Craig Blankenhorn
Esther Zuckerman
March 20, 2015 AT 04:40 PM EDT

To love (or even just watch) Girls is to also engage with the discussion around Girls. For better or worse, Girls is as much about its characters as it is about what people say about its characters and the people who make it, and sometimes, as in tonight’s episode, the show engages with that discussion.

It can be hard to look at Hannah Horvath in isolation of Lena Dunham. (So much so that Salon asked in December whether controversy over Dunham’s recent book “affect the experience of watching her show?”) But as Ashley Fetters and I discuss in the video below, while there is definitely Lena in Hannah, they also are not one in the same. Hannah can be a despicable narcissist but that’s only because Dunham has the awareness to make her one. And that’s what brings us to “Triggering,” where Hannah faces a room of grad students lobbing criticisms her direction that sound like criticisms lobbed at Dunham.

Hannah’s Iowa time gets off to a blessed start, though that doesn’t last long. She realizes that real estate comes much cheaper outside of New York and gets herself an amazing living situation. Perhaps the first indication that things won’t remain this sunny is when it’s revealed that Hannah’s biking skills aren’t exactly up to par—she crashes, hard—but things start getting really painful when she meets someone else in her program. Chandra, played by the awesome Desiree Akhavan, approaches Hannah and explains that there’s no need to lock up bikes in Iowa. She asks if Hannah’s a first year, which Hannah misunderstands, thinking Chandra is asking whether Hannah is an undergrad. When Chandra explains that Hannah looks nothing like a freshman, Hannah starts babbling about how she always gets carded all the time and no one thinks she’s legal “like, in the bedroom.” It’s awkward. “I’m going to break eye contact with you now,” Hannah says.

But that’s not half as bad as what’s to come. After an incident with a bat in her (relatively) giant, drafty house in the middle of the night—Iowa, how provincial!—Hannah oversleeps for her workshop and arrives in pajama bottoms. The show has fun playing with the self-important ways the MFA students talk to one another, after a student, D. August (Ato Essandoh), reads his story. “Gut wrenching, and not asking to wrench our guts, just wrenching them,” Chandra says. “You played with gender in a way that was really surprising and like almost offensive, but not offensive,” Chester (Jason Kim) adds. Hannah’s not playing that game. When yet another student expresses how eager he is to see more pages of the story, her comment runs more on the literal side of things: “Well, I assume the mom dies. So.” Everyone is surprised. MFA workshops are about talking about style not about guessing what’s going to happen next.

And then we get to Hannah’s story. Hannah, oblivious, couches her piece by telling the class that hearing her read her story aloud may bring up its more “triggering” aspects. The story, called “Contact,” is in first person, and the snippet we hear is about a man hitting a woman. The language isn’t particularly interesting, and Hannah reads it in a self-satisfied way that seems to imply she thinks it has more impact than it does. The professor asks the room to explain what the story is about. One writer, Priya (Zuzanna Szadkowski), says, “It’s about a really privileged girl deciding that she’s just going to let someone abuse her.” Chester compares it to Fifty Shades of Grey.

Hannah tries to combat that assumption, but the professor reminds her she’s not allowed to speak during the discussion of her piece. Logan (Marin Ireland) says the story seems to trivialize real abuse. When the professor asks what’s working in the story, no one speaks up. Chandra jumps in that she has to say something. Hannah smiles, thinking she has found an ally. “I think there’s a larger issue here, which is, how are we supposed to critique a work which is very clearly based directly from the author’s personal experience?” Chandra asks. “I had the chance to speak with Hannah yesterday, and she is very much this character.” Hannah bites her lip and starts snacking.

And that’s where the episode gets meta. Dunham, of course, uses her own life in her fiction and fights an uphill battle. Dunham believes in the power of using personal experiences in one’s fiction, especially as a woman, and, of course, doing so is not an inherently bad thing. That’s a point that D. August brings up, saying, essentially, who cares if some of this is written from the author’s own perspective? “We can’t squash her voice of what she’s trying to say,” he says. Though there’s vocal agreement with the class favorite, but other criticism continues.

And yet, while we the audience haven’t read Hannah’s work, the show does seem to make the case that maybe Hannah should stretch her literary muscles—or at least produce better work about herself. The MFA candidates are presented as cliquey and pretentious, and the way they start to gang up on Hannah is similarly unsavory. But Hannah’s story, at least what we hear of it, doesn’t sound particularly good.

After the workshop, the writers are all going to a bar, and D. August stays behind to invite Hannah—whose bike, by the way, has been stolen—to come. She resists, but eventually caves. At the bar Hannah tries to appeal to Logan, saying how “misunderstood” she felt. Did Logan really think her piece was insensitive? Hannah argues that it’s just a story. “Stories can be very powerful, Hannah.” A look crosses Hannah’s face: “Oh my God, you’re a survivor of abuse.” Logan smiles at Hannah like she’s crazy. “I knew aspects of the story would be triggering, but I didn’t imagine just how close to home it would hit,” Hannah continues. It’s a self-satisfied revelation that’s Hannah at her most delusional. “You don’t know what I’m talking about,” Hannah says. “You don’t know what you’re talking—” Logan tries to interrupt. Hanna continues babbling: “And my story isn’t about the time that I took a couple quaaludes and asked my boyfriend to punch me in the chest,” Hannah says, to which Logan replies “TMI.” This prompts a mini rant from Hannah about the futility of TMI. (Dunham has also spoken about hating the phrase “TMI,” but in a far more eloquent way than Hannah does in this moment. See, for instance, this NPR interview.)

Hannah’s connection with the New York world is clearly flailing. A Skype conversation with Marnie, who is knitting Desi a scarf, early in the episode yields the knowledge that Hannah hasn’t really been in contact with Adam. When Hannah calls Shoshanna (collect because her phone broke), Shosh and Jessa are in the middle of watching Scandal and can’t be bothered to be figure out how to take her call. “You motherf–king c-nts,” Hannah says as she hangs up. Still at the pay phone, she calls her parents, lies to them about how great Iowa is. She asks them if it’s normal to think about suicide for the first time after having moved to a new place. They brush off her concerns and want her to call back later when they aren’t playing Scrabble.

But she arrives home to a somewhat welcome surprise: Elijah, who for some reason (likely because of the Girls writers desire to get some other character to Iowa) is there. (Why did he leave New York? He runs into people who he’s slept with and saw a homeless woman fist herself on his stoop.) They go to an undergrad rager. Elijah gives a hand job in a bathroom to a guy who says he’s not gay. Hannah counsels a girl who is crying because her boyfriend at another school cheated. Hannah tells her that they are in a long distance relationship and therefore she needs to “snap out of it.” Tall order from Hannah, who has not snapped out of her relationship with Adam. Then, Hannah jello wrestles. When Hannah regresses, she regresses hard.

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