When did Girls become a CW drama meets Community? Lena Dunham’s been on a meta kick lately, what with last week’s discussion of online snark, and Hannah’s narcissism has turned from something the audience is expected to call out on its own to a running joke on screen. “Only Child” brings the navel-gaze to a whole new level, culminating in Ray’s description of Marnie as a “sympathetic character.” That face-off exemplifies both the self-awareness that’s traditionally the bailiwick of a certain NBC sitcom and the increasing insularity of the show’s universe. The reshuffling of characters is fast approaching the randomness of a seventh-season teen soap, and it risks becoming just as unbelievable.
Seriously, though—why did that Ray-Marnie conversation even happen? Calling a newly adopted kitten one’s “best friend” may be just the earth-to-unemployed-loser jab one needs, but doesn’t Marnie have anyone else to turn to in her time of crisis besides her best friend and her former boss who may or may not still be friends with her ex? We probably know the answer: Girls has a small cast, so Marnie’s options for a confidante and/or new romantic interest are slim. But in its third season, has this show already run out of convincing pairings?
Ray is a character who occupies an uncertain place in Girls‘s universe, much like Adam last season when he was no longer attached to Hannah. Marnie, Hannah, and Jessa are college friends, so their enduring friendship in the big, bad postgrad world makes sense. But as Ray pointed out in the premiere, there’s no reason why people who don’t particularly like each other would keep in touch in a city of eight million people, about two million of which are artsy, white, insufferable twenty-somethings just like Marnie and company. So Ray and Marnie have awkward sex, and it’s less a convincing extension of their personalities than a transparent move to keep the ensemble together.
Shoshanna faces a similar problem. She’s the odd one out of the central foursome, working out a fifteen year plan while Hannah works a day job at a coffee shop. To be fair, the show’s aware of this; she’s studying for business school “because I don’t want to end up like all my friends and family,” cousin/roommate Jessa included. But really, why is a college senior spending her Saturday nights at a struggling writer’s Brooklyn birthday party? Shoshanna’s in a different place than anyone else on the show, and in the absence of a story like the Ray breakup that makes that difference into a plot point, it keeps her role on the show limited, both in screen time and importance. She hasn’t done anything except act as Jessa’s conversation partner for a full two episodes.
Speaking of, Jessa’s flirtation with self-improvement seems about as substantive as Marnie’s. Less, in fact; at least Ray’s frank assessment of Marnie as a judgmental, delusional user seems to get through to her. As for Jessa, not even a friend faking her death can get her to do much more than puff on a (soon-to-be-banned!) e-cig and fixate on a job at a children’s clothing store. “I want something with a touch of innocence,” she pronounces breezily as she makes a beeline for yet another ill-fated stab at productive employment. “You have a criminal record!” Shoshanna shouts after her. Jessa may not be leaving her cloud of non-committal denial anytime soon, but at least she’s entertaining.
The bread and butter of this episode, as per usual, is Hannah, whose disastrous attempt to mediate between Adam and Caroline is ripped straight out of the Britta Perry Handbook to Pseudo-Psychiatry. But first, let’s talk about that funeral, where our heroine refuses to leave before she’s locked eyes with Michiko Kakutani and pisses off David’s wife (who exists!) by caring more about the death of her book than the person who edited it. It’s a moment that’s more comedy than cringe, and besides, you can’t feel too bad—Hannah was apparently only one young, female, mentally disabled protegé among many, and it’s a memoirist-eat-memoirist world out there.
Girls has tackled individual media sites in the past, but rather than take shots at xoJane or Gawker, “Only Child” seems to criticize the much broader trend of overshare-y memoirs. Another publisher may be interested in her book, but the rights to it belong to her old press, and unlike a novelist or a journalist, Hannah can’t go out there and make up or find another story. Her source material is her life, and since she’s only had twenty-five years’ worth of experiences, they can all fit into a single book. Which she can’t sell for another three years. It’s a cautionary tale for young writers, complete with that essential question that any series attempting to capture the zeitgeist must ask at some point: “What’s your brand?” (The answer: “Tombstone Pizza!”)
The exchange between Hannah’s two would-be editors, the more senior of whom is the show’s second-ever woman of color with a significant part, is the episode’s comic high point. Following closely on its heels is the phone call with Peter Scolari as Hannah’s saintly father. After a quarter century of his progeny’s self-absorption, he’s apparently built up an immunity, the only explanation I can think of for why he’s not angrier that a “procedure” doesn’t seem to register as something she ought to ask about. Of course, she gets some instant karmic retribution in the form of the three-years-until-book news, but that can’t take the edge completely off this gem of an exchange: “We tried three years for you.” “Well, you’re insane, and I have to go.”
“Only Child” also marks an important inflection point, though. It’s where Hannah’s enduring selfishness transitions from a punchline to a source of real damage. We ease into it with Adam and Caroline’s fistfight, which Hannah breaks up by bringing it back around to her and the pain of her only childhood. But for all her encouragement that the two siblings should love each other, she’s the one who boots Caroline out of the apartment when she finally wears too thin.
In Hannah’s defense, the final straw is Caroline’s derailing of an unrelated conversation to yet another attack on Adam, this time about his unreliability in a time of crisis. Hannah’s the person who knows best in the world how untrue that is, so she calls bullshit and shows Caroline the door. (Side note: Gabby Hoffmann’s character was also a child actress. See what I mean about the meta?!) But while Hannah can tell herself she evicted Caroline on her brother’s behalf, she’s effectively shirking her responsibility because the going got too tough. Caroline may be insufferable, but she’s not capable of caring for herself, and Hannah made a commitment to providing that care when she invited her in.
Which means Caroline’s exit exposes the fundamental fault line in Hannah and Adam’s relationship, the one that caused their epic breakup at the end of season one. When Adam dedicates himself to any kind of relationship, he goes all in, no matter how reluctant he was to enter it in the first place. That was true for Hannah, and now it’s true for Caroline. And Adam is far more repulsed by Hannah’s willingness to bail than he is at her inability to feel basic empathy. Their positions at the end of the episode say it all: Hannah lying passively on the couch, and Adam sprinting right out the door.