As it fixates on a set of characters languishing in their current situations, “Cubbies” locates the genuine comfort that clichés can offer us, climaxing with a trio of pas de deux that finds characters consoling one another with the most trite of platitudes. The first follows a dinner between Hannah (Lena Dunham) and her father (Peter Scolari), during which the former confesses her difficulty fitting in at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Earlier in the episode, Hannah committed her latest gaffe, circulating an “apology” letter to her classmates that merely recapitulated her animosity toward them, and the isolation provoked by their response has only reinforced her ambivalence about attending the program. As she stands outside her apartment, delaying the inevitable return to her school life, she asks her father, “How do you know if you’ve made the right decision?” Visibly affected by his daughter’s struggles, he gently replies, “You’ll know when you know.” As a piece of advice, it’s almost completely lacking in guidance, the expression’s sentiment one of acquiescence: Just go with the flow and everything will be okay. Yet for Hannah (and the viewer), it proves comforting. In a situation with no easy answers, sometimes the most conciliating response is the soundest one, and the show’s recognition of this fact stands alongside its shrewdest observations.
An appeal to acquiescence reappears in the next scene, as Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) seeks comfort from Ray (Alex Karpovsky) following a string of job rejections. The most ostensibly logical character in the series, Ray offers an unexpectedly benign response that echoes Hannah’s father’s: “You’ll find the right job when it’s right. You do things in your own time, Shosh.” Accompanied by the reassuring piano chords of Michael Penn’s score (potently carried over from the previous scene), the exchange reinforces recycled language’s ability to soothe, but it also provides nuance to our understanding of Ray’s relationship with Shoshanna. Typically a wellspring of brusque honesty, Ray here offers something more intimate than truth: generosity. By the time he raises his hand to high-five her, only to receive (and reciprocate) a warm embrace, the scene has confirmed that these former lovers have at last relaxed into a contented platonic relationship.
Generosity enters into the climax of Marnie’s (Allison Williams) storyline, but it appears to be misplaced. After having broken off his affair with her, due to her discomfort at being the other woman, Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) arrives unexpectedly at Marnie’s apartment. In between sobs, he reveals that he’s broken up with his longtime girlfriend, Clementine (Natalie Morales), in order to finally commit to Marnie. As she administers the customary consolations (“It’s okay, it’s okay”), she coaxes from him a more revealing account of the situation: He’s ended his relationship with Clementine only after learning that she might be sleeping with someone else. When Marnie reacts with dismay, it’s Desi’s turn to marshal clichés: “I love you. I love only you.” His appeal works, a frustrating confirmation of Marnie’s willingness to be deceived, and the pleasured smile that crosses her face belies the almost certain despair that will surface once the language of clichés loses its power to persuade.
It’s that sense of despair that the episode’s final sequence depicts, the denouement admitting the limits to the comforts tendered in the previous scenes. Seizing on a desire to combat her inaction, Hannah impulsively flies back to Brooklyn with the intent of surprising Adam (Adam Driver), but when she arrives at their apartment, she’s greeted by an unfamiliar woman who introduces herself as Mimi-Rose (Gillian Jacobs). Her disorientation gives way to a dawning sense of recognition as Adam emerges from the bedroom, and it becomes clear Mimi-Rose is no mere roommate. The scene is among the most cringe-inducing the series has ever produced, but appropriately so; rather than simply deploying shock tactics (as is occasionally the show’s wont), the scene aims for compassion, inviting us to empathize with Hannah’s anguish. This emphasis on empathic understanding continues to be the season’s greatest strength, even when it entails sharing in an agony that—for both Hannah and us—no cliché in the world can assuage.
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