In the Feb. 26 episode of “Girls” — airing opposite the Academy Awards, telegraphing its punch — Hannah (Lena Dunham) sits down with noted author Chuck Palmer (Michael Rhys) for a timely back-and-forth on consent, power, and truth. Rhys’ brisk performance — and a doozy of a final shot — make this episode in particular one to remember for the whole series.
And yet, while it’s easy to look at an episode like “American Bitch” in isolation, it’s more worthwhile considering in context.
Each season of “Girls” has included a stylized bottle episode, with its own internal logic and separate from any specific plot threads. But unlike its cultural sensibility, the show’s artistic nous has always been more than even-handed: The precision of its production only serves to elevate its storytelling, no matter how inane the plot or insufferable the characters can get.
The best example, Season 2’s “One Man’s Trash” (2013), is arguably “Girls'” best episode. Constructed like a short film, and unfolding like a play, it benefits like “American Bitch” from taking place in a well-appointed, detailed setting: Large windows and high ceilings give us a lot of natural light, allowing for a neutral color palette. The vision for the episode is evident in its mood.
But that half-hour is also built on a number of clever choices: Joshua’s (Patrick Wilson) dust-up with Ray (TK) over a misplaced garbage bin is misdirection, telling us we’re in for a classic Ray Affair… Until Hannah goes down the street to Joshua’s house to apologize, and ends up invited inside.
Over the course of the encounter, we come to see the house as an analogue to those who occupy it: Joshua, a recently divorced, aging doctor with good taste, is lonely. Hannah, seeking relief from her own deep-seated dissatisfaction, serves as an obvious counterpoint.
Together, they give us a four-handed meditation on longing, moving through the house and each other. On the back porch, Joshua laments feeling out of place in the neighborhood — while in the bathroom Hannah, looking in the mirror, considers the immanence of a domesticated life with a fulfilling career and a stable relationship.
As episode director Richard Shepard notes in a recent interview with Vulture about “American Bitch,” no other character sees Hannah walk into Joshua’s house — or sees her again, until she leaves. As he says, “When we’re in our twenties and we have this incredible experience and no one witnesses it, did it really even happen?” There’s even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of the door closing behind Joshua as Hannah enters the building: These touches make charm out of their weariness, as the episode’s execution lay in its craft.
“Girls” more than carries its weight in set-pieces, too, scaling down without losing focus. Take Season 3’s memorable change of pace, “Beach House.” Within the context of the season the episode is an outlier — it had only recently become comfortable leaving the city as a setting, while the previous episode, “Free Snacks,” was the show at its satirical best, poking fun at the content industrial complex.
“Beach House” is much looser by contrast. Marnie plans a weekend away for the girls in Long Island, Hannah coincidentally runs into Elijah and his friends (Andrew Rannells, Danny Strong, T. Oliver Reid and… Chris Wood?!) and invites them for dinner, and — much to Marnie’s consternation — the evening turns into a free-for-all.
Like “One Man’s Trash,” the wine-guzzling prancing around to show tunes here is a Trojan horse, blocking the characters to set us up for surprise. We know a volley of humorlessness from Marnie will only be returned by Hannah’s vanity — but nobody expects Shoshanna, in a pink tank top and matching drink, to pull the pin out of the grenade: “I’m talking about the fact that you’re a f*cking narcissist. Seriously, I have never met anyone else who thinks their own life is so fucking fascinating.” (Additionally — and clearly paramount in this final season — this choice also works as a meta-commentary on the criticism “Girls” receives for being shallow, pompous and banal itself.)
The men calmly clear the room, leaving through the edge of the camera’s focus. Rather than keeping all the chewy confrontation in a single frame, episode director Jesse Peretz moves around the room. Because the cuts are so economical, the physical spacing between characters mimics the emotional distance and dynamics of their relationships, just as in “One Man’s Trash.”
Look at how Shoshanna closes down as she upbraids Hannah, or Jessa sits and stands just far enough away not to notice, waiting for her customary opening to be arch and insolent… Or finally, when we switch perspective: From behind Marnie and Jessa, Shoshanna occupies the negative space between them. Hannah points a finger at Shoshanna and accuses her for being dim, proving the latter’s initial point that they don’t listen to her. “Beach House” demonstrates how walking the line between showing and telling can be just as cathartic as either on its own.
It’s natural to revisit a pilot after, or even before, a show’s finale. In addition to the added perspective, it briefly renews the sense of possibility that comes with spending time in a world with such a specific point of view. Taking into account the youth of both the cast and crew, “Girls” is made with such dexterity that its sensibility is earned — whether it’s trying to make you laugh (“Beach House”), reflect (“One Man’s Trash) or negotiate (“American Bitch”).
The pilot for “Girls” will most readily be remembered for Hannah telling her Baby Boomer parents that she may be the “voice of a generation” as she attempts to publish a memoir at the age of twenty-four. But what remains, over the show’s run, is another sequence: Hannah, newly cut off and alone in an empty hotel room, helps herself to the money intended tip the housekeeper. She opens one envelope, then the other, and compares. We then shift to the money’s point of view and see Hannah glance over her shoulder at nothing in particular. She takes the money and heads off into the city on another adventure, ending the episode — but beginning the show as it meant to proceed, and most certainly has.
“Girls” airs Sundays at p.m. ET/PT on HBO.