Jessa drags Hannah along on a visit to see her father — and we discover she's transcended "SATC" Samantha territory
Lena Dunham: Fire your friends. I’m sure you love them; I’m sure they support you artistically; I’m sure they, like Hannah’s companions in “Girls,” bring you equal parts joy and pain. However — these Twitter scandals are becoming the tech equivalent of Ku Klux Klan charge in 140 characters. Fellow writer Lesley Arfin’s tone-deaf, ill-reasoned response to critics lamenting your lack of black characters was bad enough. But this week’s silence on Lisa Lampinelli’s tweet is the worst type of pernicious neglect. You’re beginning to seem like the canary in the coalmine for ironic racism — which apparently yet flourishes in the young intellectual vanguard. As an artist, you have the right, even duty, to depict this small sliver of culture. As a human, you have officially made me terrified about this sliver. Fire your friends.
Back to the show — which, in this episode, somehow seemed more nakedly painful to me than all the actually nudity in the show heretofore.
Finally, we’re allowed a glimpse the genesis of Jessa, whose glorious abandon is one part delight, two parts holy terror. We’ve known her warmth, her sharp insights (all the more thunderbolt-esque for their rarity), and her mutinous capacity for destruction — sometimes her own. It’s often unclear if she’s a benign psychopath or a cranky prophet.
Neither, as it turns out, and this viewer, for one, is glad to finally have her loosed from the kooky kage. In the first season of “Sex and the City” — as long as Dunham references it, I’m going to keep referencing it — the writers realized that a slutty Samantha, desperate for approval, was a concept, not a character. Once an elegant pagan was unleashed, the writers were free to examine a spiritually liberated woman whose sexual appetite was not simply a symptom.
The same is true of Jessa, whose seeming wantonness is not a rejection of rules, but its own belief system. As the show launches, she and Hannah are standing on the train platform of Jessa’s father’s rural outpost—the leafy, upstate Manitou—waiting for her father to pick them up. They are decisively alone. Hannah has to pee, and is still terrified to go. As she, at Jessa’s urging, finally crosses the tracks and lowers her pants, Jessa smiles at a the couple approaching Hannah’s stark-white backside.
FINALLY! Jessa’s father shows up. I have been waiting to see him. Who spawned this creature? A wealthy banker? A reclusive genius? Nathan Lane in Chanel?
In fact, he is merely Jessa herself, but older, sweaty, and regretting his stint in the country. As Hannah tries to introduce herself with her traditional coping mechanism — TMI — Mr. Johansson, like Jessa, swats it away like the dull whine of a mosquito. Hannah looks around with trepidation, and the father and daughter move on to making dick jokes.
If usually Hannah is irresponsible and Jessa is a free spirit, they have been more than trumped by all the house’s residents. The house is so filthy even Hannah and Jessa — of the recent snot-filled tub — are appalled. Petula (the always-wonderful surprise of Rosanna Arquette), Jessa’s father’s girlfriend, a former masseuse, raises rabbits for food and clutches her non-existent balls in the first five minutes of meeting Hannah. Her son Frank, whose turned-down turtleneck Hannah admires, is either a loser or a loser-to-be. (Oh, no. Inner Freud senses Approaching Sex.) And there’s neighbor Tyler, the all-American lacrosse player who’s also published poetry. (“Locally.”)
And at first, Hannah and Jessa seem to settle into their same roles: The one who always pees in the tub, and then the one who is so gross she actually shoots snot into it. Hannah thinks the immense bushes in the stack of vintage Penthouses are disgusting; Jessa that “that’s what a vagina is supposed to look like.” (This is the occasion for yet another classic Jessa line: When Hannah argues we should be praising women for things like being doctors, Jessa gestures with outrage to the centerfold: “Who says she’s not a doctor?”)
At table, Hannah is unable to eat the rabbit she’s just met earlier; Jessa digs in vigorously. Frank, Tyler, and Jessa do whip-its (what is a whip-it? I have never known) while screaming in a speeding convertible; Hannah demands to be let out. Finally, thinking Jessa is going to sleep with Tyler, Hannah engages in coitus — somewhat — with Frank, for which Jessa upbraids her fully. (“It’s disgusting! He’s a child!”) As a mortified Hannah heads to the back of the car, Jessa gives us the same faint smile. She might have slept with Tyler; she might not have. Either way, her actual fun was having fun at the expense of Hannah’s prudery.
And finally, we get the answer to whether or not Jessa’s free spirit is also innate. Increasingly miserable at how her father has studiously avoided her throughout the visit, she confronts him. “Can’t you stay put for one second? Can’t clean your house once in a while, not act like leaving a mother and child is a casual fucking thing?” She thought her husband’s vows meant something, she tells her father, but she’s taken shit because he never taught her anything else. “Why can’t you do one single thing that you say you’re going to do?”
It seems reductive to say that the task of adulthood is to either reject what’s been done to you or visit it upon everyone else, but it seems reductive because it’s true. The Jessa who muses about molestation: “I was. Maybe. Yes. I don’t know” and can pragmatically tear into a creature who was alive moments before may be the product of circumstances, not spirit. Like her father, she takes off suddenly, leaving Hannah in the lurch.
At the beginning of the show, Jessa’s father’s car was crammed with ancient computers because, as he told the girls, he didn’t want anyone to “steal his ideas.” As Hannah stands at the station, trying to jettison her childhood maturely by calling her parents to thank them for supporting her, she finds her parents not only resistant, but more burdened by her than ever.
No one on “Girls,” it seems, has yet made a successful foray outside the nest. And maybe Dunham, as a writer, hasn’t either. Sometimes this yields a lovely, singular truth. And sometimes it’s like when Jessa’s father hits the road, his computers his only companions. Sometimes, the hardest thing to give up is your idea of yourself.
Lizzie Skurnick is the author of Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stop Reading. She writes on books and culture for the New York Times Magazine, the Daily Beast, Bookforum, the LAT, and many other publications. More Lizzie Skurnick.
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