Warning: This post contains spoilers for season 6, episode 3 of Girls, “American Bitch.”
Sunday night, while most people were trying to sort out whether the Best Picture card at the Oscars read La La Land or Moonlight, Girls aired one of its most unsettling and thought-provoking episodes to date. In it, Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath is summoned to the apartment of fictional famous novelist Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys) to discuss a blog post she wrote about accusations of sexual assault against him. The conversation doesn’t go smoothly, and then it does … and then it doesn’t.
What unfolds is a nuanced examination of the power dynamic between influential men and the women they abuse. Girls has explored the issue of consent before — that gray area between kink and assault. But this most recent episode is about more than consent. It’s about the conversation around it.
Girls, a show more influential than its ratings might suggest, has often been at its best during its bottle episodes. One in which Hannah spends a day in the Brooklyn brownstone of a handsome older bachelor played by Patrick Wilson unfolds like a hazy fever dream. A movie-like season five episode of Allison Williams’ Marnie reconnecting with an old ex ranks as a series highlight.
“American Bitch,” too, is a self-contained story with Hannah and Chuck as the primary players until the final scene. They begin as hostile opponents engaged in a verbal chess match. Chuck says he’s invited Hannah over to explain to her that the college girls who have posted on Tumblr saying he sexually assaulted them during his book tour are lying: They want to sleep with him. Hannah is skeptical, and tries to explain the inherently uneven power dynamic between the author and the college students who worship him.
Over the course of the episode, however, Chuck begins to change Hannah’s mind. He tells her about his daughter and his crippling professional anxiety. Hannah admits she was crushed by the accusations because she so admires him as a writer. They walk into his bedroom, where Chuck offers her a rare Phillip Roth book. It’s here where my spine began to tingle. He convinces her to lie down on the bed fully clothed with him, setting one boundary while violating another. He takes out his penis and touches her leg. When Hannah is persuaded to touch his penis, she does so before standing up, disgusted with herself, realizing he’s manipulated her. Hannah complies because at that point Chuck has fostered a personal connection between them: he’s complimented her intelligence, laid bare his insecurities and given her an expensive gift.
Rhys, usually a charmer on The Americans, adopts a chilling smarminess for the role. He walks a thin line between winsome and unsettling — convincing Hannah that he’s just an insecure twentysomething in a brilliant writers’ body — before fully adopting a sinister smile when she leaps up from the bed. Worse still, his daughter arrives home just as the encounter is taking place. He treats the young girl with love and respect, raising questions about how perpetrators can compartmentalize their interactions with women.
Initially, it feels as if Dunham, who wrote the episode, is having a conversation with Twitter rather than Rhys’ character. Every time a powerful man is revealed to have allegedly abused women (Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Woody Allen, to name a few), there’s an inevitable clash on the Internet, of which Dunham has been an active participant. In he-said-she-said cases settled in conference rooms with ironclad confidentiality agreements, there’s rarely any resolution.
So Dunham carefully lays out the arguments from both sides. (And in this episode the protagonist feels more like a doppelganger for Dunham herself than the much-less-logical character of Hannah.) She combats the oft-given argument that accusers lie for publicity: they take a risk by coming out and exposing themselves to harassment from skeptics in the form of trolling, death threats and even physical confrontation. But she also concedes that trigger-happy bloggers and journalists can sometimes condemn men without all the evidence.
The conclusion, however, reinforces the notion that men, especially famous white men, wield a power still unmatched in society. In a moment of fantastical filmmaking on the show, as a traumatized Hannah walks out of his Upper West Side building, a flow of other women walk in, presumably to suffer the same fate. Allowing Hannah, a woke and righteous feminist who believes she has erected a wall against this man’s charm, to fall for Chuck’s tricks just further illustrates that even the most aware can be seduced by charm and power.
This isn’t an episode of Girls, it’s a morality tale — and it’s groundbreaking. For better or worse, Girls is still like nothing else on television.