“Dead Inside” finds Girls addressing a Big Subject, the Biggest Subject, in fact, without losing its sense of oxymoronic comedy that’s rooted in contained rootlessness. The subject, of course, is death, which eventually greets us all, though it greeted Hannah’s (Lena Dunham) editor, David (John Cameron Mitchell), with a suddenness that personally strikes most everyone in his immediate orbit. Except Hannah, that is, who’s authentically distraught over her potentially newly imperiled book deal and exhibits, at best, a cursory curiosity as to how David wound up face down somewhere along the Hudson River.
On the surface, this sounds like a classic same-o same-o Girls situation that allows Dunham, as both actor and writer, to flaunt her self-obsession under the pretenses of parodying it, and, indeed, there are a number of punchlines to that effect. But “Dead Inside” is also an unusually ambitious episode that legitimately engages with a form of casual social censorship that’s often unremarked on in media: the pressure to react to disruptive, disturbing events, particularly death, in neat, safe, and correspondingly appropriate fashions. An unwritten clause in the classic American social contract is the requirement that we openly display conventional grief and sadness. Bitterness, doubt, unexpected humor, self-concern—these are to be tabled for a later date, if not entirely omitted from public discourse. Hannah’s as unpleasant as she’s ever been, but her prickliness is not the only reverberation we’re given to respond to. Hannah nearly renders herself an outcast within her group of peers, not because she’s duplicitous, but because she wrestles with an acquaintance’s death honestly and straightforwardly. Balance isn’t presumably restored until the end when she begins to lie again.
Though “Dead Inside” isn’t even really as resolvable as all that, because Hannah’s initial honesty isn’t an honorable act, but clearly born from a self-regard that’s so intense it socially handicaps her. She’s so damn narcissistic that she can’t even rally herself to humor anyone. As usual, Ray (Alex Karpovsky) provides one of the episode’s best lines when he observes that he’s more disturbed by David’s death than Hannah is, and his only encounter with the man was at the receiving end of a shoving match. Hannah’s selfishness also paves the way for a remarkable moment when Caroline (Gaby Hoffman) tells her and Laird (Jon Glaser) about Adam’s (Adam Driver) supposed experience with their dying cousin, and the generosity he extended by taking the cousin to a high school dance before her death. The punchline, that the story isn’t true, is telegraphed early on (there was just no way that Girls was going to commit to an anecdote so conventionally and soap-operatically moving), but the sting is surprising nevertheless. Hannah is stirred, but goes about expressing it in a fashion that’s absurdly trivial, while the emotionally raw Laid weeps in the background, eventually claiming that he feels the story whether it’s true or not.
The question that haunts “Dead Inside” is whether or not Hannah is a monster incapable of empathizing with others, and its a testament to the show’s willing experimentation that the question isn’t definitively answered. So far, Hannah’s reactions to David’s death are mostly refreshingly germane to how humans actually process loss, and a generous but defensible reading of her actions in this episode could conclude that she relies on insensitivity out of the habits conditioned by the persona she’s forged in relation to her other friends: that of the selfish nerd as the starring romantic outcast of the movie that is her life. Hannah’s true reaction, which is no reaction, is probably due to shock at the exposure to death for the first time, and to deal with shock she reverts to playing the role of the traditional asshole. And for all of Adam’s well-acknowledged depth of feeling, he’s too conventionally “sensitive” to see this complicated grappling within his girlfriend. In fact, Adam’s reaction is quietly self-absorbed too: Hannah’s callousness causes Adam to wonder how she’ll react to his death, inspiring him to draw understandably unsettling conclusions.
The true accomplishment of “Dead Inside” is its deceptively complicated lightness of spirit; it resembles a French comedy in its unfussy depiction of death sans platitude, and it also has room left for a number of other promises of things to come. Caroline displays a scarred gentleness of spirit that contrasts nicely with the predominantly younger cast—and one can’t help but hope that she’s romantically paired with Laird. There’s a moving vignette with Marnie (Allison Williams), in which she quits working for Ray in retaliation against his and Hermie’s (Colin Quinn) mocking of her YouTube video. There’s also a brief scene between Adam and Jessa (Jemima Kirke) that implies that the two might have an amusing sense of comic rhythm as an odd couple forced to share time through a common friend. “Dead Inside” recovers Girls from the season’s earlier glib shock theatrics; it’s one of the show’s best and most bracingly generous episodes to date.
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