After last week’s ambitious and stunning bottle episode with Matthew Rhys, “Painful Evacuation” is a return to normalcy. It’s a strong episode, although it never reaches the wild highs that “Girls” attains when they shift the show’s format and go all out to tell a single character’s story.
The episode opens on Hannah (Lena Dunham) interviewing an older writer (Tracey Ullman, playing a relatively normal person for once). Hannah’s trying to get her take on what it requires to be a woman and a writer, and Ullman’s advice is blunt and depressing. It’s not exactly a new idea to have a female author complain about the relative ease of being a man and a writer (as true as it may be), and the scene feels forced and unnecessary, especially after how well last week’s episode explained the plight of the female writer.
Hannah’s on deadline to write something from the interview, but she’s waylaid by a pesky urinary tract infection, a recurring problem for her (compounded by the fact that she waits long after the pain starts to get medical treatment). When Hannah finally makes her way to the emergency room (after some urging over the phone by her mother), she’s surprised to see the doctor (Patrick Wilson) she spent a few days with back in Season 2’s best episode, “One Man’s Trash.” There are some awkward hellos, and then he gives her some standard medical advice she’s heard before (pee after sex), and then mentions offhand that she’s pregnant, which isn’t something Hannah already knows.
The culprit is Paul-Louis (Riz Ahmed), Hannah’s surf instructor from the season premiere. Wilson mentions some details about getting an abortion, as if it’s already assumed that she’ll have one, which irks Hannah and makes her walk out. It’s a great example of how Hannah’s need to flaunt the expectations of others often compromises her own well-being. Everything we’ve learned about Hannah since the beginning of the series suggests she isn’t ready to have a child, and more importantly, has no interest in having a child. She’s reacting against Wilson’s (accurate) presumption of that fact, rather than an actual desire to maybe see the pregnancy through to its logical conclusion.
There’s a common abortion trope (especially on television) where women who would normally have no problem with getting an abortion find out they’re pregnant, then have some sea change of emotion and decide to carry the pregnancy to term (see “The Mindy Project”). Hollywood and TV producers are still afraid of abortion storylines, and even though recent shows have made great strides in normalizing and portraying abortions without turning them into horrible, soul sucking experiences (for a hilarious example, see “Bojack Horseman”), “Girls” almost seems like it might be heading down the former route. There’s still time to change course, but hopefully the show doesn’t fall victim to standard TV conventions about pregnancy.
Among the B-stories, Adam and Jessa’s is the funniest and most manic. Adam (Adam Driver) is acting in a film directed by an Eastern European woman about some kind of tough guy hairdresser who loves his mother and has to do a violent act for her. He gets fed up during a scene filled with ham-fisted dialogue and walks out after a spat with the director. It’s clearly an example of terrible writing (although he complains in the most pompous way possible), but it’s a strange choice to use a female director. Dunham is an outspoken advocate of women artists and puts out a regular newsletter called “Lenny” that mostly consists of interviews and editorials by women writers. Making her young, female director an incompetent is a surprising move considering how many people already have those sexist assumptions about female filmmakers.
When Adam gets home, he and Jessa (Jemima Kirke) combine their energies into a manic whirlwind after she convinces him to make his own film instead of just acting in other people’s work (he wrote a two-man play back in season one). The subject: his relationship with Hannah, and how he and Jessa came together in the wake of it. The scene is an acknowledgment of Dunham’s own career, which often includes thinly-veiled autobiographical work. Even though Adam’s character is about as far from Dunham as one can get, he takes a step toward her, although from a much more solipsistic angle. He and Jessa wait outside Hannah’s apartment for hours, then ambush her when she returns from the hospital. She’s not really in the mood to discuss the project—“You guys should do whatever you want.”
Marnie (Allison Williams) has a somewhat abbreviated story. After a bout of awkward sex with Ray, she blows off his offer to just get some food and hang out together to go to a couples therapy session with Desi. The always great Ebon Moss-Bachrach steals the show with his attempts to get the therapist on his side and one painfully long break to drink a glass of water.
Ray, who’s been sideline so far this season, gets some moments of more emotional content that are usually reserved for the show’s other characters. It’s a nice departure; Alex Karpovsky is a better actor than he’s given credit for, and he shines when he can bring the curmudgeon’s fears to the surface. After a regular at his coffee shop collapses outside and dies (after telling a long story about Ed Koch and “homosexuals” that holds up the line), Ray is shaken. An argument with his boss, Hermie (Colin Quinn), gets Ray thinking about his future and whether or not he’s living up to his full potential. After a failed run for public office, he gave up his more ambitious dreams and went back to running his coffee shop.
Ray decides Hermie might be right about making some changes, so he goes to his place to apologize. When there’s no answer, Ray lets himself in and finds Hermie on the couch, dead. The show had signaled multiple seasons ago that Hermie had some kind of health problems, so it wasn’t a shock that he finally died. One way or another, his death will force Ray to change his path.
“Painful Evacuation” is a perfectly fine episode of “Girls,” but it doesn’t feel as breathless or adventurous as some of the show’s best episodes. There’s no gleefully demented comedy like when Desi had a breakdown after Marnie discovered his drug stash, or any sublimely beautiful moments like Hannah’s lonely beach getaway in the season’s first episode. When “Girls” make so many excellent episodes, just okay ones suffer by comparison.