Spoilers for Sunday’s episode of Girls below:
A fact of life for any much-publicized new show today is that it will be judged not just as a show, but against its publicity campaign: for Smash, the perceived promise that it would be a game-changing show that would save NBC and theater; for The Killing, the implicit promise that we would find out at the end of the season who killed Rosie Larsen.
Girls, more than any new show I can remember, has been judged against factors external to what’s on the screen: Lena Dunham’s age and biography, the parentage of her co-stars, the other works of co-producer Judd Apatow, the general level of critical buzz, the suggestion that Dunham and the show were meant to speak for your (or someone else’s) generation. And then there were the ads and posters, which suggested a quartet of female friends, not unlike Sex and the City. But the pilot didn’t really take the four girls as a group, instead presenting them in pairings: Hannah and Jessa, Hannah and Marnie, Shoshanna and Jessa, Jessa and Marnie, Marnie and Shoshanna…
“Vagina Panic”—even though Jessa was often present as an absentee—really dealt with the group as a group. And as a result, where the pilot felt more like a prologue, or a brief indie movie, this felt like an episode of a TV show. And it was better for it—sharper, funnier, more focused, more TV-like, in a good way.
It was also, in the manner of a TV episode, more strongly themed. True to the title—and to the series’ themes of being young and anxious and mistake-prone—it was about sex and its discontents, four different ways. Jessa’s pregnancy, or “pregnancy,” was a reason to bring the other characters together, but there was also Hannah’s not-entirely-healthy relationship with Adam (which she fears may have given her a literal health problem); Marnie’s maybe-too-healthy relationship with her devoted boyfriend Charlie; and Shoshanna’s embarrassment about being a virgin.
It’s about sex, but it’s also about control—about feeling in control at a stage of life when none of the characters have a lot of objective status or power. It’s fitting that Jessa is the absentee at her own abortion, because at first her studiously casual attitude toward sex seems like the odd one out in the group. Hannah prides herself on being careful with condoms, to the point of looking down on women who don’t use them. (All this setting up a tellingly ambiguous exchange with Adam: “We always use condoms.” “Do we?” “Yeah. We used one last night.” “Oh yeah. I guess we do.”) Shoshanna compensates for her virgin-anxiety by studying her Rules-style manual on relationships (which Hannah once “hate-read” at the Detroit airport). And Marnie, whose contrast with in-your-face free spirit Jessa was made plain in the pilot, approaches the crisis all business, setting up the appointment like a bridal shower—”You’re a really good friend and you threw a really great abortion!”—taking it as a personal offense when Jessa goes AWOL.
(For all that, though, I like that the show does not seem to be setting up Marnie and Jessa as opposites and frenemies. Part of what feels fresh and distinctive about Girls, especially compared with other TV shows about characters in their 20s, is how natural and lived-in the relationships among the characters feel. Even that “You threw a great abortion!” line plays much sweeter and more supportive than it looks on the page.)
Jessa pushes back at all this—at the general idea of taking something chaotic like sex and turning it into something organized and rational. But it becomes clear that this attitude is her own way of asserting control, which all boils over when she lashes out at Shoshanna and her book. (“What if I want to feel like I have udders?”) It’s about sex in general and her situation in particular—she protests a little too much at Hannah’s suggestion that she’s allowed to be upset about being pregnant—but it’s also a reaction, immature but familiar, against the idea that she is anything but a unique individual: “That woman doesn’t know me!” The idea that there is such a thing as “the ladies,” and that she’s one of them, is unacceptable to her.
But everyone is part of some demographic; no one, whatever literature and our parents tell us, is transcendently special. You can’t completely hold yourself apart. You can try to control your life, but you can’t eliminate uncertainty, which is at the root of Hannah’s sudden STD anxiety attack. (In the small but growing genre of Google-search jokes, “Diseases that come from no condom for one second” is the funniest I’ve seen yet.) And you can try to assert your individuality, but mortality and doctor’s offices make statistical cohorts of us all eventually. That’s part of what made the final scene of “Vagina Panic” so fantastic—and probably a gift to viewers who were hoping the whiny Hannah of the pilot would get put in her place.
Monologuing to the GYN about AIDS, and her fear of AIDS, and the idea that maybe it would not be such a terrible thing to get AIDS, Hannah (in a nicely jabbery turn by Dunham) is talking through her anxiety, but she’s also, in young self-perceived-genius mode, trying to assert her specialness. But AIDS, and sickness in general, is not an creative-writing assignment: you cannot outsmart mortality by coming up with a clever, irreverent “take” on it.
“That is an incredibly silly thing to say,” the doctor tells her, probably speaking for half the audience. “You do not want AIDS.” And with that—the verbal equivalent of slapping a panicked person into sobriety—Hannah stifles for a second and lets the doctor do her work. “Is that painful?” she asks. “Yeah,” Hannah says—in what could just as well be the motto of this uncomfortable comedy about mistake-making—”But only in the way it’s supposed to be.”