GIRLS is at its best, or at least its most interesting, when it lives inside the head of one character from beginning to end. One of the reasons the characters always seem like caricatures is because you can't really dig into complexities and nuance when you're cramming everyone into a 28-minute episode. But capsule episodes like last season's "The Panic In Central Park" and season two's "One Man's Trash" at least try to say something beyond "Everyone's a dick in their 20s!" It makes you think about what this show might have been had it had a little more time.
"American Bitch" is a capsule episode that tries to do a lot, and I think it succeeds. Hannah's burgeoning journalism career has led her to the gorgeous apartment of acclaimed writer Chuck Palmer, played with pitch-perfect disconcertion by The Americans' Matthew Rhys. Palmer is one of Hannah's literary heroes, but he also appears to be a classic Male Writer Douchebag, with at least four young women coming forward to accuse him of taking advantage of them while on a book tour. Palmer has invited Hannah to a private meeting in his home, he says, to set the record straight.
Palmer argues that it is in fact he who has been taken advantage of—it's not his fault that women throw themselves at him, he says. All the women he's hooked up with were willing and able, he claims. Denise, one of the women who wrote about him on her Tumblr, couldn't possibly have given him a non-consensual blowjob, he points out. His daughter will read these stories and hate him, he fears.
Hannah counters, rightfully, that just because a woman doesn't say no when a powerful man who makes her feel special makes a move, doesn't mean she wants it to happen. Palmer tells her women like Denise move on him "for the story," but Hannah points out that the power imbalance is lost on him. "You're a very fucking famous writer and she's working really hard to have just a little bit of what you get every day," Hannah says. "So you invite her back to your hotel room, what's she supposed to say, no?"
Palmer then shares a piece of writing with Hannah that he says is about Denise, and tells her all he's guilty of is not pushing hard enough to get to know her, and that he wants to have that kind of personal connection with Hannah in a way of making up for that. It would be too predictable for GIRLS to turn this into a "lesson" for Palmer, but he knows what he's doing, and Hannah does too. She was just one of many journalists who wrote about Palmer's alleged misdoings, but he's just invited her to his apartment for a private meeting—he who has a history of taking advantage of women in private spaces, has invited her into his private space.
He tells her she's funny, he tells her she's a talented writer, she sees things in a way that is special, she is special. He gives her a signed copy of Philip Roth's book "When She Was Good" (this is where the episode got its name, as Hannah says she once heard the book's original title was "American Bitch"). He tells her to lie down next to him so he can experience a level of closeness with her that he hasn't felt in a while, and you know exactly what will happen next, even if you want to believe the best of your literary/artistic/filmmaking heroes. He pulls his penis out of his pants and places it onto Hannah's thigh—she holds it for a moment, then lets go and realizes what she's done. (Side note: the Hannah of previous seasons wouldn't have let go.) When she rightly freaks out at him, he flashes a somewhat maniacal grin. He knows he's won the power play, and it doesn't matter that she was right about him in the first place.
Then, his tween daughter comes home and plays flute for them, and Hannah witnesses this man who treats women like walking vaginas beam at the future woman of his creation. It is deeply unsettling. Is my father like this, I wondered. Then Hannah leaves, Rihanna's "Desperado" blasting as faceless women pour into Palmer's building, and the episode ends.
Throughout the episode, Palmer comes across as a pretty cut-and-dry entitled, successful, self-loathing man who thinks women owe him something. He says Denise looks "like a Victoria's Secret model" while he didn't lose his virginity until he was 25 and on Accutane, as if that warrants his behavior. He whines about how he is the victim, how these women who come forward are using him, how he has to live with the shame of having his good name smeared all over town, even while the Times is giving him accolades. We've heard from this man before, and we're going to hear from him again and again, though hopefully the more we expose him, the fewer of him we'll see.
But "American Bitch" might not even really be about Palmer. He isn't the one narrating this story. Hannah, who puts on lipstick in Palmer's elevator, who tries to freshen up in Palmer's bathroom, who worships this writer even in light of what's been written about him, is the narrator here. Hannah knows she's walking into the Lion's Den, she is aware that this is a potential power play and her defenses are up, but there is a part of her, I think, that still wants him to turn the charm on her.
Many years ago, I had a crush on a boss of mine who had affairs with a number of my female coworkers. They were all much younger than him. He treated all of them terribly. But he never made a move on me, and I was devastated. I believed I wasn't even good enough for him to use and throw away. Watching this episode, I couldn't help but think of this.
There is something intoxicating about a man who treats women like shit, especially someone in a position of power, and especially someone you worship, in a way. Even if you know they're using you, you still feel like you've been "chosen," like you're special, like you still get to at least be on the list. This is a hard thing to overcome, especially when you're young and struggling to find your own place in the world.
I was too stressed out by "American Bitch" to make observational notes, so none of that for you this week. Next week: Marnie and Desi go to therapy, and Adam Driver's back!