ENTERTAINMENT

'Girls' Takes On Fame And Sexual Assault In One Of The Series' Best Episodes

In "American Bitch," Matthew Rhys plays an author accused of violating women.

“Girls” has always wrestled with fantastical if-onlys: if only success were handed to you, if only every relationship made sense, if only fleeing home provided a seamless reboot. This week’s episode posits an if-only that mirrors a possible fantasy from the series’ second season. Both installments find Hannah disappearing inside an older man’s luxe apartment while the rest of the world unfolds without her. First it was a hot doctor (Patrick Wilson) in a brownstone, and now it’s a famous writer (Matthew Rhys) in a townhouse. 

But there’s a catch: Whereas the hot doctor was a fleeting encounter, the revered writer, named Chuck Palmer, has long evoked Hannah’s admiration. They say don’t meet your heroes, and it’s probably best not to read about them online either. Multiple women have written Tumblr posts saying Palmer coerced them into unwanted sexual encounters during his book tours ― allegations he denies after inviting Hannah to his apartment, wanting to discuss the article she wrote criticizing his abuses. 

From the opening shot of Hannah strolling up to Palmer’s home, seemingly stationed on Manhattan’s ritzy Upper West Side, there’s a fantasy at play in the episode, titled “American Bitch.” What famous author would solicit an internet writer to discuss appraisals of his sordid private life published on a “niche feminist blog”? Is Hannah there to confront the power inequality Palmer now represents, having taken advantage of college students susceptible to his success? Or is she there to find, in typical Hannah style, some form of validation from a literary figurehead whose books she has “dog-eared and underlined”?

Whatever their intentions, fantasy butts up against reality as walls are further flattened. Hannah is a sucker for compliments, so of course she’s charmed when Palmer reads the first sentence of the article aloud and compliments her prose. (Note the suicidal Woody Allen painting on the wall.) And she is similarly mystified when Palmer snaps into family-man mode, arranging care for his depressed teen daughter and lovingly watching as she later performs Rihanna’s “Desperado” on flute. How can Hannah reconcile the disconnect between someone who probably took advantage of young women and someone who also has an altruistic devotion to his own female offspring? 

Humanity is a spectrum, and Chuck Palmer’s seems to mirror Hannah’s in a distinct way ― he is sad and unfulfilled, just as Hannah can be sad and unfulfilled. He found success, but it didn’t cure his rocky divorce or the pressures of a culture in which anyone can gut whomever they want to online. And then, after Palmer has convinced Hannah to absolve him of these allegations, after they have moved on to bantering about Philip Roth, he spots in her the same vulnerability he exploited in those college students. He invites her to lie down. Against her own best judgement, she accepts. He takes out his penis. And in wrapping her hand around it reflexively, Hannah confirms that, no matter what she writes or preaches, she, too, is susceptible to the power structures dividing men and women, wealthy and wannabes.

In the span of minutes, her hero loses his humanity, regains it, twists it, shatters it and then ― as his daughter arrives home to her father’s loving embrace ― muddies it in every way possible. It’s the grossest abuse. 

Written by Lena Dunham and directed by Richard Shepard (who also made the Patrick Wilson episode), “American Bitch” confronts fame, innocence, sexual assault and internet outrage. More importantly, it shows Hannah as the victor. She leaves Palmer’s apartment to the crescendoing “Desperado,” a blurry parade of women filing in after her. If Hannah won’t succumb to his advances, someone else will ― and that’s the most damning assertion of all. But our heroine recognizes the fallacy of the situation, her seduction at the hands of a man who isn’t thoughtful or wise enough to see himself as anything less than an aspiration. Hannah knows she seeks a better sense of the world around her, but Palmer? Palmer has deluded himself into assuming he’s already figured it out. In his mind, sadness is victimizing. “Girls” grants him that complexity because it confirms how humanely pathetic and pathetically human he is. And it grants Hannah the power of realizing her criticisms were correct, that she was right to fight back, online and elsewhere. She won’t want what Palmer has anymore, not blindly at least. He is hardly the voice of a generation.

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Lena Dunham