Hannah (Lena Dunham) in a scene with Dr Joshua (Patrick Wilson).
Did someone at UNESCO dub this week the International Week of Film & TV Critics Missing the Point?
First there was Rex Reed's fax from the Dark Ages, and evidently now a whole brace of TV critics managed to watch this week's episode of Girls - titled “One Man's Trash”, in which Hannah (Lena Dunham) has a brief affair with a handsome older man, Joshua (Patrick Wilson) - and be so completely bewildered by the sensation of the point whooshing past their heads that come Monday morning all they could do was file hundreds of words of drivel.
To wit: they just couldn't believe that a young woman who looks like Dunham could ever score a man like Wilson. “But really, the whole thing left me baffled and uncomfortable. Why are these people having sex, when they are so clearly mismatched,” says Daniel Engber, one half of the genius team behind Slate's Guys On Girls recap, who seem so stunned by the idea that Joshua would tell Hannah she was beautiful that they forgot how to brain.
Esquire's Peter Martin was so bamboozled he could only offer that the entire episode must have been a dream, like an old episode of The Cosby Show where Theo is pregnant with a sailboat: “This week's Girls was a lot like that Cosby Show, except Hannah never woke up from the fantastical, implausible story she found herself in.”
Entertainment Weekly's Lindsey Bahr was on the dream tip, too: “Little about Hannah and Joshua's interaction rings true. They're awkward with each other, but still manage to find themselves in relaxed, distinct situations.”
I wish you could see my face right now, it looks a lot like The Scream, but with Jonathan Sceats glasses.
There were more considered responses and I will get to them in a moment, but the fact that such a scenario seemed so fantastical that it must be, well, fantasy says an awful lot about the extent to which the gender politics film and TV have sold us have been absorbed by society: hot people get what they want, and more recently, less-hot men can get a hot girl, but a less conventionally attractive girl can never ever get the hot guy unless she submits to a makeover first.
Girls is not being written in real-time, but the turnaround from its debut season to the episodes currently airing has been speedy enough that Dunham - its chief writer and frequent director - has regularly, if occasionally obtusely, addressed criticism of the show within its storylines. Hannah's physicality is front and centre, and it's hard to imagine that “One Man's Trash” had absolutely nothing to do with the (frequent) criticism of Dunham as “ugly”.
(On the surface of it, yes, Dunham may be shorter and fatter, relatively speaking, than most Hollywood actors but I find it hard to comprehend a mindset in which her cherubic face and doe eyes could possibly be considered “ugly”.)
But the pairing of Hannah and Joshua and it's possible “odd couple” aspects is possibly the least interesting thing about “One Man's Trash”. I'm with Vulture's Matt Soller Zeitz, who said of the imagined "omg could IRL Hannah pull a hot dude??" quandary: “That's a great question, if you're boring.”
The fantasy angle didn't even occur to me; I was too busy being stunned by the episode's exploration of the heavy intimacy that can occur in the strangest, most fleeting situations. Sometimes we open up - emotionally, sexually - more in brief affairs precisely because we know it's a dead-end. (I once spent a night with an ordinarily taciturn man who was so horrified by how emotionally frank he'd been with me over the course of eight hours or so of conversation that he literally ran out the door when the sun came up.)
It was wonderful to see Hannah (who has, for most of the show, played a willing if confused partner to the not at all sexually generous Adam) take charge of her sexual experience and insist that Joshua “make [her] come” instead of doling out the blowjob he was, if not expecting, then certainly hoping for. And it was even more astounding to see him comply, the scene shot in an unwavering zoom on their faces.
In a far less infuriating recap of the episode than Slate's Statler & Waldorf efforts, The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum nailed (as it were) why the sex felt so important: “This short, potent sequence was a departure from any sex we've seen so far on Girls, because it wasn't played for laughs. It stood in contrast with the first-season scene of Marnie rolling her eyes at her attentive boyfriend, and also with the second-season scene of Marnie getting slammed into the starfish position by a pretentious, detached lover (and maybe enjoying the novelty, since he demands nothing). In fact, the Hannah/Josh scene was so intimate that it felt invasive: raw and odd and tender.”
And, incredible though it may seem to some, raw and odd and tender intimacy sometimes happens between people who don't appear - on the surface of it - to be well suited, either because of age, social standing or any number of other variables.
For me, the most stunning moment of “One Man's Trash” was when - after an idyllic few days with Joshua - Hannah finally realised what she wanted, but could only wrap the realisation in shame: “Please don't tell anyone this, but I want to be happy.” And then, even more devastatingly, as Slate's Hannah Rosin said, the moment where reality sets in and Hannah becomes the young woman we're used to - selfish yet lacking self-awareness - and Joshua “has to set his face to pretend that he isn't noticing or isn't disappointed that she has turned psycho”.
In other words, the sudden realisation - for both of them - that the dream weekend is over.
But the mere fact that Hannah doesn't look like Charlize Theron doesn't mean her dream weekend was “just a dream”. Everybody deserves pleasure, to be admired, and real intimacy - no matter what they look like.