Girls Talk: Criticism Proves to Be ‘Triggering’ For Newly-Minted Graduate Student Hannah

By  · Published on January 19th, 2015


Well, she did it. Hannah (Lena Dunham) actually made it to Iowa (whether or not she actually makes it at Iowa remains to be seen, but things are already not looking good). That we didn’t get to see Hannah and her well-meaning parents actually road trip from Brooklyn to Iowa City (approximate distance = 1,000 miles) is a minor quibble about a mostly good, exceedingly crisply directed episode (Dunham directed this one, in addition to co-writing it with right-hand gal Jenni Konner).

Things have changed for Hannah in the, uh, well probably like 15 hours since she left Brooklyn. She’s got a new apartment (a nicely appointed and shockingly large Victorian spread, procured for $800 a month from an understandably flabbergasted realtor), a brain-expanding graduate student life to embark on (approximate number of times Hannah reminded people she was a graduate student in this episode = 429), a bike that’s just about to be stolen, and tons of brand new friends. Wait, did we say “friends”? Oh, we meant “people in her program who already think she’s a total moron.” Hannah’s first impression on the rest of the writers in her workshop isn’t a good one – partially because they all seem to be varying shades of stuck up, but mostly because Hannah’s ability to accept criticism and present herself as an actual human adult is at its bare minimum during this episode – and after being in Iowa for mere hours, she’s already vaguely threatening suicide. Never change, Hannah! (Wait, never mind, you really do never change.)

Is Hannah going to make this whole GRADUATE STUDENT, YES, THAT’S ME!! thing work out? Rob Hunter and I wonder:

Kate: Here’s a fun fact: the application process for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop does not appear to include an interview portion, which probably explains – at least partially – how Hannah got into the program (at least fictionally speaking, the IWW disavowed the storyline and wouldn’t let the show film there) without anyone realizing that she is woefully immature, unable to process criticism, and utterly unfit for exploring her work with the assistance of other people. Has Hannah evolved at all during the past three seasons? Because she’s practically infantile in this episode, unable to do basic things like get dressed for her first class or speak to a realtor without screeching and swearing. Hannah shouldn’t on her own anywhere, least of all in a foreign environment that actually requires growth.

Rob: Hannah shouldn’t be on her own in a new environment, but Girls most definitely needed her to do just that. Sitcoms can get away with a repetitive, closed-off existence because their single focus is laughs, but while this show is sitcom-length, it’s always aimed for higher dramatic targets in addition to the comedy. Through the ups and downs of the series, though, that distinction has gotten lost when it comes to the character of Hannah, because while others actually seem to offer visible growth (for better or worse), Hannah has always remained stagnant and unchanged.

So while she doesn’t seem built for this kind of radical shift in geography and social structure, it feels like a necessary step for her and the show. I will be curious, though, if they take advantage of this and actually let her grow or if they simply view this as a seasonal detour before returning to the norm. Can she return to NYC a changed woman? Will Lena Dunham even let that happen? It’s entirely possible that Dunham feels most comfortable as a writer and an actor with a one-note Hannah watching the world move on without her.

Kate: Things aren’t looking good so far, and Hannah seems to have made a woeful first impression on literally everyone she’s met in Iowa (except maybe that one drummer guy who wanted her to come check him out at the battle of the bands), from her workshop mates (including my beloved Desiree Akhavan) to the random cashier at the bookstore (hey, Brooks Wheelan). She’s simply not going to succeed without building herself a good support system, and considering she’s proven time and again that she can’t even do that back “home” in Brooklyn, my expectations are low for Iowa.

And, as much as the appearance of Elijah (Andrew Rannells) thrills me to my core, it’s another sign that Hannah simply can’t make it in a new environment. She was in Iowa for literally two days before she had to go ahead and import friends. What’s going to happen there? Everyone’s going to love Elijah, aren’t they?

Rob: Elijah will either become super popular or he’ll turn Hannah into even more of a pariah. I’m unsure at this point. My question though is more to your point about her importing a social network…will others come visit from Brooklyn, or will we simply shift between the two different time zones from episode to episode? My expectation is that someone else will show up, but I really can’t justify any of them doing so. Elijah seems far more spontaneous and pseudo-thoughtful than Hannah’s main friends do, so we’ll see.

As for building a new network…Hannah really is an acquired taste by design, and she shows no signs of easing up on her personality in order to form some new friendships.

Kate: Other than the weirdness of Elijah apparently throwing his entire NYC existence away to come be with Hannah – is he going to stay forever? what about his stuff? doesn’t he remember how hard it is to get an apartment in the city? – the rest of the episode portrayed the rest of the Girls girls in a believable fashion, only dipping in to check on them through conversations with Hannah. Marnie is knitting! Shosh and Jessa are watching porn (?) and bickering over how to answer a collect call (seriously, can someone teach these people basic life skills?). I certainly hope we see more of them, but I like the way this particular episode used them.

Hannah’s best bet for friends appears to be within her own workshop, and they already hate her and seem to revel in giving her criticism. And that criticism – do you think this is a direct response from Dunham to her own critics? That Hannah’s work is literally too self-involved to work and be interesting? It seems almost too simple, but there’s a certain disdain ascribed to the rest of the workshoppers and even though they make fine points, this episode seemed to view them with a distance and a dislike that made me a little uncomfortable. They’re snobs, but they also have a point. Hannah is awful, but she should also be able to express herself.

Rob: Yeah, I expect we’ll see more of the others in their own Brooklyn-centric episodes, along with the occasional phone call cameos. I’m not looking forward to more of Marnie’s bland folk singer, but I know he’s coming.

As to the critics, I’m kind of torn. There’s definitely a disdain there, and anyone who’s been a part of college-level writing classes probably recognizes each and every one of those people. (Even the Hannah-type, warning the others about possible triggers in her writing and how it’s okay to have an emotional reaction. Ugh.) Many of their critical comments were spot on (from the very little of Hannah’s writing we actually heard), but they are also playing up the “elitism” and snobbery that most people would expect to find. And they’re not shutting down Hannah’s voice – in fact that one bar conversation equates it rightly to the idea that a writer can’t confront each and every reader of their work, so the writing has to speak for itself.

The flip side of this though is that Hannah, and by extension Dunham, thrives on that negative energy. I’m not saying either of them act like they’re enjoying it, but the scathing comments are what keeps them chugging along. The only other conclusion is that they’re too dim to learn from the criticisms, and I don’t think either one is actually an idiot. Willfully and knowingly blind by choice, maybe, but they’re not dumb. Hannah pushes buttons, she can’t help it, and while I’d love to see the character grow I don’t see her changing anytime soon.

Kate: Too bad Hannah didn’t get a chance to “metabolize” her criticisms, as she seemed so bent on doing, instead opting to go to a bar with her new “friends” and then, later, going to some sort of undergrad rager with Elijah, apparently thrown by people who are big Old School fans. On one hand, yes, go have some fun, girl, get yo drink on. On the other, it just seems like another way for avoid doing anything that even approaches work. Hannah seems destined to flunk out of grad school for a million reasons – she’s not good enough, she won’t evolve, she thinks it’s okay to wear pajamas to class – and adding in “too much time drinking and screaming at teenagers” just seems like a bad idea.

Which is why it’s so weird that Hannah seems to utterly enjoy reminding people how old she is now. “I am twenty-five-years-old!” she yells at crying party girl, then steals her spot in the bathroom line and falls into a blow-up pool filled with blue goo. Maturity! What a thing!

Rob: The concern here in Iowa is that these two extremes – class criticism and immature partying – might be the extent of what we see from Hannah while she’s there. I doubt we’ll see the addition of any real friend characters, and instead we’ll have to make do with quirky acquaintances and fleeting love interests.

Her constant reminders to people about her age are very much in character for her. She’s constantly wanting to be the center of attention – just look at those dance moves! – and reminding people that she’s older, wiser and smarter than them is definitely in her wheelhouse. Her big problem has always been the disconnect between her words and actions though. She talks big but can rarely (if ever) back it up with her abilities.

And I hate to keep stepping “outside” of the show and characters, but I think Hannah is designed to be the quintessential HBO comedy lead character. She’s fascinating and funny but destined to be an unlikable failure in her every endeavor. She’s most likely not coming out of this workshop with anything resembling success.

Kate: I love that observation – Hannah as HBO standard-bearer. Of course, she and the show are only as good as its supporting characters, so perhaps we’ll make it out of Iowa with a few more of those (still pulling for Akhavan, who exhibits the kind of world-wise sardonic thought patterns that Hannah only wishes she could have). But that leads back to the show’s other current stars, including the missing Adam, which in turn moves us toward a major problem I had with this episode: whole bits of movement didn’t make any goddamn sense.

Where the hell are Hannah’s parents? Did they just drive her to Iowa and kick her out without even having an apartment in place? Why does Hannah talk to Marnie like they’ve been separated for months? And where the HELL is Adam? Why does it sound like they’ve broken up and we’ve totally missed it? The last we saw, Hannah and Adam were avoiding saying goodbye to each other, but that just seemed like a temporary bump in their relationship – now Hannah is talking to Marnie about Adam like they officially ended things. What did we miss? And should Girls think about employing someone dedicated to maintaining continuity?

Rob: Did her parents drive her to Iowa? I had assumed they just dropped her at the airport. I assume she set up shop in a hotel for a few days while looking for a place to live, buying a bike, etc. Agreed that things were played like they’d all been apart for weeks or longer, but with characters this self-obsessed even a brief time apart from those who validate you could seem like forever.

The Adam question is intriguing though. I’m not sure why they would break up – this is just a semester-long program right? She’s not moving to Iowa for the next two years. But you’re right in that it seems like they’re split. If true, it’s odd that the show would allow that to happen off-screen in the space of just a few days. On the practical side of things, I assume it’s so Driver could go off and make Star Wars, but narratively-speaking it leaves Hannah’s doors open for some college nookie.

Kate: I definitely thought her parents drove her to Iowa – remember Marnie standing in the street, crying, holding those lamps? that’s the stuff you have to drive! – and I feel bilked out of some sort of tearful/weird goodbye scene. It was all so strangely truncated. Where did that realtor even come from? I have questions.

I always thought Hannah was in this for the long haul, the full two years of grad school, and when she and Adam were referring to time apart, she just meant time apart until she had a big break between semesters. In any case, they’re clearly not very on right now, and something insane is surely going to happen to Adam soon (probably not a hospital stay, but who knows). These two.

Rob: Hmm, maybe the show does need someone in charge of continuity, if for no other reason than to keep me informed!

If that’s the case, though, if the intention is for her to be in Iowa for two years, then she’s obviously not going to make it. The show won’t leave her there for that long, so either she’ll flame out in some glorious fashion and return home with her tail between her legs, or the show will pull a Parks & Recreation and simply jump forward two years. The former seems far more likely knowing Hannah, but I would love to see where the characters all sit two years into the future. What if the next time we see Adam it’s onscreen at a movie theater with a dumbstruck Hannah in the audience? Oh, the possibilities…