While discussing the now infamous Girls episode “One Man’s Trash” with a group of 23-year-old girls who currently live in Bushwick, I heard the following critiques: the episode seemed out of place, it wasn’t funny, it felt like a slap in the face to an audience who really wants to hear Shoshanna say a few funny lines about emogees. Now that I’ve reached the ripe old age of 30, I feel that I can confidently say that these girls are simply wrong. The episode is distinct both structurally and tonally from the rest of the series, but this distinction is meant to startle the audience—to wake us up.
The episode opens with Hannah and Ray standing near a sign that reads “Don’t Ever Sleep Again.” As we follow them inside the coffee shop, Ray quickly gets into a screaming match with pretty, pretty Patrick Wilson over trash that hasn’t been put in its proper place. These two narrative signposts—sleep and trash—mark Hannah’s descent into a fantasy world of comfort and maturity before she returns to her discontented young adulthood. I’m not taking part in the is-Hannah-hot-enough-to-sleep with-Patrick-Wilson debate because (a) it’s stupid and (b) it also fails to take into account the way in which Wilson represents uncomplicated beauty—the type of beauty Hannah has previously resisted. To write Josh (I’m sorry, Joshua) off as a perfect brownstone ken doll is to miss the larger point that the attractive life he represents is ultimately revealed to be as hollow as Hannah’s claims that she is special because she is able to “feel so much.” On both sides of the 24/42 divide, we find loneliness, vulnerability, and a sense that something nameless is missing. Hannah tries a bit harder to name it but ultimately ends up taking out the trash and walking away.
The generational divide is initially stacked out in Ray’s fight with Joshua. Ray, who has recently been outed as a thirty-three-year-old homeless Grumpy’s manager, is angry not because Joshua is asking him about trash but because Joshua owns trash cans—and the brownstone to go with it. Clad in a Top Gun T-shirt, Ray literally beats his chest in front of a perplexed Joshua because Joshua represents the conventional success Ray is supposed to despise. Yet, it is clear that like Hannah, Ray also “wants all the things”—including a trash can of his own. He can’t admit this even to himself, so he instead erupts in senseless rage.
Hannah’s response is somewhat different. Few women (or men) wouldn’t follow Patrick Wilson into that brownstone if only because he’s doing his Patrick Wilson thing, wherein he looks perpetually on the verge of being kind, apologizing, or apologizing for being kind. We realize this brownstone is somewhat of an alternate universe as Hannah states what I was already thinking: do these types of apartments even exist in Greenpoint? This uncanny feeling intensifies as Hannah remarks that the interior—complete with a grand piano, fancy glasses, and Newman’s Own lemonade—looks like a set designed by Nancy Myers. It’s almost too perfect, as though Hannah will look around a corner to find that the tastefully painted wall breaks away to reveal a soundstage.
This conventional beauty, so out of place in the rumpled Girls universe, infuses the episode’s sex scenes with a surprisingly romantic tone. The lighting in season two has been decidedly brighter than the amber hues used in the first season, and this is nowhere more apparent than in the early scenes of Hannah and Joshua’s affair. Even though Hannah’s body is often contorted into unflattering positions and she choses to wear a jumper complete with a belly shirt (a choice no woman should make), her face has never looked more beautiful. While the sex scenes in Girls are often shot from a distance, highlighting the awkwardness and lack of intimacy, Hannah and Joshua are frequently shot in close up. From their first kiss to their steak dinner on his balcony, their faces are framed like those of traditional romantic leads. Even the wide shots of sex—on the countertop and the ping-pong table—are genuinely erotic, lacking any awkwardness, creepiness, or humor. But even in these conventionally erotic scenes, something about the beauty seems off. When they are playing naked ping-pong, a prominent partition cuts through the middle of the frame. As they begin fucking on the ping-pong table, the partition is still the most noticeable element in the frame. We know this romance isn’t going to last.
By the end of the first night, it’s evident that Joshua is merely a prop in Hannah’s reimagination of her relationship to sex. She first orders him to pretend to beg her to stay. Hannah then tells Joshua to make her cum in response to his request for a blow job. This is a significant departure from her relationship with Adam, in which their sex revolved around his pleasure and was punctuated by her uncomfortable, bored expressions. When she next tells Joshua that she is rarely called beautiful, we are reminded of the episode’s title—it’s clear that Hannah sees herself as one man’s garbage. As she wakes up the next morning, under bright sunlight and clean white sheets, she is obviously beginning to challenge this belief. She’s experiencing a life she never thought she could have but secretly desired: a kind man, a tastefully decorated brownstone, simple happiness. As she watches this beautiful, bland man read the paper, she appears to be imagining the possibility of remaining in this life. Before she falls asleep in the ridiculously complicated shower, it appears that Hannah may indeed escape into this comfortable world, leaving the rest of the cast behind. But then she wakes up.
Hannah is initially saved by her prince charming, but the spell, like the steam of the shower, quickly begins to evaporate. And we’re back inside an episode of Girls. When Hannah first tears up as she admits that she’s not so different from “normal” people who simply want to be happy, you might suspect that we’re hearing Dunham’s voice exposing some profound truth. But then Hannah keeps talking. By the time she has brought up a bizarre molestation story and quoted Fiona Apple, it becomes clear that she’s still Hannah, and she’s still a mess. She displays a self-absorption so intense that she can’t even remember Joshua’s actual name or the city where his separated wife lives. When he tries to half-heartedly open up to her, she shuts him down immediately so that she can transition the conversation back to her one point of interest—herself. Joshua awkwardly smiles and says that he doesn’t consider her a crazy girl, but it’s evident that the only reason he doesn’t ask her to leave is that he’s Patrick Wilson and is therefore contractually obligated to be polite.
After Joshua says that he has to sleep so that he can return to the real world, we next see Hannah waking up alone. As the camera pans around the apartment, closing in on useless glass vials, expensive suits, and red weights, it becomes clear that, to Hannah, Joshua is no different from these items. He may be beautiful, but he’s also somewhat empty. He may have a landscape of water tower Brooklyn hanging in his bedroom, but he’s still an “old ghost” who has built himself an expertly designed cave, wherein he can hide from the city. Hannah chooses to drop into his world because, as she tells him, she liked how the outside of the building looked. But after spending a few nights inside, she has awoken to the realization that she is indeed like that bag of Grumpy’s trash. She doesn’t belong there, and she never will.