Tuned In

Girls Watch: Slick With Sadness

Girls' second-to-last episode of the season does some uncomfortable emotional digging, in a half-hour that may have had you covering your eyes, or your ears.

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Spoilers for last night’s Girls below:

It’s an accomplishment, of some kind, that you could say that last night’s Girls was the most uncomfortable half-hour of television of the year, and you might not even necessarily be referring to the scene in which a character jams a Q-Tip into her ear canal. (The first time.) “On All Fours,” was a reminder that Girls is only a comedy when it wants to be, and it steered hard (and more successfully) into the dark turn that “It’s Back” took a week ago. It had some of the series’ strongest moments of the season, but it was inarguably tough on the eyes, and ears.

Beginning with the subplots that were merely emotionally uncomfortable, Marnie’s stories, and to an extent Ray and Shoshanna’s, continued this season’s theme of seeing the show’s characters fall back into bad habits or turn progress into regression.

I haven’t liked what this season has done with Marnie–almost as if Girls itself has taken Hannah’s side in their ugly breakup from last season, it’s seemed determined to give her a series of payback humiliations–but her attempt to turn Charlie’s business celebration into her own musical debut was as sympathy-inducing as it was cringe-making. (It was also, awkward as it was, the funniest sequence of the episode, particularly Charlie’s horrified whisper, “No.”) Charlie gives her what seems like an accurate diagnosis–that she’s lost and floundering–though I’m not sure that hooking back up again on top of his desk is the right prescription for either of them.

From one diagnosis to another: Hannah’s OCD is now in full flush, and her deep-impact swabbing of her ear canal was by far harder to watch than anything I saw in last night’s Walking Dead. (I have often had to watch violent shows peeking between my fingers. This time, I watched Girls with my hands cupped over my ears.) What’s especially interesting—especially given where the episode ends—is what precipitated it: the specifically sexualized criticism of her e-book draft from her editor.

In a show that is often criticized for playing up sexual degradation to get attention, Hannah gets the feedback: why not more of that sexual degradation to get attention? In so many words: “Where’s the pudgy face slick with semen and sadness?” She’s in the position of many confessional writers: having gotten notice for writing about her mistakes and misadventures, she’s now expected to produce them on command; having explored her process of growing up, she finds her patron is not interested in her having grown up. (Though he casts it as a retreat, again in sexualized terms—”Has your hymen grown back?”—using that kind of language that cool guys use when they want to tell women how to write about their own sexual experience.)

One visit to the hospital later, she finds herself running into Adam, the guy who slicked her in both senses a year ago. The encounter is bittersweet for her—it’s a great moment when we see how being called “Kid” again both warms and wrecks her—but it ends up being destabilizing for him too. It makes him question what he’s done in the process of becoming something like a regular, nice boyfriend. He falls off the wagon at the party, but it’s really when Natalia criticizes his dingy apartment—”It’s darker than you are”—that he seems to start to wonder if he’s losing himself in this relationship. And Adam, after all, is already the kind of guy primed for a “If you don’t get my space, you don’t get Me!” reaction to begin with.

Which brings us to That Scene, and it’s not pretty—not just for the out-there-even-for-HBO money shot—nor is it simple. There’s some debate out there whether Adam’s ejaculating on Natalia’s chest was rape; it was at least a violation, something she seemingly hated in the moment (we see that, whether Adam noticed it or not) and definitely hated afterward.

This isn’t like Adam’s dominance games with Hannah, who at least wanted to seem game for anything, and that’s why, disturbing as the visual was, I think it was the right call for the camera not to turn away from the act and its aftermath, both physical and emotional. What Adam did, what’s now between him and Natalia, remains there, pooling and growing cold. She doesn’t try to hide how she feels—”I really didn’t like that,” she says, shaken—and Adam too seems unsettled by it, as if seeing that his porny fantasy-playing is an addiction as much as any drinking habit. He’s not who he’d been playing being at with Natalia earlier; he is who he was. And in a moment of unsettled self-consciousness, he may just be realizing that that’s not such a great thing to be, either.

He’s caught, like his friends and peers on Girls, between an uncertain future and a past of bad habits. Like Hannah, who we last see with that same Q-Tip in the other ear, digging, digging, digging.