Tuned In

Girls Watch: Ready for Their Close Up

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With “All Adventurous Women Do,” you’ve now seen as many episodes of Girls as I’d seen before I reviewed it. Rather than recap the episode line by line, let me unpack two scenes from it that helped confirm I was sold on this show: the beginning and the end.

I’ve written a lot in my Breaking Bad reviews over the years about that show’s pre-credits scenes, many of which use an ingenious strategy of beginning with a curious visual and gradually adding more detail that changes our understanding of the scene. Girls is a very different kind of show, one more about small moments and interactions, but the opening scene builds in much the same way by focusing, not on a landscape or flight debris in a swimming pool, but on a face.

Marnie’s face. She’s covering her eyes. Her rings glitter on the middle finger of her right hand. She’s grinning hugely, as Charlie talks to her off-camera, like the voice in an Errol Morris documentary. She’s excited, giggling a little, an unusual position for a character who’s so continually controlled. She’s going to get a surprise.

She uncovers her eyes. Her smile shrinks, like someone draining the water from a pool. Her eyes widen–surprise, anger–and finally her lip drops in revulsion. Then we see Charlie, his head shaved, as we realize with him what a terrible idea for a surprise this was. (“You look scary to me, like Mickey Mouse without the ears.”) Then, of course, it gets worse: only after Marnie chews him out does Charlie reveal that he shaved his head for a coworker with cancer, which both makes him seems a little passive-aggressive–the surprise, after all, is what an awesome guy he is for doing it–and as Marnie says, suddenly makes her “a total asshole.”

Which, to be fair, she kind of is. They kind of both are. And that little surprise and interchange isolates so much of what we know about their relationship: her growing contempt for him, his tendency to use his nice-guy-ness as a cudgel–and the way both those issues, and their growing awareness of their mismatch, feed off each other and make each other worse. (PS: Charlie’s right–Hannah in her goth getup looks kind of like wiccan Megan from Felicity.)

When I interviewed Lena Dunham before the season started, I asked her about that scene, which she said began with the idea for that opening visual:

I had this idea where I was like we’re not going to see him until she’s seen him and I also love Allison [Williams]’s face.  It’s so old fashioned, I think she looks like Katherine Ross from The Graduate, or like a Kennedy or something, and just seeing that sort of beautiful face and those perfect fingernails and then sort of like all of that get tainted by total disgust was like really interesting to me.

And then there’s the end, which comes after a long day for both Hannah (HPV, college boyfriend’s gay revelation) and Marnie (flirtation at an art opening that makes her confront her sexual frustration). I’m not sure there are many things that a TV show can attempt that are more difficult than making the process of writing compelling (see: Smash), especially when the writer in question is still forming and not a little self-absorbed.

But damned if this scene didn’t make it work. Again, there’s the framing of Hannah’s face, washed out in blue glow, frustrated, determined, trying false start after false start—her feelings are raw, while at the same time she is carefully calculating how to present herself—to sum up her day in a tweet.

The shot of her computer screen, by the way, is a fine example of characterization by Twitter page. We see, for instance, that she has over 4000 tweets but only 26 followers; and we get her voice through a couple of her earlier tweets: “just poured water on some perfectly good bread to stop myself from eating it. ate it anyway. BECAUSE I AM AN ANIMAL.” (This after she told Adam that she doesn’t try to lose weight, because she decided “to have some other concerns in my life.”) And: “how often do you think a guy is looking at you with love eyes then realize he’s special ed/traveling with a caretaker. i’ve done that thrice.”

And then we hear, before we see, her type the line that gives the episode its title, the music changing to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” the instant her fingertips click on the keyboard. She bites her thumbnail, clicks “Tweet,” and we see her from the back, shimmying her shoulders to her soundtrack before Marnie walks in and joins her. The music builds, the camera pulls back, and they’re framed vertically in the dark doorway before Hannah pulls Marnie in from behind for a giddy/tired hug.

It’s a rush and a catharsis, and yet it doesn’t erase the fact that we know these are two flawed characters that we’ve seen do unlikable things. That’s what draws me to the show: the way it shows in fine relief the good and bad of characters who are figuring themselves out. It’s not always comfortable, but that’s part of the adventure.