The Very Best Episodes of Girls Are Perfect Short Stories
Looking back at the three episodes of Girls that stand apart as masterpieces of craft and damn good television
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Girls, Lena Dunham’s groundbreaking comedy about short-sighted, well-meaning millennials in Brooklyn, will air its final episode this Sunday. The show invited early comparisons to Sex and the City with its premise — four friends in the city, each a type: the free spirit (Jessa/Samantha), the type-A (Shoshanna/Miranda), the image-obsessed (Charlotte/Marnie), and the charismatic narcissist (Hannah/Carrie). Though some episodes of Sex and the City have aged better than others, that show’s focus on the enduring friendships of single women marked a cultural sea-change. “Maybe we could be each other’s soulmates.” Charlotte says to her three best friends in Season 4, Episode 1, “And then we could let men be just these great nice guys to have fun with.” This moment is Sex and the City’s thesis; the emotional equivalent of a BFF broken-heart necklace.
But it’s clear, as we near the end of the sixth and final season, that the thesis of Girls could not be more different. In last week’s episode, when Hannah tells Elijah she’s considering moving upstate for a teaching position (did you know that publishing a handful of essays online can land you a full professorship, with benefits, at a leafy university?), they make a direct nod to that Sex and the City ethos. “But you’ve made so many wonderful friendships here,” Elijah says, and they both burst out laughing.
Hannah, Shoshanna, Marnie, and Jessa aren’t each other’s soul mates. In fact, these women don’t even like one another, and they haven’t for years. In “Beach House” (Season 3, Episode 7), Marnie calls a seaside friendship summit to “heal” and “prove to everyone via Instagram that we can still have fun as a group.” The weekend ends with drunken Shoshanna eviscerating her so-called friends with what will come to be her signature, cutting tongue: “Sometimes I wonder if my social anxiety is holding me back from meeting the people who would actually be right for me, instead of some fucking whiny nothings as friends.” Last week, the plot of the “Beach House” episode was replayed in a single scene. Marnie calls a “group meeting” in a crowded bathroom, where Shoshanna delivers the perfect rejoinder to Charlotte’s sentimental proclamation. “I have come to realize how exhausting, and narcissistic and ultimately boring this whole dynamic is,” she says. It’s a perfect Girls thesis: self-deprecating, ironic, and self-referential. The emotional equivalent of retweeting your trolls.
As the series draws to a close, each character is growing up and moving on. Hannah has embraced her pregnancy and a new life of responsibility. Shosh fulfilled her wish from season three: she has gotten engaged and found a new group of friends. Jessa, whose emotionally reckless behavior no longer suits her, seems about to turn a corner toward kindness and reciprocal love. Marnie, who finally knows what a high person looks like, is doing some serious soul-searching on her mother’s couch and may soon find gainful employment. Elijah has rapidly discovered and realized his acting ambitions, and, despite his protestations, will be absolutely fine when Hannah leaves the city. Given all of these character’s trajectories, it’s clear that Girls is not a show about friendship; it’s a show about self-knowledge.
There will be no central love story (other than the one between Hannah and Elijah, perhaps) or dramatic conclusion. Re-watching old episodes, I realized I had forgotten so many of the plot points, hook-ups, and exes: Elijah’s brief relationship with Doyle from Gilmore Girls; the time Shoshanna dated Jason Ritter from Parenthood; Jessa’s job as a nanny and her flirtation with the kid’s father. Desi, Charlie, Sandy (Donald Glover), Mimi-Rose (Gillian Jacobs), Fran… Then there’s the time Marnie slept with Elijah, the time Hannah blew Ray, when Shosh dated Ray, when Hannah dated Elijah, when Marnie dated Ray, when Hannah dated Adam, when Jessa dated Adam. In the end these relationships matter as much as relationships from your early- to mid-twenties are supposed to matter, which is not as much as you thought they would at the time.
It’s fitting that the show’s best episodes are not about these relationships and interpersonal dramas of its characters. The masterpiece of Girls, in the end, is not plot but character-craft, achieved through nuanced dialogue and sensitive observation, epitomized in three standalone episodes. Each focuses on a mini-arc of a single character and is self-contained and satisfying unto itself. The industry term for these would be bottle episodes, but I prefer to think of them as short stories — alive on-screen but written for the page. Watching them for the first time, and again, I was reminded of short stories I’ve loved. The fraught sexuality and intelligence of Mary Gaitskill, the wry asides of Lorrie Moore, the urgency of girlhood in Jamaica Kincaid, the tightly wrapped, but still unexpected plots of Alice Munro. The satisfaction one can get from a well-crafted short story is not often found in television in its serial, increasingly bingeable form, but as evidenced here, the two are unexpectedly compatible.
“Another Man’s Trash” Season 2, Episode 5
Watch if you like to read: Lorrie Moore or Jhumpa Lahiri
Story type: Close quarters
Subset: Unlikely friendship/romance
Hannah spends two days shacked up with handsome older man — Joshua (not Josh), played by Patrick Wilson. If you’ve forgotten the details of the episode you may remember the attendant internet furor: this was early in the series when people were enraged by the site of Lena Dunham’s naked body on television. Probably, they still are; I’ve stopped paying attention to their childish fits of misogyny. “Another Man’s Trash” was the ultimate affront to these trolls — why would a man as gorgeous as Patrick Wilson go for pear-shaped Hannah Horvath? If I recall, topless ping-pong was her greatest offense. Being naked during well-lit sex requires a certain amount of confidence, but playing topless table tennis requires a level of comfort with one’s own body women are actively prevented from ever achieving.
The backlash has little to do with the plot, which is subtle and sophisticated; and the interaction of the story’s themes with the visual politics and public perception only deepens their meaning. Hannah is working at Ray’s coffee shop, and after confessing to a neighbor that she has been disposing of the shop’s trash in his garbage bins, they end up having sex in the living room of his brownstone. At Joshua’s urging, she stays, spending the night, and the next night, luxuriating in his cashmere sweater, visiting his life the way one visits a luxury hotel. She is equally impressed by his belongings as she is by the ease with which he possesses them. The lemonade in a highball glass, a grilled steak (“Were you planning for guests, or…?” “No, I was planning for steak.”), the fireplace, the shower, which she makes so hot and steamy she passes out.
Of course Joshua rescues her, wraps her in a plush bathrobe and comforts her sweetly. This is when she has her epiphany: she wants something traditional. She wants a nice place to live, and she wants to be happy:
“I made a promise such a long time ago that I was going to take in experiences and I guess tell other people about them and maybe save them but it gets so tiring. Taking in all the experience for everybody. Letting anyone say anything to me. Then I came here, and I see you, and you’ve got the fruit in the bowl and the fridge with the stuff, and the robe and you’re touching me the way that you… And I realize, I’m not different, you know? I want what everyone wants. I want what they all want. I want all the things. I just want to be happy.”
Over the last day and a half, Hannah has realized what it takes most people all of their twenties to accept: that she wants the comforts of a upper middle class life. It’s almost a sweet moment; Joshua seems to understand the emotional place she’s in. But Hannah, being Hannah, can’t stop there. Like any good epiphany in literature, this one is false, undercut by an inability to change. She sabotages the moment by confessing the worst things she can think of: she once asked a guy to punch her in the chest and then cum in that spot. When she was three, she lied, or maybe didn’t lie, and told her mom a babysitter touched her vagina in the bath. Joshua tries to reciprocate her non-sequiturs by telling her he once let a boy give him a hand job when he was nine, be she dismisses his attempt to connect: “Well I think that’s pretty different because you let him and this wasn’t my choice.”
Like any good epiphany in literature, this one is false, undercut by an inability to change.
She explains she is too smart, and too sensitive, and “too not crazy” to not want to feel all the feelings (the logic is tangled). It’s a tantrum of sorts, and it has the desired effect: she ends the weekend’s romantic charade while maintaining the posture of the powerless party. The cocoon of their affair is broken by her actions, but she blames Joshua when he pulls away.
In the morning, Joshua is gone. Hannah makes the bed and, the finishing touch: she takes out the trash as she leaves. (“Say Yes” by Tobias Wolff, which is structurally similar, also ends this way, with a character taking out the trash.) In the shot of her walking away down the street, I was struck that she has no purse, and probably no phone or wallet. She had just stepped out to apologize to a stranger, and she lost two whole days to impulse and spontaneous connection.
“American Bitch” Season 6, Episode 3
Watch if you like to read: Raymond Carver or Mary Gaitskill
Story type: Metafictional polemic
Subset: Story in dialogue
“American Bitch” works beautifully as a coda to “Another Man’s Trash.” Besides Hannah, no other characters from the regular Girls cast appears. (“Another Man’s Trash” includes Ray in the opening scene.) Hannah again arrives at a nice home, only this time she has been invited. It’s a beautiful apartment on Central Park, owned by the novelist Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys), who has summoned Hannah after she wrote a blog post responding to accusations that he had coerced a college student into giving him oral sex while on book tour.
Chuck’s apartment is introduced with a Wes Anderson-esque survey of objects set to courtly music (the same tactic is used in “Beach House”), but Hannah is notably less impressed by the well-appointed apartment than she was by Joshua’s renovated brownstone. “I didn’t know novelists could make this much money,” she says, almost disparagingly. She’s more concerned with her self-presentation this time; she applies lipstick in the mirrored elevator, wipes armpits in the bathroom. The proximity to a life she covets — even one that so closely aligns with her career ambitions — no longer destabilizes her sense of self.
The episode is like a play, or a short story made entirely of the dialogue of a debate. (Think “Bangkok” by James Salter or “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver.) The topic is, as Chuck puts it, “How exactly does one give a non-consensual blow job?” It’s useful here to consider the old writer’s adage “show don’t tell.” The episode does both. First the telling. Hannah starts with a quip: “It would be very chokey,” and goes on to argue her point more adequately, through dialogue. But, like the best stories, the question is eventually answered, unequivocally, by action.
Chuck argues that Hannah, who is “clearly very bright,” should write about topics that matter. Hannah argues that this topic does matter, because of “the larger significance” which she defines as “the power imbalance,” and which is apparently lost on him.
“The part where she looks like a Victoria’s Secret model and I didn’t lose my virginity until I was 25 and I was on Accutane, that part’s not lost on me,” Chuck retorts.
“Ah no,” Hannah says:
“I’m talking about the part where you’re a very fucking famous writer and she’s working really hard to get just a little bit of what you get every day. So you invite her back to your hotel room. What’s she supposed to say? No? She admires you. Then you unbuckle your pants. What is she going to do next? You’ve got it wrong; it’s not so she has a story, it’s so she feels like she exists. And by the way, people don’t talk about this shit for fun. It ruins their lives, you know that.”
Hannah has done an excellent job arguing how someone can end up giving a non-consensual blow job, but Chuck, a charismatic, intelligent manipulator, is still not convinced. He senses Hannah’s vulnerability when she tells a story about an elementary school teacher who massaged her neck and shoulders in class (an appropriate story for the moment and the context, unlike the ones she told Joshua). Chuck listens respectfully. He says he’s sorry that happened to her. He asks if he can read her something.
The story he reads is about the night in question, and casts him as alienated and lonely, sympathetic and sensitive. He stops reading aloud and asks her to take over, stepping aside in a revealed attack. Now she literally has to say his words, and it’s enough to convince her to see his side.
From there, they connect easily. Chuck flatters her by calling her “not just a pretty face” and telling her she’s “a fucking writer.” Though Hannah has already called herself a writer many times during their visit — in fact, it’s the first thing she wanted to say to him — you can tell by her face that it has more weight coming from him.
He shows her a book in his bedroom; a signed copy of When She Was Good by Philip Roth, which he tells her to keep — “I like how happy it makes you.” Then he asks her to lie down with him on the bed for “just a moment.” He’s already lying down when he says, “I’d encourage you to keep you clothes on to delineate any boundaries that feel right to you, but I just want to feel close to someone in a way I haven’t in a long time. If you please. If you please.” He says that last part twice. She frowns, but joins him, clutching the book. The silence is awkward. “I’m sorry I wrote something about you that upset you so much,” she says, probably to fill it. “Without considering all the facts.” Chuck tells her it’s all right. He’s not angry. He shifts his weight and then turns over. He has an erection and he’s taken it out of his pants, and placed it right on her leg. She looks down, and grabs it, still clutching the book. Then she snaps out of it, jumps up, and exclaims, “You pulled your dick out, and I touched your dick.” She’s stating the obvious but the obvious is remarkable. It was like a reflex, like he’d tossed her something breakable and, like any reasonable person, she’d caught it. Chuck smiles. Checkmate.
She’s stating the obvious but the obvious is remarkable. It was like a reflex, like he’d tossed her something breakable and, like any reasonable person, she’d caught it.
Had Hannah still been the girl she described to Joshua, the one who “took in all the experiences for everybody” and wanted to have all the feelings, her brief grip would have surely turned into more. And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is how exactly one ends up giving a non-consensual blow job. The writing has answered the episode’s central question, undid its own answer, and through the art of showing, answered it here, again.
“Panic in Central Park” Season 5, Episode 6
Watch if you like to read: ZZ Packer or Alejandro Zambra
Story Type: One-thing-leads-to-another, road trip
Subset: Unreliable narrator
“Panic in Central Park” is Girls’ only episode completely dedicated to a secondary character. In it, Marnie shows that she can be spontaneous and honest. For perhaps the first time, the Girls audience sees her with her guard down, having fun, acting on impulse, and forgetting about appearances. After a fight with Desi, she leaves her apartment and runs into her ex Charlie, who looks like he’s been to prison. He’s beefier, has a new amorphous Brooklyn accent, and a tattoo across his chest that says “Humble Life.” He convinces her to come to a party uptown, basically by telling her he was only mean to her when they broke up because his dad committed suicide. On the way, they buy Marnie a shiny red dress with a plunging neckline, in which she will later be mistaken for a prostitute. Charlie is always going to the bathroom, but foreshadowing Marnie’s future problems with Desi, she doesn’t think anything of it. When he leaves her alone in the consignment shop, Marnie, unbidden, delivers a perfect puff of self-infatuated hot-air to the disinterested salesclerk:
“That guy’s my ex-boyfriend. I haven’t seen him in literally, almost two years until just now. Or, just before right now. He left without literally any explanation, and now I’m married to like an entirely different man, who’s also my musical partner. [Salesclerk: “Cool…”] I know you might be wondering, like, how does someone fit that much action in such a short amount of time? Yes, I am only 25 ½ years old, [Salesclerk: “Mmm, sounds right.”] but somehow I’ve managed to live so much. I feel like I’m looking out with the eyes of a women at hands that have touch and have been touched… Does that make any sense?”
Charlie returns from the burrito shop bathroom and pulls her aways just as her monologue goes comically off the rails. But later, there’s a delicious touch. When Marnie asks the age of the Eastern European girlfriend of a man soliciting her for sex, the woman’s answer, perfectly, is 25 ½. “Sounds right,” Marnie says. This is a trick of a restrained writer: it didn’t seem like Marnie had even heard the salesclerk, but with this bit of call-back dialogue, it’s clear she’d heard it, internalized it, and is now using it to appear more mature than she is.
They leave the party, get drunk at an Italian restaurant, steal a boat in Central Park, fall in the water, get robbed, plan to run away together, and have sex. Afterward, while Marnie takes a shower, Charlie shoots up, and Marnie walks home barefoot, abused and betrayed by smoke and mirrors of her own invention.
On the steps to her apartment, she finds Desi, waiting. “I don’t want to be married to you,” she tells hims. And then, my favorite line in all of Girls, one that perfectly captures Desi’s mood swings and hysteric condescension, he says: “I mean, Probably you’re going to get murdered. I mean that is how little of a sense of the world you have.”
Further Viewing, or Honorable Mentions
“Meanwhile, on the other side of town,” was a familiar editing tactic of Sex and the City, one that allowed each episode to jump between its four characters as they lived their lives from tip to toe of Manhattan, very occasionally visiting an outer borough. Looking for other bottle episodes in Girls, I loathed the legacy of that trick. So many I remembered as possible bottles actually jump back-and-forth to the plot lines of other characters. “Hello Kitty” (Season 5, Episode 7), in which the characters attend a play recreating the Kitty Genovese murder, cuts to a party at Elijah’s boyfriend Dill’s house. “All I Ever Wanted” (Season 6, Episode 1) finds Hannah on assignment at a surf camp, where she learns to stop worrying and love the ocean, but then also features a subplot involving Marnie’s divorce. “Hostage Situation” (Season 6, Episode 2), in which Hannah and Marnie take a strung-out Desi to Poughkeepsie, also includes some bullshit about start-ups and blue jeans. Earlier in the show, they are self-contained, ensemble episodes. “Beach House” (Season 3, Episode 7), is topped only by “Welcome to Bushwick, aka The Crackcident” (Season 1, Episode 7), featuring all of the main characters at a warehouse party in Bushwick. The titular “crackcident,” which leads to Shoshanna running down the street pant-less, remains the funniest scene in all of Girls history — a perfect short story all on its own.