While it’s often thought that every hero needs a nemesis, this is acutely true of a particular brand of self-mythologizing comedian. I have always relished, for example, that Seinfeld had a Newman, and that their beef seemed a mutual delusion of grandeur. This week we met Hannah’s enemy of the mental state, the infuriatingly successful Tally Schifrin (Jenny Slate, well cast as the sugary gal who other women either adore or resent). Tally’s is a name that evokes both irritable bowel syndrome and heads of yearbook committees. She is a smug and successful memoirist with a career Hannah (Lena Dunham) covets, though the hors d’oeurves at Hannah’s party wouldn’t be so cold and clammy. The cover of Tally’s bestselling personal tragedy Leave Me Alone sports her face and her face alone, despite being a memoir detailing her boyfriend’s death by crashing a vintage car while high on Percoset. Hannah unabashedly wishes her own life were so awesomely Oprah-ready.
Indeed, for You – the True Believing, Avidly Literate Vol. 1 Reader – there was tons of book stuff in tonight’s episode. We received our first taste of Hannah’s voice as a writer, albeit a string of thrown together sentences penned on the subway moments before she reads them aloud to a captive bookstore audience. Enlisted by her college writing prof Powell Goldman (Michael Imperioli, in a welcome return to HBO!), from whom she receives dreamlike validation of her own work and triumphant shit-talking of Ms. Schifrin’s, we learn Hannah has stage presence. Her shortcoming has never been a lack of confidence. Yet after hearing from Marnie and Ray that her subject matter is trite and self-absorbed, she psyches herself out by failing to stick to her guns and read her piece about dating a hoarder. It certainly wouldn’t have been as bad as the reader that precedes her, whose closing lines fill the shop as we enter the scene: “Maybe everyone in this town is just looking for a bathroom. In fact, he thought, maybe everyone in this whole damn world is.”
Hannah’s phony attempts at giving her writing magnitude by escalating its body count spoke well to the creative woes of the joke writer, particularly one who crafts small wonder out of daily doldrums. Hannah and Dunham alike are at their distilled best at one hundred forty characters or less, and I would be hard-pressed to recall any great Tweets I’ve ever read about death. And I cannot say enough good things about the brief fits of unfiltered Imperioli we get here. How I have missed his darting eyes, and the perpetual bobbing-and-weaving motions of his speech patterns! Seeing him back in monochromatic neckties – even ones stylistically different from those of Chris-tuh-phuh – was like catching up with a kooky uncle or local hobo you haven’t seen around in a while.
What can favorably be said of the later pseudo-breakup of Marnie and Hannah at the close of last night’s show is that it felt true to girl/girl meltdowns I’ve watched unfold before my very eyes. There is opera in the ways in which women often express frustrations with one another when living under the same roost: a volatility that crescendoes without warning after one passive-aggressive swipe too many. It seemed particularly accurate that the ladies’ skirmish begins with something as simple yet loaded as Marnie throwing away old clothes. Contrast this with the time I watched a slovenly male roommate scratch his balls with our kitchen sink’s Brillo pad, and could reply merely with, “Dude, that’s for tough grease only.”
Should Hannah and Marnie indeed go their separate ways, one of the most interesting prospects of next season will be seeing how their dynamic changes. One could imagine – as is often the case in uncomfortably close friendships and romances alike – that the two of them would rediscover their mutual appreciation for one another if they weren’t resentfully splitting utility bills and cab rides home. The climactic blow-up served both characters realistically, and captured a certain assessment of our mid-to-late twenties: to self-absorb or not to self-absorb. Hannah’s honest admission that being a good friend isn’t her top priority these days almost seems to increase her chances as a writer, insofar as the mythos around successful scribes is that they tend to be solipsists, selfish with their time and energies. Yet for the second week in a row I found myself unexpectedly cheering Marnie. Here she stood up for herself, and at last illustrated her stance as the loyal friend whose alpha dog status stems not from being uptight, but from an assured self-confidence. She feels a hundred miles from the squeamish closet masturbator of weeks past: not without her own vanities, but increasingly admirable in her use of will power as fuel.
In chatting with fellow viewers, or “picking nits off the hive mind” as I refer to it in my grossest moments – I would concur with the assessment that this one at times felt like too much of a “plot advancement episode” in which pieces on the board are forced into new positions in ways that don’t feel particularly new or inventive. Recent episodes of the show have brought us to some intriguing set pieces: Brooklyn has expanded over the course of the season. Yet it wouldn’t have mattered that Hannah’s and Marnie’s throwdown took place at home rather than some exotic locale if their dialogue had a bit more bite.
We got a secondary prolonged meeting of the female minds when Kathryn confronted Jessa. Asking Jessa to come back to her job as the family sitter would have felt forced if you don’t buy that she isn’t amazing with the kids, but let’s pretend the show has shown her be just that. The scene again felt like a means to a bluntly stated end: Jessa’s spontaneity comes from – say it with me – ISSUES WITH INTIMACY. Still the whole she-bang-bang (my soon-to-be trademarked term for female in-fighting) was worth it for Jessa’s moment of Zen: “I’m attracted to everyone when I first meet them. But then it wore off. It always wears off.” It explains a lot about why she’s fond of torrid hookups, midday spliffs and parachute pants. But moreover it explains why others are drawn to her: she is one of those who makes you feel as though you are the only person in the room. For but a wistful moment, you believe that you are her favorite, and that she does not smile this way for anyone else. It is a skill employed by presidents and strippers alike, and should not soon be devalued in our culture. We need people who are briefly attracted to everyone to remind each of us that there exists the potential for anyone to be attracted to us at all.
Most importantly, this week again left me craving more Ray and more Shoshanna. They have become the comedic sharpshooters of the show, in position to get in, destroy, and just as quickly get out. Yet Shoshanna’s hype of her upcoming e-date (“He’s named Bryce, which is like, hello? Good name.”) came and went so fast that it made me wonder if I’d somehow skipped a scene that never came. In my book, the summoning of Bryce is the true cliffhanger of next week’s season finale. And in an episode where nothing felt succinct, Ray’s pantomimed gesture of a “Slim leg jean”, in which we see only his hand peeking out from the streetside basement steps of Cafe Grumpy, curving his palm over an invisible calf muscle was an act of simple, quiet genius. Bring on the Alex Karpovsky starring vehicles: he is rapidly making a bid to become the Long Goodbye / Little Murders era Elliott Gould of our time and place.