Critic's Notebook: Matthew Rhys Joins 'Girls' to Reflect Hannah Horvath's Growth

Sunday's episode, 'American Bitch,' is a little bit about outspoken creator Lena Dunham, but a lot about how Hannah has changed since 'One Man's Trash' in season two.
Courtesy of HBO
Matthew Rhys on 'Girls'

[This piece contains spoilers for the Feb. 26 episode of HBO's Girls, now available early OnDemand.]

It's a lazy interview moment of which every journalist is guilty at some point. An imperfectly phrased question leads to a direct comparison between either an actor and their latest character or between two previous characters, and rather than think on the subject, out comes the answer: "Well, they both look like me!" And everybody laughs nervously.

Lena Dunham and Hannah Horvath share more than that superficial similarity, of course, in that Dunham isn't just a performer-for-hire playing a role, but rather a series creator giving herself a lead role. And famously putting words in her own mouth like, "I don't want to freak you out, but I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least, a voice of a generation."

Hannah made that pronouncement in the Girls pilot and many fans and critics alike were quick to accuse Dunham of hubris or presumptuousness, rather than just to chuckle at Hannah for the elevated ego and aspiration of youth. Even if Hannah's initial grand declaration was supposed to be a laugh-line directed at a character who has almost always been at least halfway intended as the butt of jokes, the pilot immediately established a close feedback loop between Dunham and her onscreen persona. Just about everything Hannah has ever done has been read as a response to things that people were saying about Dunham and, actually, just about everything Dunham has ever done has been read as a response to things that people were saying about Dunham.

It's part of why the Girls Thinkpiece Industrial Complex is so large that when Girls has its series finale this spring, Donald Trump will be forced to answer for the spike in national unemployment numbers.

In the short-term, rest assured that this Sunday's episode of Girls, titled "American Bitch," will produce commentaries aplenty.

In my pre-season review, I called "American Bitch" Lena Dunham's Oleanna, a reference to David Mamet's two-hander about a student accusing a professor of sexual harassment. Equal parts smug and provocative (more the latter in better productions), the play nodded to the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings and cautiously eyed the rise of political correctness activism on college campuses.

"American Bitch" is a two-hander between Hannah and decorated author Chuck Palmer, played with cunning weariness by Matthew Rhys. In a rant on what is described as a niche feminist website, Hannah has denounced Chuck for a series of what could either be described as sexual improprieties or out-and-out assaults on coeds during a recent book tour. What follows over 30 well-performed minutes, written by Dunham and directed by Richard Shepard, is confession, justification, masturbatory literary analysis, seduction and entrapment, with some wiggle room for interpretation on which character is the seducer and which the seduced. 

Just as Oleanna had Hill-Thomas as its backdrop, Dunham is working around the recent (but hardly new) spate of discussion about the separation of artist from art, whether Woody Allen or Bill Cosby or, if you're right-leaning and prone to sensationalism, possibly even Lena Dunham. Because Dunham has rarely been one to hold back on social media or in interviews, we know her thoughts on many of these famous cases and we know her own history with sexual assault, which has come under question/attack from niche conservative websites (and the more popular conservative website with direct current ties to the White House). 

So invariably we're going to try to view the episode as Dunham talking about Dunham, and in that light, "American Bitch" is probably validating. In the end, Chuck is the manipulative sleaze Hannah portrayed him as, a man who lures women in with his fame and then with his ostensible sadness, whether to a pathetic hotel room or into the narrative of his struggles with sleeplessness and insecurity. He gets them to open up and then, having empowered them to the degree he thinks they want or need to be empowered, he puts himself out there, and what's a girl to do but service the famous author? 

Hannah feels proud of having drawn the illusion of self-exposure from Chuck, but she also feels chastened for having not given consideration to his point of view. "You listened to one source and then you flapped your lips," he tells her condescendingly and she appears to agree, or at least meekly acquiesce. Then she lays with him on his bed, uncomfortable, but buying into his shtick about personal closeness. Then when he deposits his penis on her leg, she grabs it, an involuntary reflex that she quickly recoils from, but which still proves his point. Does the arrival of Chuck's daughter save Hannah from further assault? Probably not, because Chuck's "Told you so" smirk (and, again, the penis thing) is violation enough.

So I guess if you want to read this episode as being about Dunham and her outspoken willingness to speak truth to power (not that she's even close to powerless), then it's a vindication and also a warning or primer on predatory behavior masked in fame and empty praise. 

But "American Bitch" isn't really about Lena Dunham or Woody Allen.

It's about Hannah, who isn't Lena, and the journey she's been going on through the entire series. And the very long way she still has to go to reach a destination that probably won't come by the time we get to the Girls finale.

Dunham and Shepard would be almost disappointed if we didn't compare "American Bitch" to the second season episode "One Man's Trash," an installment that's probably a series peak for me. The comparisons are easily literal, as both episodes focus on Hannah entering the unimaginably upscale digs of an older man, spilling personal stories about her hopes and aspirations, finding a certain comfort that's then unraveled, leaving her exiting and walking away alone. 

The metaphorical links aren't hard to see, either. In "One Man's Trash," the instigating event is Hannah dumping garbage from Ray's coffee shop in the trash of well-to-do doctor Joshua (Patrick Wilson). 

"Then I just kinda started to like the way that it felt, the whole act of it, the moment when you drop it in, the moment when you run, all that," Hannah explains.

Hannah hasn't previously been caught. Joshua confronts an indignant Ray about the dumping. But Hannah confesses anyway. She needs to purge herself. 

In "American Bitch," Hannah thought she was trashing Chuck and running away, never imagining the ultra-sensitive Google alert Chuck had for himself. She's surprised and intimidated, but not apologetic, when she's called to task for the ease of accusing somebody of a crime online and then moving on to the next blog post.

This shows the shift in her power and accountability since the second season, as does the dramatic improvement in her sense of what constitutes New York City wealth, from Joshua's partially renovated brownstone, to Chuck's absurdly plush doorman building. Hannah still isn't the voice of her generation, but she's at least become a woman capable of defending younger women she sees as being victimized — of defending younger women like the Hannah she used to be. 

To be very clear, Hannah is not a victim in "One Man's Trash." As she puts it, she's accumulating feelings and experiences still, a process that includes this two-night stand with a kinda married man, topless ping-pong, passing out in a luxury steam shower and a whole accelerated relationship culminating in a sad breakup. Her ability to speak truth to his power is limited to chiding him for thinking the hipsters next door are more like a frat house than his own inherent frattiness. It's the meekest of burns. She's grateful to be in his world.

For Hannah, "One Man's Trash" is a story she can tell, but by the time we reach "American Bitch," she's fighting for the girls who put themselves in bad positions because they want to have experiences and stories. Her tryst with Joshua was a best-case scenario, but what other women have experienced with Chuck is worse and she's fighting for them because people are finally willing to publish her. Hannah's a work in progress and this episode, more than most, shows that progress, but also her limitations. 

She confronts Chuck and makes a show of refusing to be awed by him, but she's still snowed by the author and his signed Philip Roth novels and pictures with Toni Morrison. At least she eventually sees through his slithery, middle-aged disingenuousness, which is also an improvement. The greatness of Wilson's performance in "One Man's Trash" — one that deserved an Emmy nomination at the very least — is its preppy inscrutability, something Wilson does better than nearly anybody. We're left to do a lot of guessing about what Joshua thinks he's getting out of his fling with Hannah, an opaque desire that left many trolls belching out slurs about how deluded Dunham must be to think she could get with a dude who looks like Patrick Wilson.

Joshua was all cheekbones and toned abs and blank motives, but Chuck offers unwashed hair, a natty beard and the viewer can see how he's toying with Hannah, even if she can't, at least until the end. Rhys is outstanding here because he lets us see what he's thinking, but he makes it just fuzzy enough that we don't feel contempt for Hannah for missing it.

Girls is reaching a conclusion this spring, but I don't think anybody is worried that Lena Dunham won't keep us up to date on Lena Dunham's incremental maturation.

"American Bitch" was a reminder of how much I'll miss seeing Hannah Horvath's incremental maturation and a reminder of how often this ensemble about a group of friends has smartly used these one-off episodes to chart growth — Marnie's After Hours-esque Manhattan nightmare and Shosh's Tokyo odyssey would also count. Maybe instead of a Girls movie, we should get an hour with Hannah and a strange older man in a palatial apartment every few years, just to see how things are going.