“Girls” has always been interested in pushing boundaries and shocking viewers, and Episode3 of the show’s final season, “American Bitch,” is no exception. But unlike past episodes, this one isn’t combative because of raunchy or realistic sex scenes (though there’s a bit of that). Instead, Lena Dunham and her collaborators produce something that feels more like an essay episode, inspired by unfortunately common news stories. It’s not completely successful, but still thrilling.
The episode opens with Hannah visiting Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys of “The Americans”), a successful author whom she respects a great deal. His enormous apartment is decorated with pictures and memorabilia celebrating him and his novels (kudos to the production designer for the apartment and book cover designs). In an allusion to past seasons of “Girls,” Chuck has a bit of OCD and gets anxious when Hannah takes her shoes off and lets them touch his unworn pairs.
Hannah is visiting Chuck at his own request; he’s asked her to come because she’s written an article for an obscure feminist website about women who have accused him of either sexually assaulting them, or at least being a scummy person who doesn’t recognize the power imbalance. He’s an acclaimed author and professor, and these women are just students or people starting in their careers. Hannah’s piece was about her disappointment and anger in learning that a writer she looks up to has seemingly done horrible things with impressionable women.
But Chuck disputes all of those claims, and the way Dunham (who wrote the episode) stages their conversation is smart and evenhanded. Chuck’s obviously a dirt bag — he drinks out of an “I Heart Chuck” mug and fills his apartment with reminders of his success (the best is his photo with Toni Morrison). But Dunham also allows him to make some subtle arguments about the nature of fame and privacy. In a lot of ways, the words coming out of Chuck’s mouth could be straight from Dunham’s real-life persona. He thinks it’s below Hannah to be writing about his personal/sexual affairs, and doesn’t think it’s anyone’s business what goes on in those domains. He also reads an account of one of his sexual encounters that he wrote prior to his accuser’s blog post that seems to suggest his accuser may have had her own personal problems, and his greatest sin was not caring to get to know her.
But Hannah also pushes back: his arguments may be compelling, but multiple women wouldn’t accuse him of sexual assault if he hadn’t done something non-consensual. And coming forward makes their lives hell without any possible benefit (although Chuck claims that they gain the kind of publicity that they get through being covered by people like Hannah).
Hannah’s arguments are most in line with mainstream liberal and feminist thought, but Rhys’s performance is so charming that he almost seems to get the upper hand. He lures Hannah into his bedroom to show her a signed copy of Philip Roth’s “When She Was Good.” The episode gets its title from an apocryphal story Hannah heard about Roth originally calling the book “American Bitch.” Hannah (and really Dunham) mentions the conflict she feels about liking someone’s work, even though she’s supposed to dislike the person (in this case, Roth’s reputation as a misogynist).
The episode reaches a frenzied climax when Chuck invites her to lay down on the bed with him (fully clothed, he specifies), and then whips out his penis. A startled Hannah grabs it for a moment, before rejecting it and vocally freaking out. It’s a hilarious moment, but also a bit of a cop out. Dunham finds such interesting nuances in the discussion between Hannah and Chuck without having to give up her own widely circulated beliefs about consent and power. By making Chuck a more run-of-the-mill predator in the episode’s final moments, she cheats some of what she’s developed up to that point. But it’s also undeniably funny. If there’s any justice in the world, the devilish look on Matthew Rhys’ face when he smirks at a shocked Hannah, penis still in flagrante, will be widely memed.
But the last part of the episode regains a bit of that earlier subtlety. Chuck’s biracial daughter arrives home, and Hannah is guilted into watching her play a Rihanna song on her flute. The camera does a slow zoom on the look of adoration that Chuck shows for his daughter. Hannah is stuck trying to reconcile the predator who just touched her leg with his penis with the man who so clearly loves and cares for his daughter.
The episode ends with Dunham leaving the apartment, and in the only instance of fantasy that I can recall in the entire series, Hannah walks past a parade of women, all heading up the stairs she just came from. Obviously there isn’t a horde of women coming to see Chuck right then, but they stand in for the faceless young women who will fall prey to Chuck and his ilk. It’s also an allusion (as is the whole episode) to the Bill Cosby sexual assault scandals. Executive Producer Judd Apatow has been vocal about Cosby’s alleged crimes, and though he isn’t credited as a writer, his influence is felt. Richard Shepard’s extraordinary directing deserves mention as well. Shepard directed my favorite “Girls” episode, season two’s “One Man’s Trash,” another two-person standalone episode featuring Hannah and a previously unknown man. Shepard uses a series of exquisite zooms in both of these episodes that heightens the drama, a rarity for the show. Aside from Dunham herself, he’s the show’s strongest director.
“American Bitch” barely feels like “Girls” at times. It’s intentionally serious for much of its run time, and the other friends are completely absent. But it’s also surprising and exciting. And that’s something the show does extraordinarily well.