This week’s episode of Girls, “Flo,” spotlights a promising new character. Rebecca (Sarah Steele) is Hannah’s (Lena Dunham) cousin, a med-school student who’s clearly defined herself as a contrast to her unruly, chronically unstable and dissatisfied family. Rebecca’s reasoning, or the little that we glimpse of it, makes a traditional kind of sense. Her father went to prison for insider trading, and her mother is implied to be a woman subsequently in search of a man who can provide for her in a fashion that recalls the best years of her first marriage—a dependency with which Rebecca pointedly chafes. Hannah thoughtlessly comments about the hunky doctors that medical school must be bringing into her cousin’s orbit, and Rebecca, understandably offended, observes to Hannah that her dreams are her own, and that she has greater priorities than living Hannah’s pop-culture-addled fantasy of the classic doctor’s wife.
It’s the hospitalization and impending death of Hannah’s maternal grandmother, Flo (June Squibb), that brings the cousins together, and they resume a metaphorical dance of resentment while their mothers busy themselves with reopening old wounds of their own. Steele is remarkable here, as she’s been in films such as Spanglish and Please Give, exhibiting her gift for informing rapid-fire punchlines with fleeting suggestions of a wounded and tormented soul. Unlike the actors playing the titular quartet, you never catch Steele courting pathos, as she has an instinct and a polish that the still-green Dunham, in particular, can’t even begin to match. To her credit, Dunham appears to be aware of this, and her scenes with Steele represent some of her best work in the series. Hannah and Rebecca’s arguments, particularly a prolonged bit of repetition pertaining to whether or not they should get drinks together, make for terrific comic duets.
“Flo” also benefits enormously from Becky Ann Baker’s reliably lucid and moving performance as Hannah’s mom, Loreen. She has the episode’s best moment, when she warns Hannah of the perils of committing to Adam (Adam Driver), advising her daughter of the challenges of getting involved with socially awkward men who require you to unofficially and tirelessly work at rendering every environment an inhabitable place for them. Loreen clearly isn’t speaking just as a concerned mom, but as a woman who’s wondering about the choices that dictated her own life, which has been spent with a resolutely odd man who isn’t comfortable in his own skin. Nettled by her sparring matches with her sisters, which include the sadly expected bickering over their mother’s possessions, Loreen’s brief exposure to Adam can’t help but serve as a simultaneous glimpse of her own past and what she perceives to be Hannah’s troubled, heartbreaking future.
It’s ironic, then, that Loreen’s fidgety concern for her daughter’s love life might lead to Hannah and Adam marrying much earlier than either previously intended, as the ruse they adopt for the dying Flo obviously awakens in Hannah a desire with which she wasn’t entirely otherwise cognizant. “Flo” doesn’t have the prickly idiosyncrasy that characterizes the finest episodes of Girls, but it lingers warmly in your memory. Steele and Baker make their moments count, offering two contrasting portraits of women who’ve been profoundly shaped by past disappointments.
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