Girls’s attempts at eliciting our empathy for a privileged coterie of navel-gazers can sometimes verge on the indulgent. That abrasive appeal to our compassion anchors—and ultimately sinks—the pièce de résistance of this week’s episode, a cringe-inducing critique of one of Hannah’s (Lena Dunham) short stories conducted by her peers at the University of Iowa. After reading aloud her piece (a typically confessional narrative whose barely fictionalized protagonist describes a moment of willed submission in a violent sexual relationship), Hannah briefly entertains her classmates’ catalogue of criticisms: the story trivializes abuse; it’s blind to its privileged vantage point; it rips off 50 Shades of Grey. Wringing pathos from the vulnerability of someone in Hannah’s position ought to be a cinch, but to both its credit and its detriment, Girls rarely makes identification with its characters easy. Despite her professor’s mandate that she sit silent until the others have voiced their opinions, Hannah insists on defending herself, interrupting others before they can complete their thoughts and butting in with justifications.
That sort of behavior is typical of Hannah, and though it doesn’t court compassion, it likely wouldn’t derail our sympathies if not for the scene’s refusal to take the complaints she’s responding to seriously. The episode spends the moments leading up to the critique caricaturing Hannah’s classmates as readers of the most insipid sort, and the praise they extend to the story discussed prior to hers (”Gut wrenching. And not asking to wrench our guts, just wrenching them”) underscores a considerable want of critical acumen. By the time one classmate grumbles about a “lack of sympathy toward the male perspective” in Hannah’s piece, it’s clear we’re meant to dismiss the other criticisms as well, even if some them (e.g., those pertaining to issues of privilege) might have some merit. Thus, rather than positioning Hannah’s outburst as a childish gesture we might frown upon, the series implicitly asks us to validate it as a righteous, albeit impolitic, protest against idiocy, and in doing so, it turns a scene that might have humanized Hannah into a misguided gesture of self-aggrandizement. The scene’s “meta” quality, which invites us to momentarily conflate Hannah with Dunham herself, merely compounds the problem.
The scene is a tacit endorsement of Hannah’s worst habits, but it does function as a meaningful hinge for the episode, pinpointing the moment when her contentment with Iowa decisively curdles into distress. Indeed, despite that blunder of a centerpiece, “Triggering” succeeds in tracing the dread that can creep in when a major life decision turns out to be a mistake, and even early on the episode reveals that Hannah’s initial elation might be misplaced. It’s a development that the episode prepares us for in its earliest moments, which present a montage of idyllic landscape stills followed by a brief scene of Hannah signing the lease to a mammoth apartment likely half the price of her Brooklyn pad: Nothing this good can possibly last. And indeed, two scenes later, “Triggering” begins to underscore Hannah’s isolation from her friends and family via a string of telecommunication failures, first with a video-chat call to Marnie (Allison Williams) that’s abruptly disconnected, then with her discovery that she’s living in a cellular dead zone, and finally with a pair of unfortunate collect calls, one to a rather baffled Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) and one to her parents (Becky Ann Baker and Peter Scolari), whose nonchalant response to their daughter’s startling question—“Is it normal when you get to a new place to think about suicide for the first time ever?”—strains credibility, but highlights Hannah’s desperation.
Of course, Hannah is also cut off from Adam, whose pointed absence from the episode is felt most during a scene where a wayward bat flies into her cavernous abode. Alarmed, she flees the apartment, inadvertently locking herself out and resignedly crawling back in through the bathroom window, where she spends the rest of the night curled up by the tub. The scene’s implication—that the startled Hannah wouldn’t have needed to bolt had her beau been present to assist her—is surprisingly understated, and in a series occasionally too on the nose for its own good, it’s all the more effective for that subtlety.
Only the unexpected appearance of Elijah (Andrew Rannells) in Iowa allows Hannah a sense of connection. Their drunken glee at a college kegger carries a cathartic sense of release, which reaches its height as Hannah wrestles an undergraduate in a kiddie pool filled with paint while a crowd of onlookers cheers her on. It’s a moment whose joy is set into relief by the next scene, which finds Hannah waking up the following morning, hungover and, along with Elijah, the only one left at the party. If those two scenes rehearse in miniature the episode’s trajectory, a shift from elation to anguish, then at least in this instance, Elijah is present to share in Hannah’s pain. “Triggering” closes on a lovely shot of the two friends stumbling arm in arm across the empty campus’s impossibly green grass, as the camera gently lifts and pulls back, leaving them on their own. It’s a moment when, finally, our empathy really does come alive.
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