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On ‘Girls,’ Narcissism and Jewish Writers

Hannah gets some unexpected news, Woody Allen and Saul Bellow get name dropped, and Ray confronts his own mortality

Miranda Cooper
March 06, 2017
Craig Blankenhorn
Tracey Ullman and Lena Dunham in the fourth episode of Season 6. Craig Blankenhorn
Craig Blankenhorn
Tracey Ullman and Lena Dunham in the fourth episode of Season 6. Craig Blankenhorn

Last night’s episode of Girls was another excellent piece of television, and boy, does it pack a punch. If the rest of the final season maintains the high standard that these first four episodes have set, Girls will live on in television history as a masterful chronicle of twentysomething New York (somewhat Jewish) culture.

“Painful Evacuation” opened with a fitting continuation on the theme of last week’s episode: Hannah is sitting once again in the apartment of a writer more accomplished than she, this one a woman named Ode Montgomery (played by the great Tracey Ullman), who talks to her about the gender-specific difficulties of the profession. It’s a refreshing response to “American Bitch,” in which we saw a male writer take advantage of the privileges of his gender in the worst ways possible.

Montgomery discusses the myths and challenges of being a woman author: “That’s the mistake we all make, isn’t it? Believing that being a writer means being, you know, totally and utterly uninterrupted—it means silence, it means, you know, a room of one’s own–no, no. That’s bullshit. That’s what we perceive a male writer to have. And that can lead to horrible solipsism and disconnection from humanity. I’m not naming names, never naming names.” And then, of course, she names names: Martin Amis, Woody Allen, Saul Bellow.

What more could a Jewish-American-literature obsessed recapper ask for? Casting aside Amis, a self-professed philosemite, the fact that Montgomery’s list of self-centered writers is all Jewish is like manna from the HBO heavens.

Interestingly, Allen and Bellow have also been often compared to Philip Roth, who held much of last week’s episode’s attention. Allen even had a not-so-subtle cameo in the form of a photo on the wall in fictional writer Chuck Palmer’s study: a brilliant sight gag in an episode about writers abusing their fame and privilege. As with Roth, these are more than casual name drops. Girls is setting up an old guard of male Jewish American writers with whom Hannah must contend. Is being a writer as a woman really as hard as it seems, Hannah asks? Harder, Montgomery confirms. There we have it.

But the episode, unlike last week’s, is not primarily about being a writer. It is, really, about narcissism: Marnie’s (of course), Ray’s, Adam and Jessa’s, Hannah’s. In this way, it takes one of the series’ overall themes head on.

Marnie and Ray, who are still together despite Marnie’s cheating, are having sex. Remember the season’s first episode, that cringe-worthy scene when they couldn’t stop calling each other “baby,” when Marnie popped out of bed the second they finished? Seems like she’s still only in it physically. Ray wishes that Marnie would pay more attention to him: “Don’t you want to just get dumplings and throw down a few beers and just catch up?” he asks, after she fakes an orgasm and offers some ridiculous “poetry” (her words, not mine) about dying in a lion’s mouth together. Marnie has always been the show’s ultimate narcissist, and this episode is no different. She can’t live Ray’s dumplings and beer fantasy tonight because she has to go to this thing (a meeting with Desi and his addiction counselor, it turns out). She immediately launches into a long rumination on that age-old philosophical question: should she Uber all the way uptown? Is it worth the cost if it gives her time to meditate? Ray doesn’t care, and he tunes her out. As viewers, we wish we could be so lucky.

Her narcissism reaches its peak for the episode when she meets with Desi and the counselor, and literally makes her ex-husband’s drug addiction all about her. It’s Desi himself who points this out after she says, “Do you have any idea how hard this has been for me? I have bruises all over my body from the two-hour massages that I need to deal with the stress of your addiction.” It sounds like it should be sarcasm, but it’s just Marnie Marie being Marnie Marie.

Adam and Jessa, meanwhile, have decided to make their own film, drawing upon their fallout with Hannah (didn’t Hannah do that already for the “Modern Love” column? Seems like their big, career-defining idea is too little, too late). Adam has stalked off the set of his new movie, fuming because he doesn’t agree with his director that his character should have lines, and Jessa encourages him to take things into his own hands rather than dealing with the everyday tribulations of being in the early stages of a career.

Ray is the only character this episode who is introspective. One of Ray’s regulars tries to tell him a casually homophobic story about Ed Koch and the New York subway of yore, and Ray brushes him off to attend to waiting customers; seconds later, the man is dead on the sidewalk. Ray is then called to consider his own mortality. His boss, Hermie, underscores this by advising him, gruffly, to take a hard look at his choices and not to fritter his life away, lest Ray end up like Hermie. Ray is rude to him, but later in a conversation with Shosh, he realizes that he was in the wrong. Unlike the rest of the main characters, Ray has realized the dangers of narcissism. He heads to Hermie’s apartment to apologize, only to find him dead on the couch, thus tripling down on the lesson he has learned. It’s harrowing, to say the least. (By the way, is anyone else as delighted as I am when Ray gets significant screen time? I’ve been saying this for years: he’s sort of a pain, but he’s definitely a mensch.)

Hannah’s storyline, though, is the most intense of the episode. She has a UTI; in a characteristic and slightly nauseating scene, she puts her phone into the toilet so she can show her mother over FaceTime that there is blood in her urine. Millennial helplessness indeed. She heads to the ER, and in a situation that would only happen to Hannah, her doctor is Patrick Wilson, the attractive, ping-pong-playing, gorgeous Brooklyn apartment-owning (the gorgeous modifies both the apartment and the person) guy from Season 2. It’s deliciously awkward that she is forced to discuss this personal problem with someone she has already had sex with, but then the scene goes from funny to serious in a matter of seconds when he tells her, almost offhand, that she’s pregnant. Yes, Hannah Horvath is pregnant. And surf instructor Paul-Louis is the father.

Probably more out of a necessity to react to something than out of real conviction, Hannah bristles at the doctor’s presumption that she wants an abortion (and his generous offer to accompany her there, find her a doctor who he trusts, etc.). So she stalks away, to the same music that played when she left his townhouse years ago. Hannah has changed, but how much?

Narcissism, of course, might be the first thing that needs to be checked at the door to be an effective—or even merely adequate—parent (she says definitively as a twenty-three-year-old woman responsible only for herself, who lives, like Hannah, with roommates in New York and does not plan to have children anytime soon). Hannah’s pregnancy storyline, which will surely carry the next few episodes, is thrown into stark relief given the opinion on motherhood Tracey Ullman’s character offered at the beginning of the episode:

“I am not a mother, and there’s a reason for that. Because childlessness is the natural state of the female author. Write that down, get used to it, you know. And I hate it when everyone says, ‘having a baby makes you part of the world.’ I really resent that. I don’t need one of those to be able to look around. It’s like having a truck driven through your vagina, isn’t it?”

Hannah is going to have to figure out how to handle this unexpected news and chart a path forward for herself. If she actually chooses to go forward with the pregnancy, she will need to learn how to balance her life as a young writer with her responsibilities as a (presumably single) mother. Can she put a child above her own needs? Is she remotely ready for such a life-changing responsibility? So far, we’ve seen no indication that she’s up to that challenge—or even interested in taking it on.

Miranda Cooper is an editorial intern at Tablet. Follow her on Twitter here.