Girls: Triggering Review

Girls is still finding a way to be adventurous. Here's our review...

I’ve mentioned before how much I admire Girls’ willingness to so drastically shift in tone from episode to episode. It regularly ricochets between drama and comedy to the occasional existential meditation piece.

It even once dipped its toe into something approaching horror (or at least thriller) in Season two. The only other show out there doing this kind of thing that I’m aware of is Louie, which, as always, feels like the most obvious show to compare Girls to. In truth, as far as drastic shifts in tone and focus go, Louie blows Girls out of the water, but then it’s also not nearly as solid and cohesive.

At any rate, Girls is still pretty damn adventurous and “Triggering” is a stark example of that. Where the premiere, “Iowa,” was all melancholy and bittersweet, “Triggering” is almost 100 percent comedy. And while about 70 percent of that works great, the remainder turns this into one of the most willfully stupid episodes the show’s ever done.

As opposed to “Iowa,” this is the first episode properly and totally set in Iowa, focusing on Hannah adjusting to moving there and beginning her MFA in Creative Writing. It mostly follows a familiar, but fun, arc as Hannah initially finds a lot to love about Iowa and feels she made the right choice being there, but then reality bleeds in and all that positivity comes crashing right down.

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The first thing Hannah does is look for a place to rent. Realizing she can get a decent-sized apartment for $250, she decides to see what sort of place she’d get for $800 (I’m going to assume her parents are paying for much of this?) and ends up renting an entire house, all unnecessarily huge and rustic. Her elation with the place is hilariously understandable for anyone living in the New York/New Jersey area (or really, anywhere in or around a heavily populated city). Skyping with Marnie, she suggests that everyone move to Iowa and while Marnie’s glad things are working out for Hannah, she also adds “No one is moving to Iowa ever.”

The joy of Iowa collapses pretty fast over a number of small, consecutive sequences. Hannah’s interaction with the clerk at the university store is kind of funny but also just kind of weird. Both she and the clerk are being jerks almost from moment one and the motivations of both characters aren’t entirely clear, making the sequence oddly surreal. Better is how Hannah learns the house she’s renting from is in a “dead zone” where cell phone service is rarely available. A guy walking by informs her of this and then tells her she should come to a bar later. “Battle of the Bands tonight. I’m drummin’… in both bands!” (This guy’s delivery is perfect and he made me laugh harder than anything else in the episode.)

Hannah realizes being in her giant house sans cell phone service is lonely and also that there are bats in Iowa, leading to another funny sequence when one gets into her house. She throws her cell phone at the bat, then ends up sleeping on the bathroom floor with the door closed to avoid it.

The biggest blow to Hannah’s happiness comes from her first creative writing class. This is by far the best scene in “Triggering” because it captures the spirit of a creative writing course so incredibly well. Dunham has included similar scenes in her past short film work and it’s so great that she does. A writing workshop is one of the most awkward and ridiculous social situations you can get yourself into yet I’ve come across so few instances of media mining these for comedy (Throw Momma from the Train counts, I guess).

The scene displays an incredible understanding of this sort of university environment. Everyone goes to such great pains, with their criticism of each other’s stories, to sound simultaneously generically encouraging, insightful, and not impolite, typically resulting in a lot of pseudo-intellectual claptrap. Furthermore, the staunchly liberal mindset common at this level of academia means all the students have certain ideals they feel they must live up to.

The dynamic in Hannah’s class is immediately clear. D’August (Ato Essandoh) is the only black person in the group (not counting the professor, who stays mostly silent) and he’s writing grim stuff about a guy and his sickly mother barely making it in the projects. The otherwise entirely white class (except for one Asian guy) that we’re assuming all come from (at least) upper-middle class backgrounds obviously feels beholden to the content of D’August’s story. Whether D’August has experienced these hardships or not himself is not apparent. It’s the fact that he’s chosen subject matter to write about that no one else in this group would dare to attempt to explore themselves, but that their ideals tell them must take very seriously, even honor.

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As such, the first comment from a classmate is, “I thought this was one of the best pieces I’ve read in this program so far and I’m a second year.” Another guy says he’ll cut off his arm in sacrifice as long as he can get to read just a few more pages. And the other new student besides Hannah, Chester Chong (Jason Kim), offers up some choice, non-confrontational, faux-smart criticism: “I thought you played with gender in a way that was really surprising and, like, almost offensive, but not offensive.”

Wisely, D’August isn’t only presented as someone coasting in the course simply because his subject matter focuses on a dark reality. He’s also the only one who springs to Hannah’s defense when everyone starts (not unexpectedly) tearing her and her story down. The scene does unfortunately go off the rails a bit here. Everyone straight-up lays into Hannah, saying they’re having trouble separating Hannah from her supposedly fictional character (who’s named Anna and has tattoos of illustrations from children’s books, just as Hannah [and Lena Dunham] does). “It’s just—look at her,” says Chester. “She’s obviously her.” This just rings a bit false because in every creative writing class I’ve ever experienced, the problem is people being too nice when ideally they should be mercilessly ripping shitty writing to shreds.

Some aspects are still brilliant. Hannah’s story is about a sadomasochistic experience she had with Adam, which everyone has a kneejerk reaction to, claiming the story trivializes abuse and comes from a place of privilege regardless of the fact that Hannah’s prose is notably unique and interesting. But Hannah being talented is (again, wisely) paired with her being awful, as she has the gall to suggest her story possesses such power that people may feel free to leave the room should they find aspects of it to be “triggering.”

There are also the obvious (though still sly) parallels here between Hannah and Lena Dunham. I’d venture to guess that the majority of people who show up in comments sections to lob insults at Dunham have no firsthand familiarity with her output and that judging the woman herself as a stand-in for her actual work is commonplace. Her art, like anyone’s, is of course informed by her personal experience but, as D’August states, “If it’s about her, so what? Who fucking cares? This is her voice.”

It’s after this scene that things go a bit wrong. Hannah has a weird collect call with her parents (she broke her cell phone when she chucked it at the bat), who come off as uncharacteristically uncaring. Her mom, okay, it’s possible, but Hannah’s dad usually bends over backwards for her, so it’s weird they hang up on her just so they can finish a game of Scrabble, absent-mindedly telling her they’ll call her back (unlikely, if not impossible, as she’s at a pay phone).

The real issue, however, is that Elijah suddenly shows up. This is not out of the realm of possibility; Elijah is chronically unemployed (but has money, somehow) and has nothing and no one tying him down in NYC. It’s technically fine that he left because he got depressed running into people he’s slept with (and because he saw a homeless woman fisting herself on his stoop). But, writing-wise, this is a bit of a cheat. For a show that seemed so brave and unique with moving its lead character to a new setting, this is a pretty hackneyed sitcom thing to do, abruptly reintroducing the equivalent of the wacky neighbor character for barely any reason as a way to avoid having to venture the show into entirely new territory. I like Elijah fine. I like when Hannah tells him “I hate everyone who isn’t you” and he replies, “Me too. I’ve been saying that for years.” But as of right now him materializing in Iowa feels a bit cheap and disappointing.

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Elijah also just blows through the storyline like a hurricane. Whatever plot was building is more or less dumped for an extended scene (roughly the last 7 minutes of the episode) of Elijah and Hannah being drunken nightmares at a party (recalling their adventure with cocaine in Season 2). Elijah gives a bewildered undergrad a handjob and Hannah wrestles with a girl in a pool of undefined blue goop (Jell-O? Paint? Colored mud?). It’s all very silly and some of it is certainly funny (like Hannah giving a crying girl relationship advice and then cutting in front of her in the line to use the bathroom), but it’s just a bit sad that everything we’ve been following up until this point suddenly feels kind of irrelevant (though I guess that’s the point of a drunken rager).

Time is a bit confusing in this episode as well. It feels like these are Hannah’s first few days in Iowa but it’s a little weird how she just suddenly wakes up and stumbles to class one day without so much as an orientation or anything (we do briefly see her going to pick up her course materials, which I guess is meant to take care of it). It’s also just odd how Elijah got there so frickin’ fast. The way the episode is cut it seems as though Hannah’s only been there like three or four days, but maybe it’s meant to be more. Whatever the case, it just highlights again that bringing Elijah in, funny though he is, comes off as sudden and shoehorned. Overall, this was a great episode and then Elijah blew in and tore it the fuck up. 

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3 out of 5