[Editor’s note: This week’s episode of Girls is now streaming on HBO GO and HBO NOW. Spoilers ahead.]
The capsule episodes of Girls almost always showcase its strongest storytelling. Separated from the myriad interrelationships and sexual dramas that hustling between locations in the city brings, Girls settles and focuses on digging into its characters, who can otherwise feel like glossy caricatures, high-res GIFs repeating their expected behavior.
The series’ final bottle episode, “American Bitch”—a reference to the rumored (and ultimately rejected) working title of a Philip Roth novel—stuffs Hannah (Lena Dunham) into an elevator that leads to the complicated yet familiar story of a once-admired artist who’s had unsavory allegations leveled against him. The artist, an author named Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys), picks up college girls on his book tour and brings them back to his hotel room. Some, obviously unhappy with their experience blowing a famous writer after he whisked them away from campus, have begun to speak out against him, and Hannah wrote a piece on the scandal.
Palmer’s hurt. Oh, boohoo, right? It’s a testament to Dunham’s writing and Rhys’ performance that what grows over the course of episode is an exchange of stories, one that produces a considered account of sexual agency, the imbalance of power, and modern storytelling culture (including the platforms that comprise said culture). Rhys is logical and sad, simultaneously personally tepid and intellectually searing. Dunham rises to his level, delighting in the sharp, sexually-heavy badinage between them.
A complexity evolves from this empowered artist with a sad life whose accusers (to hear him tell it) are people exploiting his sexuality for the sake of a story. Or is he simply a predator using his authority to move in on perhaps-not-unwilling-at-first girls? (Of course, there’s never a question of consent in his mind.) The person on the other end of these diatribes, Hannah, has been on both sides of this scenario, having had sex used against her—in “Hard Being Easy”—and using sex for her creative experience—with Laird, in “Bad Friend,” and Jessa’s stepbrother, in “Video Games.”
The conversations are engaging and the staging is nice, with director Richard Shepard’s slow burn pacing turning Palmer’s ritzy apartment into a claustrophobic therapy session. His camera placements, even more than the conversational subject matter, corner Palmer in his own home and transform Hannah’s jaunt to the bathroom into a sweaty reprieve from a tense situation.
Another interesting aesthetic choice the episode makes is to continue dressing Hannah like an adult human being that fixes her makeup in the elevator mirror. Compared to the odd, too-short two-piece romper in “One Man’s Trash,” another of the show’s great bottle episodes, Hannah’s tasteful button-up and well, ok, track pants still give her the air of increased maturity needed to deal with an episode this intense.
When Hannah’s allowed to strike back at Palmer’s argument, she tells a molestation anecdote, the very normalcy of which is shocking: Its simple cadence and delivery, as well as the extremely Girls-esque slow zoom on her face, hammer home the impression that Hannah does not think her story is special. Every woman has a story like she does. She follows up with hating the so-called “grey areas” of the world—something that Girls used to delight in but now demands more of, shining its spotlight around in search for the truth, or at least improvement. The grey may never separate again into black and white, but Hannah’s sick of accepting moral haziness.
What follows is a lovely emotional exchange between the two writers, uncovering dreams and birthplaces to humanize what could’ve easily been a thousand faceless words on a website. A real problem of think piece culture (what Palmer calls “two-bit journalism”) is jumping to conclusions: He’s not damning the decision to believe accusers, but the immediate regurgitation of claims without research, interviews or other signs of thorough investigation undercuts real reporting and delegitimizes these perfectly valid claims in some eyes. This is the grey that Hannah’s sick of, a grey she wrote about, a grey she couldn’t turn into black damnation. Now Palmer seems like he may be OK after all.
Then he whips his dick out.
The entire episode shifts with the perspective of the camera. We’re above Hannah as Palmer’s limp penis rolls over and slaps onto her thigh while the two lie on his bed. Everything that’s happened up to that moment immediately spins backward, horrifyingly corroborating everything we didn’t want to believe. It’s the experience of the victim made into a TV tonal shift: the confusion and hurt and disgust we feel when we see excuses become the quiet connivances of a seasoned sleaze only purporting to change.
A complex episode thus becomes one of the series’ best: A metered, understated half-hour punctuated by the one thing we never wanted to happen. Then it just ends. But it doesn’t ever go away. It closes with a beautiful piece of visual metaphor: a stream of faceless women filtering up into the same building Hannah’s just exited, just out of focus, always out of mind.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.