Tuned In

Girls Watch: A Spartan Existence

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“So now I am older than my mother and father / When they had their daughter / Now what does that say about me?”
–Fleet Foxes, Montezuma

It was Paul Feig, Mt. Clemens native and  the show’s creator, who really brought the Michigan to Freaks and Geeks. But co-producer Judd Apatow was also responsible for the show’s tone and bittersweet outlook on the transition of adolescence. So it’s fitting that the first episode of Girls co-written by Apatow, “The Return,” was set in Michigan (East Lansing, home of the Michigan State Spartans!) and about another kind of transition period: the netherland between college and full-fledged, independent adulthood. (All that underscored by the apt choice of “Montezuma” over the closing credits.)

That was the transition, though in a very different setting, where Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture took place, so it’s not surprising that this Girls episode handled it very, very well. If you remember going back to your hometown after leaving–soon enough to still have a vague connection but long enough not to really belong–the emotions and feelings of “The Return” will ring deeply true.

OK: I’m saying they rang deeply true to me. The sleepy, narcotic return to quasi-childhood. The sleeping in and fridge-raiding. The ways tiny things your parents say can set you off (“I said, I wasn’t hungry! You don’t know about me!”–just before said fridge raid). The meeting up with old high school friends and realizing you can’t really be in the same place as before. The evenings in front of the TV; the old room, frozen in time. (Here, with a Goo Goo Dolls poster and late-’90s vintage iMac.)

That’s familiar and well-executed, and Lena Dunham plays it unsurprisingly well. (You’re getting tired of hearing this about this show, but I’m impressed how figuratively unattractive she’s willing to make herself—how Hannah regresses to a peevish adolescent when she first gets home.)

But what helped make the episode special was that it recognized this is a transition for Hannah’s parents as well. They’re people who built their lives around their daughter, maybe to a fault. And they’re clearly getting used to not being her full-time parents anymore; we saw her father’s helicopter side in the pilot, but here we see the neediness in it. They can’t get used to letting go, to the extent that they want to invite her to their 30th anniversary dinner. The way it hurts them when she insists on texting through a Netflix movie (“I don’t care what happens during the movie.” “Well, we do”) is uncomfortable and real.

The whole episode casts new light on the pilot, in which they cut her off, at her mother’s insistence. Becky Ann Baker’s character came off a little shrill in that moment, but here you see the concern that Hannah—and she—be able to survive this necessary passage to the next part of life. On the flip side, you see how her father’s helicoptering is fed by his doubt in her: “I really worry. What does a person like that turn into? … At what point will she realize she’s not going to get to be what she wanted to be when she grows up?”

That sentiment, funnily enough, is echoed in Hannah’s night out at the benefit for her dead classmate, where she’s depressed by the thought that Heather is heading to L.A. for a dance career she’s not cut out for, and her friends—maybe being polite, maybe not realizing that good-for-this-bar-in-East-Lansing is not good enough—won’t tell her. Maybe they’re dense, or naive–or maybe they’re just not hardened and judgmental the way Hannah has become, with her New York literary aspirations.

She seems to see that, in a way; when she fantasizes about moving back home to write, it’s not just about the rent. But she also knows that she can’t do that anymore.

She’s taking a vacation in her past–the sights, the food, the music. (The scene of her sitting in her mom’s car, getting interrupted in the middle of singing Jewel’s “Hands,” followed by the pharmacist’s earnest offer of lubricant on the house for her mom, made me laugh harder than anything on Girls yet.) Eric, the pharmacist she dates and goes home with is another part of her vacation; after her exhausting relationship with Adam, she gets to try out being with an uncomplicated nice guy, sweet, sincere, sexually unadventurous.

Their scenes, and the whole episode, do a really sweet job of capturing the feeling that a past chunk of your life is still part of you, but it’s not you anymore. And it does this without either suggesting that Hannah is above it all or that Eric’s a bumpkin. (Her telling herself in the mirror that she’s naturally interesting because she’s from New York is less a sign of her superiority than her nervousness, as most scenes of one talking to one’s self in a mirror are.) I know Girls rubs some people as too dark, or sour, or hipstery. But an episode like this also shows how big-hearted it is—how generous, in terms of showing several characters with different outlooks on life and treating each as valid without condescending. Hannah and Eric probably each have some things figured out that the other doesn’t, and they’ve probably each necessarily closed themselves off to some possibilities, and that’s OK.

The episode ends with Hannah casually mentioning the hookup to Adam, who comes across much more menschy and attentive on the phone (albeit to “Ohio“) than he often does in person. (Sidebar: love that he sleeps with an eye mask.) But the highlight to me was Hannah’s late-night talk with her mom, which, excuse my sentimentality, played like the conversation between an older Lindsay and Mrs. Weir from Freaks and Geeks I wished I’d gotten to see. It comes after Hannah walks in on her dad, knocked unconscious from a shower-sex accident, and sees a little more than she’d like. (It’s funny, but also a real glimpse, for both of them, of his aging and mortality: “It’s fine. Just realizing I’m growing older.”)

They finally clear the air about Hannah’s finances, and her mother offers her a little help to cushion the transition. Hannah turns it down, maybe because—emotionally if not financially—she realizes she has transitioned. (I particularly like how Dunham, who also directed, gave both characters tight closeups that registered the mix of emotions—happiness, sadness, pride, worry—for both mother and daughter.) She’s still broke, of course. But she has her identity and a mom she can talk to like a grown-up, about the guy she met who “doesn’t have enough fire under his ass” but “will do for the day.” She can, maybe, see the other side of that child-adult transition a bit more closely. That’s not $1100 a month. But it’s priceless.