this one taking place out of town and focused entirely on Hannah. She arrives to find not only her mother but her aunts (played by Amy Morton and Deirdre Lovejoy in some pretty great, flinty guest appearances) and cousin Rebecca (Sarah Steele of “Please Give” fame). It’s a battleground of egos and resentment that finds fuel through their collective grieving. And Hannah is drawn into the drama in a rather curious way.
She’s asked by her mother to tell Grandma Flo that she’s getting married to Adam (Adam Driver), to give her some comfort that at least one of her granddaughters is achieving an (old school) version of success and happiness. Hannah is rightfully put off by the request, but it’s also one that gets her thinking. A phone call to Adam, who is starting rehearsals for “Major Barbara” and was unable to join her on the trip, opens up the kind of discussion about commitment that any young couple will be familiar with. It’s the thorny talk about whether or not marriage is in the cards of the relationship, and it leaves both Hannah and Adam flustered. “This is a conversation that I never, ever wanted to have. And it might seem like I was angling to have it, but I really was not—and it’s making me extremely stressed and a little angry for reasons I don’t understand, so I have to go now. Bye!” Hannah says, ending a brief phone call to Adam.
Overall, Hannah appears mostly aloof about Flo possibly dying, but that hardly compares to Rebecca, who can’t even bring herself to go to the hospital, keeping her nose stuck in her medical textbooks, claiming to prefer to remember her grandmother as she was. And she’s particularly standoffish with Hannah, choosing to hang out with her mostly out of obligation rather than any real desire to do so. A complicated childhood relationship between the pair doesn’t help bridge the gap (Hannah was the one who told a six year-old Rebecca—correctly—that she’d never see her father again after he was busted for insider trading), nor does Rebecca’s complete lack of regard for Hannah’s chosen profession. “Writers are just this ridiculous class of people who make everything about themselves and they tend to have really strange, bizarre eating habits,” she declares, with the pair out for an evening at the bar. But for what it’s worth, Hannah is really trying, telling Rebecca, “I would really like it if we could be the kind of cousins who spend time together, and sleep in the same bed in the summertime, and jump in a lake, and have inside jokes about our grandmother, and were molested by the same person, but we’re not.”
Not much happens by way of plot in “Flo,” but it is anchored by two sequences exceptionally directed by Richard Shepard (“Dom Hemingway,” “The Matador“). The first comes not long after Hannah and Rebecca’s evening out at the bar, when an argument — as Rebecca is texting and driving — winds up with the pair hitting a parked car, and getting treated in the hospital. Adam arrives, rushing from New York City after getting a text from Hannah that simply said “car crash,” and finds that his girlfriend and Rebecca are fine, with minor injuries and not much else. But the aunts are not far behind and, after ensuring the girls are fine, erupt in a bitter argument that starts with whether or not to keep Flo on life support (if it comes to that), which turns into insults about their husbands, living situations and more. It’s ugly, and it gives Hannah a window into what Rebecca likely is witness to more often than not. After the aunts leave in tears and anger, and Adam disappears to use the bathroom, Hannah and Rebecca are left alone and, in a gesture of tenderness, Hannah simply places her hand in Rebecca’s. It’s a sweet, silent acknowledgement of understanding that’s beautifully played.
The other significant moment comes not long after. With Adam around, Hannah grants her mother’s wish and introduces him to Flo and tells her grandmother they’re getting married. Adam briefly introduces himself and, out in the hall, quickly says his goodbyes to Hannah and her mother and makes his way back to the city. And after he’s gone, Hannah’s mother lays bare her honest feelings about Adam. “He’s really nice, but stay open to possibilities,” she says. “I don’t know him very well, but I see certain things. He’s odd, he’s angry, he’s uncomfortable in his own skin, he bounces around from thing to thing. I don’t want you to spend your whole life socializing him like he’s a stray dog, making the world a friendlier place for him. It’s not easy being married to an odd man. It isn’t.” It shakes Hannah to near tears, and it’s the rare moment when she doesn’t have a well-crafted barb or phrase at the ready.
And it’s not the last time in the episode that Hannah will be left speechless. For a brief moment, it looks like Flo will be okay, miraculously surviving the bout with pneumonia and coming through with shining colors. So Hannah heads back to New York City, and just as she steps off the train and in to Manhattan, Rebecca is on the phone with terrible news: Flo had a heart attack, and has died. And, standing alone, Hannah is left to comprehend how quickly life can turn upside down.
Beautifully helmed by Shepherd (the closing shot is pretty great), “Flo” is a little gem of an episode. In a season that doesn’t have much to offer in the main plot threads surrounding the rest of the girls, this one shines by giving us a better understanding of Hannah and how her family may have shaped her own methods of handling relationships and dealing with love and loss. [B+]
Songs in this episode: Pearl Jam “Let The Records Play”; Hannah Cohen “Don’t Say”; Jill Sobule “Don’t Let Us Get Sick”