“Female Author,” the charged title of tonight’s episode of Girls, refers on one level to an identity Hannah (Lena Dunham) has both adopted and allowed to delimit her existence; her self-conception as a female writer has guided her actions throughout the series, but as she comes to question her decision to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she’s also beginning to interrogate the very identity she’s cultivated for herself. Read in that light, the title is a reminder of the labels we affix to ourselves and which constrict our own sense of possibility. On another level, though, the title is an acknowledgement of the agency wielded by the show’s core group of women, as the episode traces three characters’ attempts to wrest control of an identity that’s been imposed on them, either externally or from within. In each case, that attempt at control is motivated by a dissatisfaction whose root cause Hannah understatedly expresses when she declares, “Being pigeonholed isn’t fun.”
The context for her remark is a scene at an MFA party where Hannah, irked at her classmates’ attempt to brand her as a particular kind of writer (”50 Shades of Grey girl”), launches into a critique of their writing that pinpoints each one’s idiosyncratic quirks with bitter alacrity. In allowing Hannah to intone a hyper-articulate takedown of her peers, the scene carries a whiff of the self-satisfaction that marred last week’s catastrophic workshopping scene, which similarly affirmed Hannah as the smartest kid in the room. Here, however, we recognize what she isn’t articulating: Even if she doesn’t fit her classmates’ conception of her, Hannah has nonetheless been pigeonholing herself as a writer, an identity that, despite structuring her life for years, she may no longer want. That recognition begins to dawn on her one scene earlier in an affecting exchange with Elijah (Andrew Rannells). When she asks her friend how it felt to give up his dream of becoming a dancer, he replies, “It was the biggest relief in the world,” and the mixture of worry and release that passes across Hannah’s face speaks both to Dunham’s dexterity as a performer and to her character’s own conflicted feelings.
Marnie (Allison Williams) likewise wrestles with an unwanted identity, as she attempts to reconcile burgeoning success as a musician with her current status as songwriting partner Desi’s (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) mistress. After a promising meeting with a group of record executives fizzles when Desi states, to the executives’ disappointment, that the two aren’t a couple, Marnie expresses her own misgivings, telling her reticent paramour she’s not satisfied with their current arrangement and urging him to either commit to a full-time relationship or leave her be. By the end of the episode, their status is unclear, but Marnie’s direct assertion of her will is a refreshing change of pace from a character that too often submits herself to men who show her attention. Her appeal to Desi at last conveys a self-confidence that’s been glimpsed only fleetingly since her split with Charlie in season two.
The most poignant attempt to break out of an accustomed role comes from Jessa (Jemima Kirke), largely because the role she’s stuck in—that of the unruly agitator—has continually isolated her from her allies. It’s an identity that manifests itself yet again as Jessa, caught publically urinating in broad daylight, refuses the citation she’s issued, which results in her arrest along with Adam (Adam Driver), who tries unsuccessfully to come to her aid. After Ray (Alex Karpovsky) issues their bail, Jessa jokes with Adam about their situation, but he refuses any camaraderie: “You’re sober and you’re still pulling this shit. What are you trying to provoke?” Reluctant and aching, her eventual response—“I really need you to be my friend”—risks sentimentality in the naked vulnerability it displays, but becomes as moving a moment as Girls has ever produced. Kirke, continually underpraised in her performance, nails the anguish that undergirds her pronouncement, rescuing it from mawkishness.
Less a moment of genuine connection than of a desperation Adam can’t walk away from, the scene rebuts the complaint commonly lodged against the series that its characters don’t grow. They do, but that growth isn’t always as orderly as we’re accustomed to seeing on TV. Jessa, like Hannah and Marnie, momentarily rails against a role she’s grown tired of occupying, and if, as will likely be the case, she reverts back to that role in future episodes, it won’t diminish the significance of her turning point here. Progress rarely occurs without deviation, and the show’s recognition of that fact—and its willingness to let its characters challenge their own identities—continues to ground a series that, in its best moments, radiates compassion.
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