You knew Lena Dunham was doubling down on that which earns Girls dissenting reviews from the opening shot of last night’s show, upon seeing her latest beige Onesie rocked higher and tighter than a NASA crew cut. “One Man’s Trash” has already elicited strong reactions of love and lava spewing unlove. Todd VanDerWerff at the A.V. Club gave the ep an “A” rating, while an abject pan from Dave Haglund and Daniel Engber of Slate asked, “Was that the worst episode of Girls ever?” Count on the Internet to tensely polarize that which was all told pretty mediocre, but still kinda unique and worth trying. That which Bunson and Beaker from the Muppet Show might call a failed experiment.
After a brief conversation over origins of the term “Sexit” (aka the French Exit) is punctuated by Urban Dictionary, we get the entry of Patrick Wilson as Joshua (never Josh) into Café Grumpy, which feels a bit like Julia Roberts casually dropping by the actual Mystic Pizza. Guys like Patrick Wilson are a complete nightmare for all other dudes in a way that their female counterpart — supermodel candidates walking down the street — aren’t necessarily as threatening to other women. Why? Because women arguably tend to be more selective than men in choosing sexual partners. Tend to be! Arguably! This Adonis in casual wear has gripes about Grumpy’s trash being stuffed in his bins. As café manager and profound overreactor, Ray acts as if being attacked on his one and only home turf -– the workspace in which he is the Grumpy king –- his haven pillaged by n’eer-do-well employees like Hannah and the neighbors who dare ask them to be more competent. It’s enough to make me wonder if the boys at Slate feel as threatened by a Wilson type as Ray seems to be.
And so for thirty unfiltered minutes, Girls had its own displaced Don Draper. At 42, Josh(ua) is over-serious in a show where no one is serious enough. Surrounded by material possessions that salve the wounds but never heal them. The show’s cast is also small enough that Dunham is willing to devote a lot of time to getting to know one new character at a time. Josh(ua) gets some Hannah-fueled monologues to explain his status as a semi-divorced doctor. “I’m like the oldest guy in this neighborhood by like twenty-five years,” he says. “I’m like an old ghost.”
After a few rolls in the TempurPedic hay, she asks him to beg her to stay. And as beggars go, he’s not half-bad at role-playing. It’s a return to the domme role she had with Adam. But now it isn’t something to usurp or wear as a mask: it is real life, with a real man, and something she can ask for rather than force or steal. When told by him that he wants her to make him cum, she flips the script and their bodies, telling him she first wants him to make it happen for her. When asked if she thinks she’s beautiful, she replies “I do, it’s just not always the feedback I’ve been given.”
And so they mutually call in sick together, to schtup and play naked ping pong. In his review, VanDerWerff proposes that the only episode that one could imagine as more baiting toward people who don’t like Girls would be one where “Dunham never wears a stitch of clothing and throws water balloons at people of other races.” Dunham seems to be making a short film in this self-contained episode, about what happens when you try on for size a different life than your own, especially if you’re already fairly egocentric. Many are likely to see her sudden hookup and entry into the life of a middle-aged physician as impossible, to which I would suggest that not only do these things happen all the time, but that they often play out almost precisely as “One Man’s Trash” does. New York is swarming with folks of disparate ages looking to either speed up or slow down their aging processes, with no serum stronger than the company one (intimately) keeps.
Yet by episode’s end, there is something that feels oblivious in the wrong ways, as opposed to the right kind of oblivion that we’ve come to know and love from Girls. Getting weepy in Josh(ua)’s bed, Hannah’s humorous self-absorption recedes into the full-on abyss of solipsism from which people don’t come back. Her thesis statement is that the young artist subjects herself to a world of hurt, disrespect, and discomfort in the name of visceral experience. “I made a promise such a long time ago,” she says: presumably it has been made to herself, or some imagined public, hungry for her insights. Few among us – particular avid readers and writers – are exempt from moments like these, in which we play the self-imposed Atlas, only to later ask why we must be the ones with the world on our shoulders. This doesn’t make it any easier to watch in others. Soon the bubble is burst, and Hannah’s mix of self-loathing arrogance returns to its comedic lily pad, caustically dismissing the handjob Josh(ua) received from another boy at the age of nine, his biographical attempt to relate to her.
In season two, Dunham has rightly defied the cowardly pricks of message board and comment section culture who tell her to put her clothes back on from the safety of a keyboard. Yet she has also –- either bravely or recklessly, depending on who you ask –- given Hannah what can be at times something genuinely ugly: a selfish streak. To all those who dismissed Girls as a show about entitled brats, Hannah is bold, young, and raw enough to suggest that yes, she feels entitled. Just as you the viewer get cranky with entitlement on your worst days. We all do. So let’s put it onscreen, and then ask: OK, now what?
“If anything I think I’m too smart, and too sensitive, and too not crazy,” she says, “so that I’m feeling all these big feelings and containing all this stuff for everybody else.” She is not only consumed by her own wants, desires, and impulses – each dressed up as “goals” in order to give them value in a win-loss society – she is totally unable to give a damn about Josh(ua)’s insights in the face of her own hyperactive epiphanies. The critics who invariably and perhaps understandably compare Hannah and Dunham directly might ask how self-aware Dunham is in this moment, and where self-parody ends and genuine woe begins. It’s too cold to look at Hannah’s tearful jag that closes out “One Man’s Trash” and call it mere vanity. Yet it’s obviously vapid to give everything she’s saying credence, with so much of it sounding so conceited.
The duality and dissonance of the moment takes up this season’s major theme: how can we tell the difference between narcissism and chutzpah? Particularly in the social media age? While being patted on the head inside a multi-million dollar brownstone? “Everyone acts like I’m nuts,” says Hannah, quoting a New York magazine profile of Fiona Apple, rattled off with such rote recall that she might as well recite the URL by heart. “I’m not nuts,” say Hannah and Fiona. “I just wanna feel it all.” The growing pains of Hannah and of Girls alike may be in the adoption of methods which do allow her to feel each sensation, albeit one or two at a time, on a bite-sized weekly basis.