Television

'Girls': An Engrossing "American Bitch" Just Misses Transcending Its Sitcom Medium

Argun Ulgen
Creep or not? Novelist Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys) gets some nuance.

In "American Bitch", the novelistic approach squares up against polarized argumentation.


Girls

Airtime: Sundays, 10pm
Cast: Lena Dunham, Matthew Rhys
Subtitle: Season 6, Episode 3 - "American Bitch"
Network: HBO
Air date: 2017-02-26
Amazon

The challenge for HBO’s Girls: The Final Season is to dare Hannah Hovarth (Lena Dunham) to address imperfection with a broader range of critical and emotional tools. This kind of artistic evolution reflects just as much on Hannah the character as it does on show writer Dunham's propensity to apply outrageous situations over what could be more organic dramatic or comedic arcs. In "American Bitch", both Dunham and Hovarth's artistic progress and nagging limitations are on full display.

Hannah, who in recent episodes has developed into a magazine essayist with steady work, is summoned by a fictitious famous author named Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys) to visit his stately Manhattan apartment. The purpose of Hannah's surprise invite is to address an inflammatory online essay she wrote based on online accusations against Palmer for sexually exploiting and forcing himself sexually on four women during his book tour. Initially, the audience is treated to the equivalent of a Twitter war on social media's virtues and flaws. Palmer accuses Hannah of using online hearsay and slander to inform her opinions. Hannah defends her sources.

Shortly thereafter, however, "American Bitch" graduates to a debate between the two writers on the inherent dangers and benefits of online journalism, the authenticity of experiential personal pieces, and the meaning of sexual consent in trysts where power dynamics are unaligned. The sharp dialogue, bon mots, and argumentative dismissals fall squarely into Hannah's non-fiction essay terrain.

Sure enough, Hannah has some incisive points to make, but they readily lend to familiar polarized terrain. She righteously argues that Chuck took advantage of his literary star to sleep with at least one experience-craved college student, "Denise", who desperately thought that she'd have to succumb to a famous author’s charms to obtain his wisdom and find success herself. Yet that accusation is readily met by Chuck's standard argument that two consenting adults went to a motel room and had consensual sex. While this isn't to suggest that Hannah's viewpoint isn't a strong one  --  yes, there's a strong ethical and moral argument against Chuck's behavior -- it too easily falls into the trap of becoming yet another blog transcription from a TV episode.

Dunham, however, masterfully uses these first ten minutes as a setup for a higher form of conversation in the show’s second act. What's lovely about "American Bitch" is when Palmer's literary voice slowly begins to blend with Hannah's essayistic approach. Eventually, both tacitly agree that as writers they can have a descriptive conversation built on formative experience rather than judgmental banter. Here, one can see Dunham guiding both herself and her character Hannah into new terrain, and in so doing she sweeps the show into a medley of emotions rarely felt in prior episodes.

In an effort to convey that experiential essay writing often isn’t a matter of choice, Hannah tells Chuck a story about a middle school teacher whose uninvited classroom back massages she tolerated in exchange for his public flattery. Several years later, when Hannah conveys to an old classmate that her teacher molested her, she's immediately dismissed as being accusatory. These stories, Hannah conveys, uncontrollably affected both her worldview and her writing.

Here, Hannah is doing more than just posting an argument ;  she's appealing both to Chuck and to the audience's emotions. In other words, she's maturing before our eyes as a deeply felt writer who can open up their empathy and feel more comfortable telling their stories.

In return, Palmer reads a self-reflective passage he wrote about his sexual encounter with "Denise". It’s one full of emotional gray areas, in which both parties' vulnerability and insecurities are addressed. What's compelling about Palmer's story is he acknowledges that while both physically consent to the sexual encounter, the question of emotional consent was still in doubt. The audience is allowed to feel distaste for Palmer's encounter without going on an intellectual diatribe against him.

Afterward, over a perusal of Palmer's book collection, Hannah admits that she loves Phillip Roth, even though readers have criticized him for being a misogynist. Chuck offers Hannah a rare edition of one of his books. Then he lies on his bed in a vulnerable fetal pose consistent with his earlier admission that he has been battling insomnia for the several weeks. This sequence quietly heightens drama between two individuals who are at once at odds with one another, but who also share an artistic appreciation of life as at times horrifyingly, and at other times wonderfully nebulous.

Swept in gray, the last third of "American Bitch" faces the challenge of finding a satisfying conclusion organically consistent with its powerful first 20 minutes. Here, however, the episode misses the mark. The final act is an insane five minutes pivoted on an outrageous and cringeworthy sexual sight gag.

After Hannah accepts Chuck's invitation to lie down with him, he surprisingly exposes himself and brushes himself up to Hannah. For perhaps a second, Hannah complies with Chuck's proposition before leaping off the bed in shock. What makes Chuck's act even more deplorable is that he's entirely unapologetic. Chuck lies sideways on the bed with a Cheshire grin, which re-ignites the question of just what happened with "Denise".

Minutes later, just as Hannah is about to leave, Chuck spits venom on Hannah’s wounds by inviting her to watch as his just arrived daughter begins to perform an impromptu flute recital. Hannah watches Chuck as he beams with pride at his daughter.

Plainly put, Chuck may have compartmentalized himself as a wonderful author and a doting father, but in reality, he's first and foremost a lecherous pig who emotionally manipulated and sexually harassed an unsuspecting woman. Yes, Hannah should've been able to visit Chuck’s home and lie on his bed without assuming the risk of being sexually harassed. And yes, all mediums must emphasize this kind of behavior needs to stop.

On an argumentative level, Dunham certainly proves her point that Chuck’s better qualities do not nullify his inexcusable behavior. Chuck will only become a good person when he lets his better nature influence how he approaches the women he desires.

Nevertheless, "American Bitch" sells itself a little short on an artistic level by going all-in on an outrageous final act. Had Chuck tried to continue to romance Hannah rather than act like a total cretin, the episode would've gone deeper into its established gray area on whether Chuck had made a genuine connection with Hannah, if he was still leveraging his status to emotionally manipulate her, or whether both factors were at play.

Likewise, Hannah's decision on whether to have a sexual encounter with Chuck would be more emotionally complex. The three acts would've melded together seamlessly into an elegant short story with several unanswered questions. Instead, "American Bitch" feels fragmented, with a stentorian finale uneven with its more nuanced foundation.

Ultimately, “American Bitch” begins with novelistic aspirations but ends with argumentative flare. Perhaps this is what Dunham wanted. That's fine, but something feels amiss from not seeing an even more nuanced, morally ambiguous approach to Chuck and Hannah's relationship for the episode's entirety.

Perhaps Dunham has a full-blown novelistic episode or even a movie in her. "American Bitch" shows that it just isn't her time just yet, although she's getting a lot closer.

8

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