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‘Girls’ Review: Lena Dunham and Matthew Rhys Battle Over Consent in ‘American Bitch’

Season 6, Episode 3 is a bottle episode in the grand tradition of "Girls" past, and maybe the show's finest achievement yet.

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Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

LAST WEEK’S REVIEW: ‘Hostage Situation’ Has A Horror Movie Premise

[Editor’s note: Major spoilers for “Girls” Season 6, Episode 3, “American Bitch” follow. The episode airs Sunday, February 26 on HBO, but is now available to stream via HBO NOW and HBO Go.]

Love Her or Hate Her

Love her. If there were ever an episode of “Girls” that Lena Dunham was meant to write, this is it. At first glance the bottle episode seems to be a throwback to the second season’s “One Man’s Trash,” thanks to the set-up, but it quickly veers into much different territory. Hannah visits famed author Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys) in his fancy New York apartment to discuss an article she wrote about him and the four women who accused him of sexual abuse.

“American Bitch” then delves into a considerate and in-depth conversation about consent, what it means, “grey areas” and a slew of other insightful thoughts surrounding the subject matter. It’s a timely offering featuring a more adult version of Hannah than we’ve ever seen before from “Girls.” Sure, Dunham’s voice inevitably seeps through in Hannah every week; that’s bound to happen in a navel-gazing show of this nature. But this week, that merging of personalities is stronger and more pointed than ever, and it makes the episode an entirely different beast.

READ MORE: ‘Girls’ Director Richard Shepard on The Final Shot of ‘American Bitch’ and the Joys of Bottle Episodes

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The entire episode’s dialogue is sharp, smart and crackling; it would be possible to watch Rhys and Dunham verbally spar for hours. As the 27 minutes unroll, you see both sides of the argument: Hannah explains there are different kinds of sexual pressure and perhaps these women needed to feel as though they existed, even just for a moment, while Chuck defends himself by saying these women were hurt and angry and they needed to inject themselves into the story in order to have one. In his eyes, what they did was consensual, but sad. Both agree that situations like this require more thought and consideration before wild accusations can be thrown… and just when you think these two are getting somewhere, the unthinkable happens, and Hannah finds herself in an odd sexual situation that she may or may not have been pressured into when Chuck whips out his member (a prosthetic one, according to director Richard Shepard).

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Something to Cringe About

The look on Chuck’s face as Hannah realizes what has just happened is a fascinating mix of creepiness and smug satisfaction. It’s as though he figures he’s made his point about women needing a story; all of this goes down after Hannah laments about how she wishes some guy would write an epic novel about her the way Philip Roth wrote about Lucy Nelson in “When She Was Good.” In a meta turn of events, Hannah could have easily been the Lucy in this situation trying to “reform” Chuck into realizing the power he has over young women as an authoritative, rich and successful author. And she too wound up destroying herself in the process.

A Strange Turn of Events

The entire episode works because both Hannah and Chuck are passionate and eloquent in their respective arguments about consent, with each side actually willing to (hesitantly) listen to the other and make relevant counterpoints. As a viewer watching these two treat each other with respect and dignity while opening up about their personal histories, you begin to feel more at ease as the episode progresses. That’s why you too are caught off guard when Chuck does what he does. And then if you look back, you inadvertently begin to put yourself in the shoes of a sexual assault victim by second-guessing many of the things that went down. Was Chuck playing Hannah the whole time? Did her purposefully build her ego up by calling her funny, reading back quotes from her story and caring so deeply about what she thought? Did he really lose 20 pounds, stop sleeping and go back to a shrink? Or was his checkmate penis a show of power; all a part of some larger point he was trying to make to her about consent?

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Daddy’s Girl

Adding complexity to the entire argument was the fact that Chuck wasn’t just a famous author and personality, but he was also a father to a young girl himself. By the end of the episode that daughter made a physical appearance and threw another layer into the discussion as Chuck and Hannah watched her play the flute. It’s almost impossible to decipher the look on Hannah’s face during that moment as she watches Chuck watch his daughter. Was she angry at him? At herself? Was she marveling that this man could be so inappropriate one moment and then a seemingly great father the next? Was she feeling stupid for letting herself fall into Chuck’s “trap” or blaming herself for letting a man fluff her ego? Maybe she was asking herself if what happened truly just happened. In that moment, Hannah and Dunham managed to capture the confusion and bewilderment that a person in that situation would actually face without saying a word at all.

A Revolving Door

Just when you think any subsequent conclusions to the episode are up to the viewer, the camera pans out on a closing shot that could be possible to miss. As Hannah leaves the apartment with that same perplexed look on her face, dozens of women begin walking towards the door, entering one at a time. In that moment Hannah is one of many faceless women who may or may not find herself in a similar situation, bringing the “he said, she said” argument home.

Preparing For the End

It’s possible that “American Bitch” is the most grown-up episode of the series to date, and is of particular relevance as Dunham winds down the series. You get a sense that she’s taking advantage of this opportunity to add her own social commentary before the show goes dark, but because of the series’ lighter tone a bottle episode was the only way to properly do it. Not only will this installment go down as one of the most relevant episodes of the series, but it’s also a great showcase of Dunham’s potential as a storyteller and writer. Much like Hannah, Dunham has finally found her voice, and it’s a voice that needs to be heard.

Grade: A

Next Week: Hannah sits down with an influential female writer, Adam has a meltdown and Ray reconsiders the course of his life.

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