Girls is not a show about reality. Most television isn’t, of course, but Girls is an interesting case study because from its DNA, it seems very much the opposite. Surely there are girls that live lives like Hannah and her friends; though the specific circumstances are different, the connective tissue is the same. Viewing this week’s episode through this lens is particularly helpful. Like the dreamy, hazy episode in season 2 when Hannah and Patrick Wilson engage in a love affair that feels less like reality and more like a very real fantasy,
Hannah is meeting with a very famous writer — Chuck Palmer — in his well-appointed apartment somewhere far from Brooklyn. He asked to speak to her after finding an article she wrote in a “niche feminist publication” — your guess is as good as mine, though I’m pretty sure it's the Hairpin —but don’t worry, he’s not looking for an apology. Before he says what, precisely he is looking for, Hannah has to say her piece.
She’s a writer. And as a writer, her voice is meaningful. That’s why she chose to use it against Chuck Palmer, who has used his influence to coerce college students into having sex with him on his book tour. She brings up issues of consent, which bristles, as it is this very issue that has caused him to lose sleep. Hannah’s writing is “funny,” though the sentence he reads feels overwrought and a bit ham-fisted, and so she should be turning her energies towards things that matter.
This is the crux of the episode — arguing over consent with a writer that she once admired and realizing that all idols are essentially false. Chuck Palmer isn’t as seedy or as louche as he could’ve been — smart casting move put Matthew Rhys, bearded and non-threatening in the role. When he takes a call, Hannah avails herself of his apartment, walking down the hall in her bare feet, opening doors, looking at pictures, peeking in bathroom cabinets and doing her best not to eavesdrop.
His work has been very, very important to her. And now, his life is destroyed. Because of a post on Tumblr. He’s fine, but you know what, eh’s not. There’s pills. and therapy. Meditating. Rowing. Juice cleanses. Chuck refuses to apologize for whatever acts Hannah’s accused him of.
“It’s important to listen to the voice of women,” Hannah said. She doesn’t know any of the women. She’s not an activist. But, she speaks for all women, as the voice of the marginalized who cannot speak for themselves. Over coffee, Chuck explains himself. He’s far from perfect. He’s disgusting — a “horny motherfucker with the impulse control of a toddler.” While making coffee from his very nice kitchen, he details his various indiscretions, none of which seem to be very relevant to the central argument of whatever piece Hannah wrote. Despite that — he’s never forced himself on anyone. The girls, you see —the Tumblr girls, who idolize his work and by extension him, are the ones that are throwing themselves at him. What else is he supposed to do?
He invites them to his hotel. They drink alcohol. Some stay over. Then things happen — why? Because writers — aspiring writers, successful writers and the in-between need stories. In his mind, he’s giving them material, the most precious gift of all. Experience. People need experience. So why did he come for Hannah? Why did he ask her to meet with him as opposed to all the other people who wrote about this?
Because she’s smart. It always comes back to this.
There are reasons, of course, why she’s bringing this up. The power imbalance, for one. Chuck Palmer is a famous writer. Denise, the woman in question, is not. She works hard to get what he has. As Hannah sees it, this isn’t about the quest for experience. Denise consenting to the blowjob is to “prove that she exists.” To hammer this point home, she shares a story about an English teacher in middle school who used to lavish her with special attention — neck rubs, and the like — activities that would exist in the “grey area” that Chuck insists is a very real thing. The story isn’t for Chuck’s sympathy, though she gets it. It levels the playing field a little. It makes him more comfortable with her. Comfortable enough to share what sounds like very bad fiction that he wrote about the incident. He makes Hannah read it aloud.
His side of the story paints a very different picture. Denise propositioned him. She sat him down on the bed, refused to answer questions about her life, and reached for his belt. It’s not fiction. It’s his recollection of the incident. It’s what he wrote about Denise — a woman who, in his eyes, was scared of letting anyone in. He’s not guilty of a non-consensual sexual liaison — he’s guilty of not pushing far enough to get to know Denise, instead.
Part of the reason, then, is why he pushed to meet Hannah. The questions he would’ve asked Denise — where she’s from, what she’s doing, who she is — are now his to ask of his accuser. This is his own personal retribution, a way of massaging his ego and Hannah’s too, a little. So, they talk. Her dreams for the next five years — to write stories that make people feel less alone. To make people laugh about the things that are painful.
“You thought you knew everything,” he tells her. She only heard one side of the story, she wrote that side and published it, to what end? She’s not a journalist, you see— that’s what journalists do. She’s a writer. Game recognize game, if you will, and Chuck Palmer, a Writer, sees a kindred spirit in Hannah, even giving her a signed copy of Philip Roth’s “When She Was Good.” one of Hannah’s problematic faves.
But maybe Chuck Palmer is very, very good at being exactly the kind of person that Hannah thought she was. He asks Hannah to lie down with him. Fully clothed. He wants to feel close to someone. Clutching the first edition Roth, she does. She apologizes to him. He accepts. Then, he rolls over, unbuttons his pants and places his flaccid penis on her leg. Incredibly, Hannah grabs it, gives it a half-hearted squeeze, then hops out of bed realizing that she somehow managed to play herself. Then, his kid comes home and Hannah, who tries to sneak out the front door, stays for an impromptu flute rendition of “Desperado.” She makes her exit, striding against a sea of young literary upstarts— all women, all pretty, all full of hope — walking right into the devil’s lair.