This week’s episode of Girls pivots on Hannah’s (Lena Dunham) efforts to reinvigorate her perceived-to-be-flagging love life with Adam (Adam Driver) now that he’s preoccupied with his role in Major Barbara. As if taking her cue from one of Mad Men’s stylish one-night encounters, Hannah dons a blond wig and dresses up as her version of the bored housewife, inviting Adam to meet her at a bar without telling him she’s got a relatively elaborate “taken woman” sex fantasy cooked up. Adam arrives, clearly exhausted from rehearsals, and the awkwardness begins when Hannah slides him a vodka tonic that she claims was originally intended for the fictional husband her housewife character is waiting for. Adam reminds Hannah under his breath that he’s a recovering alcoholic, and she exasperatedly insists that the drink is ice water.
This brief exchange is the most revealing portion of what’s potentially the most remarkable episode of Girls so far. The show’s prior tonal experimentations appear to retrospectively build toward this episode’s heartbreaking sense of observation. Girls has never before been this subtly alive to the politics of sex, which is a subject that most American television shows, and nearly all mainstream American movies, cowardly elide. “Role-Play” acknowledges one of the great haunting challenges of sex or even of life writ large: preventing your fantasies from rendering your realities pitiful. Hannah and Adam’s sex life has reached a junction where novelty and intimacy seem to be mutually exclusive principles.
We know from prior episodes that Hannah has a penchant for masochistic self-objectification that probably springs equally from youthful bravado and an intense self-loathing. Her relationship with Adam was initially driven by his daring in the sack, as he wasn’t cowed by the modern male’s pressure to display conventional “sensitivity” toward his partner. There was a democracy to Hannah and Adam’s sexual tactics because they were both experiencing this theater in the same way at the same time—as expressions of mutual social estrangement. Adam’s way of relating to Hannah sexually has evolved, and perhaps softened, to correspond with his blossoming love for her. Hannah ironically sees this new lovemaking partially as a rejection, as she memorably tells Elijah (Andrew Rannells) that she feels Adam now treats her as an “ottoman with a vagina”.
Hannah’s chafing less at the newfound romantic conventionality, though that also appears to be a partial problem for her, than at what she perceives to be the implication that Adam’s no longer so compulsively, inventively attracted to her. Adam’s hurt for the opposite reason, as he’s insulted that Hannah might be stuck on the freak show that sprang from the more troubled man he used to be. Hannah’s need for a little spice inspires Adam to question the legitimacy of where he presumed their relationship was headed. The ostensible roleplay brings about an inadvertent role-reversal: Hannah has revealed herself to be the ultimate daredevil of the couple, and that humbling sends Adam fleeing to Ray’s place indefinitely so he can concentrate on his work.
“Role-Play” features the best performance of Dunham’s career. She’s deceptively playful and hard to pin down, allowing the resonances of Hannah’s actions to hit you on the rebound. Dunham renders some wonderfully fleeting physical gestures, such as how Hannah attempts to undress “sexily” in the guise of her bored, experienced housewife character, and her roleplay voice is a poignantly absurd caricature of a younger woman’s impression of an older woman’s impression of a younger woman. And Driver, frequently the show’s best actor, suggests, in a few telling line deliveries, the brief shattering of a fashioned personality. Adam’s prickly aloofness falls away to reveal emotionally stranded sadness and hurt.
Pretenses also fell aside for Jessa (Jemima Kirke), now that her fling/relapse with Jasper (Richard E. Grant) appears to have run its course. Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) reunites Jasper with his daughter, Dot (Felicity Jones), leaving Jessa smoking on the street alone and eventually admitting that she’s a junkie with a matter-of-factness that could signify either resignation or an internal struggle to face the bleak truth of the matter, so as to transcend it. That ambiguity parallels the irresolution of Hannah and Adam’s final moments together, as a protective shell appears to have been stripped from these characters, which might drive them to a feeling of dislocation that parallels Marnie’s (Allison Williams) recent flailing. No one in the Girls universe seems to know where they are, and as they grow older, the emotional stakes get higher. For worse and, hopefully, for better.
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