Girls: Hannah’s Dead Inside – S3 E4

Jon Catlin will review each episode of Girls season 3, as they are released, on The Airspace. You can read his full introduction to the season here.

You’ve probably noticed my Hannah bias in each of the episodes so far this season, but she continues to prove herself as the most complex character and the one most worth thinking about. No matter her circumstances, she always seems to be in an interesting place mentally, poised to learn something about her self she was formerly totally oblivious to. So here goes another defense of Hannah Dunham’s navel-gazing.

After arriving late to a meeting with her publisher then spilling her briefcase all over the floor, Hannah enters the episode on an off note, poised to apologize and shift her mental focus away from herself. And then we realize she’s nowhere close to making that shift. “I just wanted to know if it was safe to be on this floor of the building,” Hannah asks the receptionist at the office of her publisher, David, whose death has set the office into a frenzy.

“No one explains what’s happening, and they say he’s dead,” Hannah later explains to Jessa with a look of paralyzing anxiety on her face. “Yeah, Hannah, it’s just something that happens. It’s like jury duty, or floods. They happen,” Jessa responds, unamused. “It’s just so insane! We had a meeting and then he had to reschedule the meeting because he’s dead!” Thus begins Hannah’s first adult encounter with death—something we all know will happen to us in our twenties but which we nevertheless cannot prepare ourselves for. Hannah’s confession that she doesn’t want to realize she’s dying when the time comes is met with Jessa’s strange curiosity about death. “I kind of look forward to the day that I die,” she muses, before breaking into hippie metaphysics about the non-linear nature of time. When Hannah remarks that it was “just a normal day” before David died, Jessa asks, “but what is a normal day, really?” Jessa’s mind is open wide enough to alternate possibilities that death seems like an ordinary event, while for Hannah it remains incomprehensible even after it has already happened.

“Amidst all that chaos and insanity I left. What else was I supposed to do?” Hannah says to Adam. “And no one even began to tell me what was next for my e-book.” Adam gives here a look of disbelief, “Whaaat?” “I know! And so I’m left wondering when and how and to whom I can even bring this up to get some answers,” Hannah says in a pathetic “pity-me” tone. “Well they probably weren’t thinking about your book, Hannah, and I pretty much can’t believe you are either. You knew someone. Like really knew him.” “Are you feeling anything?” Adam asks her in due seriousness, “Beyond wondering when your book is gonna hit the stands?”

He later tells her he’s not mad at her, just scared. If something happened to him, he realizes, Hannah might go through a phase of sadness but would she really care? “If I die would you just be like, ‘oh, I hope I can make rent’?” Her comment that she thinks about Adam dying all the time isn’t quite reassuring. “If you died, I would feel disoriented, extremely sad, and I would also be anxious about how I would make rent, yeah.” “If you died, the world would blur. I wouldn’t know what a tree was,” Adam forcefully retorts, glaring her down. “I don’t know,” Hannah concedes. “I think about you dying all the time.”

Adam’s eccentric sister Caroline makes a reappearance in “Dead Inside” as an adult just thrown out of her old relationship, job, and life and still feeling fine. Like Jessa, Caroline is used to reality and Hannah’s obliviousness to its pains never fails to give her a good laugh. But their talk on the proper level of emotion one should experience in situations like an unexpected death leads the two into a genuine and revealing conversation.

“You know, medication did make me feel less,” Caroline says to Hannah in a cemetery she’s dragged Hannah and Laird along to. “That’s really not good for a writer,” is Hannah’s only response. “Yeah, but it’s really good for a person,” Caroline says. “It’s exhausting feeling all that. I mean I would wake up happy, eat breakfast despondent, wonder about eternity on the walk to work, and then feel comfortably numb for hours. It was too much, the roller coaster of it all. I wanted to die.” Caroline knows what it’s like to feel the feelings Hannah claims to want to prove Adam wrong about her being dead inside. And she knows that such a picture is one of depression—of paralysis that interferes with one’s actual living.

While Hannah experienced something analogous to what Caroline describes in her OCD attacks in Season 2, she realizes that she has no clue what that experience would actually be like. “When I was doing so badly I couldn’t see outside myself and now I can but I don’t even know if it’s any better. Adam’s gonna figure out what I’m actually like and there’s no way he’s gonna like it. He has such a depth of feeling, and no one can even rival that,” Hannah says.

Caroline breaks into a story about Adam that brings Laird to tears and Hannah only to feeling worse about herself, but feeling no differently about Adam. “Margaret,” so the story goes, was Adam’s 12-year-old cousin who suffered from muscular dystrophy. Adam would visit her every single day and even brought her to his high school prom and paid for her tiny dress—he would do anything for her.

“That sucks,” is all the sympathy Hannah can muster before her numb, writerly compulsion kicks back in: “Wait, so was it a tiny dress because she was tiny from the disease…?” A regular reaction to Hannah’s shallowness, Caroline balks in disbelief. “Now this puts it all into perspective,” Hannah goes on, “Why Adam’s being so irrational!” “No it doesn’t,” Caroline assures her, “because I made it up!” Hannah is outraged by Caroline’s trick and calls her a freak for feeding her such a story. But the trick has done its work, and clearly sets Hannah into an emotional flurry. Why didn’t the story affect her, the one who knows and loves Adam, the way it affected Laird, who is seen bawling in the background.

At the end of the episode, Hannah plays the same trick on Adam, only we don’t see her finish the story, and we don’t learn whether she tells Adam it was just made up. In her “Inside the Episode,” usually a revealing source for such obscure moments, Lena Dunham gives nothing away as to what Hannah is thinking here. Is she really that compulsively selfish that she could leave Adam thinking she actually did that? This could do a lot to ease his anxieties about her lack of emotion. Or is she just testing him to see whether he would pass Caroline’s test? In either case, the fact that she reflects on the issue and turns to Adam to engage with him on what might be the emotional weak point of their relationship is a sign of growth. Hannah is trying, even if she’s still wearing blinders that bring it all back to herself in the end. These attempts at probing herself and others are what make Hannah so interesting, even if we know she’s destined to fail each and every time. They hold out hope that she might just grow out of herself.

What this episode clearly delineated are the two Hannah’s we’ve seen contradicting each other in every episode of Girls. The first is Hannah the writer. Aimless as she may seem, she has a sense of inner purpose nobody else seems to understand or value (perhaps until her editor, David): she collects everyone else’s experiences and writes about them. But this means putting herself out there. It means trying coke with Elijah, and staying in Joshua’s brownstone for a couple of days. As of yet in Girls, she’s getting more mature and self-aware, but she lacks the depth of feeling that would make her a truly great writer and also keeps her in a permanent state of selfishness. The other hannah realizes, as she says to Joshua, that she just wants to be happy, and that taking on everyone else’s experiences is too exhausting. It’s not just medication that’s “really not good for a writer” but “really good for a person”—it’s an entire way of life that Hannah seems unwilling to take up because it might make her a less interesting person. But because of this choice the emotional wreckage is piling up and Hannah’s narcissism appears worse than ever. The real question is: does it have to be an either-or?

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