A Girl on “Girls”: East Lansing, Naked Parents, Vampire Pharmacist, and More (S1/E6, “The Return”)

“The Return” felt a bit like the audience was being punished for some forgotten crime.  Without Jessa, Marnie and Zosia Mamet (sigh, Shoshanna) to keep us company, all we are left with is sad, awful Hannah.  Much has been said about how Lena Dunham has deliberately made Hannah despicable, and if there was any doubt about this before last night, it is clear now that Hannah is indeed as terrible as Dunham can play her.  If each decision the character makes is a fork in some road (or a different timeline, if you watch Community), then Hannah will, without fail, always take the wrong way.

Horrible Hannah goes back to Michigan to spend the weekend with her parents.  Instead of a suitcase, Hannah bundles what I assume is dirty laundry into a black plastic garbage bag.  It’s a nice visual reminder that she doesn’t have her shit together, as if we could ever forget.  Her supportive parents greet her at the airport and from the second Hannah climbs into the family station wagon; she is venomous and cruel towards them.  I understand that when visiting family there is the temptation to just bask in their lives like a hedonist—free food (Hannah eats it out of the fridge like she’s never seen food before), no work, endless resources—but Hannah takes her parents’ good will as if it is an attack on her very self.  She even shouts, “You don’t know me!” after a particularly bland conversation during a movie where she won’t stop texting.  It’s over-dramatic.  We get it, Dunham; Hannah is a jerk.

But where the episode is grotesque in its Hannah-centricity, it is brilliant in handling how someone from a big city handles returning to the small town that bore(d) them.  Kindly local pharmacist Eric is introduced to the audience as Hannah’s foil to show us just exactly how the city has made her different, and in some regards, ruined her entirely.  Hannah cannot appreciate the benefit for Carrie, some girl she knew from high school that disappeared (think Natalee Holloway), because all she can see is the earnest choreography of an old friend deluded into thinking that she can take on Hollywood.  Hannah is right, the dancing is cheesy and the outfits are even worse—but the sentiment is sweet, and where Hannah can barely contain her laughter, her date Eric is touched and sympathetic.

Sidebar: did you think that Eric was the kindly effeminate vampire Jasper from Twilight?  I saw him and shouted “VAMPIRE PHARMACIST,” but IMDB tells me that Jackson Rathbone (LOL) wasn’t on Girls.

What “The Return” completely and utterly understands is that feeling you have if you are like me and moved from a small town to a big city: when you are back in that small town, nobody else is drinking the same haterade.  It feels a bit as if you are the only sane person in an asylum—how can you people see that Chili’s is not an acceptable place for a romantic evening?  How can you shop at the mall and not feel like you’re in an ant farm?  How can you tolerate living in this tiny, boring shit hole town?—and that emotion is both isolating and electrifying.  Hannah is mortified and disgusted, but she is also given the opportunity to feel genuinely superior to a bunch of yokels.  She tells herself in a mirror that everything she says is more interesting than anything they can say, which is mean, but probably true.  Hannah is a profoundly unhappy person, but that despair may be the driving force behind her desire to make something special out of her life.  If you are reading this from New York, or Los Angeles, or London, the same might be true of your own life.

But Hannah’s parents don’t see someone who is deeply unfulfilled; in fact, Hannah’s mother talks about Hannah as if she is living life completely focused on “fun.”  Hannah’s mother probably uses the word “fun” fifty times in one sentence, speaking about “fun” as if it is both currency and emotion.  Where Hannah’s father sees that there is little proof that Hannah is actually in New York growing into a better, adult version of herself, Hannah’s mother has deluded (there is that word again!) herself into thinking that Hannah has gained in “fun” where she lacks in professional and emotional maturity.  Sadly, the Hannah we know doesn’t have much fun anywhere.  She is too nervous and self-sabotaging, winked at by her father’s strange Woody Allen imitation.

In an episode that felt like an NC-17 live action version of the “Cathy” comic strips, Adam was certainly something like chocolate—Adam, Adam, Adam AACK!  Hannah dials his phone and we yell “NO!” at the screen, but she does it anyway.  When he finally calls her back (in the middle of the night) I roll my eyes when he repeatedly calls her “kid” and acts as if they are on perfectly good terms.  Adam and Hannah have a very unhealthy relationship, and sometimes I wonder if Dunham wants us to root for them as a couple.  Obviously he’s a weirdo and the way he treats Hannah is unfair, but their conversation is a reminder that she isn’t going to stay in Michigan and settle down with Eric.  She’s a weirdo too.

The sex scene between Hannah and Eric is also brilliant, in that it shows us that Hannah, coming from a sexually literate creative class, cannot have sex without processing the meaning and implications of the act.  She has been told again and again, probably at dorm floor meetings and in columns at The Hairpin, that people should just ask for what they want when they are fucking.  When sweet, simple Eric just wants to have normal sex and doesn’t articulate his wants, Hannah just goes and tries everything.  The scene was supposed to be funny, but it was much more than just two awkward people trying to fuck for the first time—it was the naked (punny!) juxtaposition of a big city girl trying to apply her life to a place where it just doesn’t belong.  She’s used to weird Adam who wants to have his balls stepped on and can say as much, and that’s okay.

I could discuss the scene where Hannah’s father falls while having shower sex with Hannah’s mother, but I won’t, because I am traumatized; instead, I’ll say that I very much look forward to next week, because spending an entire half an hour with horrible, weirdo Hannah just made me miss Marnie, Jessa and Zosia Mamet that much more.

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  1. Umm — East Lansing is not a small hick town. It is the home of a major Big ten University, and only a couple miles from the Capital of Michigan — Lansing. Not only that, the school district actually has a well-regarded theater and music program. Not to mention, one of its famous sons is also a Co-Founder of Google. (Larry Page).

  2. Hannah is not despicable;
    she is clueless. She has no idea what life is about, and she’s thrashing about,
    trying to figure it out. She’s helped along (ha ha) in this quixotic quest by
    Adam, exemplar of the men his age: a complete tool, in bed and out. It’s no
    knock on East Lansing or Michigan State that they chose it to be the place
    Hannah is truly from.  It could have been
    Madison or Columbus or Ann Arbor: not just any major college town (her parents
    are profs), but really anyplace NOT New York. 
    Because, though all else is failing, Hannah remains besotted by the
    unspoken belief of all of us who have ever moved to the big city: it bestows
    some cachet on us to say we live there. (She asks Adam to get up and look out
    his window just so she can feel a connection to the life that, though she has
    begun to question, she can’t contemplate not living.)   

    As “home”, East Lansing is
    an attractive place.  I spent four years
    there as an undergraduate and recently considered returning there for grad
    school.  It is a place of its own
    considerable charms, but of course not when compared to Park Slope or Capitol

    Hannah has yet to discover
    that the best way to live her life is to be herself.  Until she does, and I expect it will take
    some time, this will remain compelling TV.

  3. First of all, in response to stevec3: Growing up in Columbus, then moving with my parents to East Lansing for a year, I can say that East Lansing is tiny in comparison and seriously lacking in the resources and decently cool stuff Columbus has. Population wise, the metro areas are just under 500,000 (Lansing) versus just under 2 million (Columbus). I’d say a population four times as large makes a BIG difference.

    But I don’t think people from East Lansing have nothing interesting to say. Like most college towns, it’s fairly liberal and open-minded, and fosters more creative and artistic expression than most Midwestern towns and cities without large universities.

    Also, I didn’t like that it was so blatantly emphasized that apparently Midwesterners can’t have open, communicative sex lives. I’ve lived almost my entire life in the Midwest. Most people I know aren’t just ‘be quiet and have sex the traditional way’ people, and it just felt condescending. Also, I think most people our age would look at that weird, inappropriately sexy dance at the benefit and want to laugh or cringe (or both) — that is not memorial material.

    I live in London now, but I don’t feel like I’m superior to any of my friends in Columbus, or East Lansing, or Kansas City, where a lot of my college friends live. I don’t think I have better things to say than they do, and I don’t look down on their lives. They’ve just chosen different paths than I have, and if they’re happy, then that’s great. It sounds like the author of this post has a bit of the same superior attitude Hannah uses as a defense mechanism.

    One more thing: in Hannah’s mom’s description of Hannah’s life, when she uses the word ‘fun’, I took it to be partly negative. I know that’s how I see Hannah — she literally does whatever she wants, whenever she wants, and doesn’t seem to be thinking about anything other than her immediate satisfaction. I’ve had my own moments of this, but I also had to struggle through them financially because my parents cut me off way before Hannah’s. Even when I lived with them briefly between undergrad and grad school, I had to cook a certain number of meals a week and do my share of cleaning and chores or else I had to move out. It was my way of paying rent. So when Hannah’s mom kept repeating the “fun” line, I thought it was more to say that all she cares about is trying to have fun, and she needs to learn herself that you can’t always do whatever you want without repercussions.

    All that aside, I, too, can’t wait to have the other girls back next episode. And what about Jorma?!