Season 1, Episode 6: “The Return”
Over the last couple of episodes we’ve lamented that Lena Dunham‘s “Girls” has taken a turn towards the sitcom, with episodes that have favored wacky shenanigans over the humanity and heart — and the humor that followed — that opened the season on such a strong footing. Well, we’re happy to report that “The Return” harkens back to those initial shows, and marks easily one of the best episodes this season so far. While we’ve been critical of the softball, superfluous subplots given to Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), it’s a bit revealing that with the story centering strictly on Hannah (Dunham), it allows for some of the most focused and observant writing we’ve seen yet on the show.
Celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary, her parents invite Hannah out to Michigan to spend the weekend with them. Loading up her clothes in a garbage bag, not unlike Chris Farley in “Tommy Boy,” Hannah leaves the big city to land back in the comparatively provincial town where she grew up. But what Dunham and co. get so right is the way that parents continue to worry and fuss over their children, even as they grow into adults. Hannah’s mother (the excellent Becky Ann Baker) tells her about the job openings that are available, the food she has ready at the house and the Netflix movies they’ve got queued for the weekend. Sitting in the backseat of the car, Hannah’s patience is already being tested, and it isn’t made any easier by the worries of her relationship, job status (now unemployed after quitting her job last episode) and financial situation (Marnie reminds her before she leaves, and later by text, that rent is due in a week).
But, even with all these feelings knocking around, there is a familiarity and comfort of stepping back in time into your old room as well. Hannah’s bedroom boasting an old-school purple iMac and a poster for “Party Girl” (awesome) is a brief, but easily shorthanded look into who she was as a teen. These are small details, but it works really well and adds a nice bit of character texture. The next day, running an errand to the pharmacy for her menopause-stricken mother, Hannah catches the eye of Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), the pharmacist’s son/co-owner, and he asks her out to a benefit that’s happening to raise funds for a classmate who was murdered in Mexico (sounds heavy, but the way it’s explained by the airhead Heather, who is organizing the fundraiser, is kind of amazing).
Unfortunately, the date means that Hannah will have to break off her plans with her parents, but when they start to object, she heartbreakingly reveals — in a rare moment of candor — just how she’s been feeling: “I’ve been dating someone who treats my heart like its monkey meat. I feel like a delusional, invisible person half the time, so I need to learn what it’s like to be treated well before its too late for me.” That settles it, and Hannah goes off to meet Eric. And over the course of their evening, it becomes clear how insecure Hannah has become. Their first stop is at the fundraiser where Heather, who has revealed she’s moving to Los Angeles in a week to pursue a dancing career, unveils an earnest, misguided and godawful choreographed routine to Keri Hilson‘s “Pretty Girl Rock” in honor of her friend. Afterwards in the car, Hannah somewhat excessively cuts Heather down to size, casting her dreams as delusional, while Eric is gentler, not willing to participate in disparaging someone whose intentions were noble.
But it’s in the bedroom that Hannah’s desire to please, rather than be lost in the moment, comes to the fore. While sex with Adam has relied on dirty talk and more salacious forms of kink to get him off (usually at the expense of her own pleasure it seems), in bed with Eric she’s thrown both by his vanilla approach, and perhaps even his confidence. Dirty talk is a no go, and when she tries to slip a finger in his asshole while they’re fucking, she explains, “You weren’t telling me what you wanted at all, so I was just trying to guess what you wanted.” His answer is simple — he just wants to have sex. The entire scene, like the awkward sexual encounters that are becoming a hallmark of the show, is honest and true, highlighting the fumbling that marks young sex and one-night stands.
So, it’s particularly brilliant when we cut back to Hannah’s parents, now back from their anniversary dinner date, having sex in the shower. And it’s a pretty great contrast, with the pair knowing exactly what they want and like after 30 years together, with Hannah’s Dad’s enthusiasm going into overdrive to the point where he slips, falls out of the shower, smacks his head on the counter and blacks out. Hannah returns home, just as her father is waking up and in a great Apatow-style, cringeworthy moment, she has to help get her soaking wet, naked father up off the bathroom floor and into bed. The two sex scenes, followed by the brief comic bit, is just standout writing and editing all around, with a myriad of emotions all delicately balanced and diffused.
But it’s the finale that will truly get a lump rising in your throat. During the night, Adam calls Hannah’s cell after seeing she had rung him up earlier in the weekend (and hung up after the first ring). And while Hannah chats with him, still sorting out her own feelings, and coming clean that she slept with Eric, Fleet Foxes “Montezuma” begins to rise. “So now I am older than my mother and father / when they had their daughter / now what does that say about me / Oh how could I dream of such a selfless and true love / could I wash my hands of / just looking out for me?” — and it really says all you need to know about where Hannah is right now. She’s at the crossroads where so many of us were or are, grappling with the weighty responsibility of adulthood, which sometimes means being selfish and also, being honest with who we are. It’s a beautiful moment, and the rare song choice that manages to wrap up a lot complex emotions with just a few lines and haunted melodies. “The Return” is Lena Dunham and “Girls” at its best. [A-]
Songs in this episode: Seals & Croft “Summer Breeze”; Ian Matthews “Shake It”; Jewel “Hands”; John Mayer “Waiting On The World To Change”; Edwin McCain “I’ll Be”; Keri Hilson “Pretty Girl Rock”; Smalltown Romeo “Boom Ha”; Family Of The Year “Hero”; Fleet Foxes “Montezuma”