Last week’s episode celebrating Hannah’s birth is smartly juxtaposed by this week’s episode about death, entitled “Dead Inside,” which speaks to Hannah’s seeming inability to “feel” the death of her editor, David, deeply, or even at all, for that matter. The play on the title, which manifests variously throughout the episode, is one of what it means to be dead—spiritually, emotionally, physically, or all of the above.
That’s right, David dies. The cause “remains unknown,” although the geniuses at Gawker tell the world that he was found “face-down floating in the Hudson River.”
Hannah first learns of David’s death while waiting to meet him at Millstreet Press, his publishing house. Out of nowhere, there is a flurry of activity, with people running here and there, the noise of which is only deafened by the ceaseless ringing of multiple phones. This sends Hannah into a panic, expressed in a very New York way: “I just wanted to know if it’s safe to be on this floor of the building,” she asks the receptionist.
Also running around like a headless chicken high on kale juice is Marnie. She’s running through Manhattan! She’s doing pull ups in public parks! She’s running stairs in her apartment building! She’s punching air and listening to full-on woo podcasts! She’s going to forget Charlie and that godawful music video!
Hannah’s friends take a backseat in this episode, which thematically returns us to the psychological and emotional dramas within Hannah’s mind and body prevalent throughout Season 2. The philosophical nexus of this episode, centering around death, is met with a question: How does one encounter death? Not one’s own death, of course, which is beyond individual comprehension, but the death of an-other?
For Hannah, David’s death does not induce some eschatological crisis within her, rather her primary concern becomes the fate of her e-book.
“No one even began to tell me,” she laments, “what’s next for my e-book!”
“I can’t believe you’re thinking about your book,” Adam replies, staring at her in disbelief. “Are you feeling anything, other than when your book is going to hit the stands?”
Hannah guffaws at the audacity of this question, surely Adam understands that her book can never “hit the stands”—because e-books do not “hit the stands.”
Is Hannah as “callous and disconnected” as she seems? Well, yes, in one regard. But she’s not approaching David’s death from the perspective of (a) friend. She, like with most things she encounters in her life, approaches his death as an event from the vantage point of a writer, one removed from the scene, and, arguably, detached from any emotional sentiment or resonance.
“There is more than one way to feel something,” she later tells Ray, and this is correct. The thing is, she also confesses, is that she “feels nothing.”
Should she feel something? Surely she should? Surely all of us must feel “something” when someone we know dies?
Hannah’s reaction, which her friends interpret as a non-reaction completely antithetical to being “human”—or what Ray spectacularly deems “this fat free muffin of sociopathic detachment” [vacant] of “just one crumb on of basic human compassion”—is nothing new. In fact, her detachment is very much true to her character. As a writer, critical distance, including emotional distance, is imperative in order to write about the event, or object. And all Hannah’s relations, arguably even the one she has with Adam, to a great or lesser extent, are built in this kind of writerly detachment.
Hannah is both a character within Girls as well as a meta-character, one always “looking for the story,” to recall her efforts in Season 1, as well as throughout the series. The primary motive for fetching Jessa at rehab, for instance, was one of “looking for the story,” of experiencing all the trials and tribulations of a road trip with her boyfriend and listening to hours worth of Shoshisms.
Hannah’s question to Marnie, in an early episode from Season 1, about her journaling about her relationship with Charlie—“If you had read the essay and it wasn’t about you, do you think you would have liked it?”—is not psychologically distinct from how she thinks about David’s death.
Adam’s position functions to reinforce the audience’s displeasure with Hannah’s response. She, as a “media-ist,” sees no problem with Gawker’s reporting of David’s death with the running title, “‘Goings Goings Gone,’ Publishing’s most flamboyant power player makes a waterlogged exit worthy of a Bret Easton Ellis character.” Indeed, she contends it is a “nice eulogy.”
“How would you feel if a bunch of judgemental creeps, celibate against their will, snarkily reported on every fucking detail of your body decomposing?” Adam-as-moral-compass replies. “That’s fucked…making a living appealing to our basest desire to see each other kicked while we’re down.”
(If you are wondering, dear reader, if this running commentary about Gawker and its sister-site, Jezebel—ironically regarded as “a place feminists can go to support one another (available to the press prior to its public premiere)—at all factored into Jezebel’s gross public solicitation for “untouched” photos of Lena Dunham’s Vogue shoot, I’d argue YES.)
Adam then wonders aloud about how Hannah would react if he died: “I’m scared of how you’d act if something real happened to us—like if i died would you just be like, ‘Oh, I hope I could make rent’?”
Yes, and no: “If you died,” Hannah begins consolingly, I’d be extremely disoriented, extremely sad, and, yes, I would also be anxious about how I would make rent.”
To which Adam responds by delivering unto the world the next “you make me want to be a better man” line:
“Extremely sad?… If you died, the world would blur. I wouldn’t know what a tree was.”
Hannah, flustered, leaves the bedroom still not giving Adam what he wants to hear. She believes she offers him assurance by saying she thinks about him dying all the time: “I think all the time about what I would say at your funeral…. I don’t know! I think about you dying all the time!”
Right now viewers who occasionally immerse themselves in “All Things Apatow” will recall that the darkly comic idea of fantasizing about a partner’s death was broached in Apatow’s recent flick This is 40 and discussed widely on the interwebs, including over at Jezebel and at The Atlantic. According to Benjamin Karney, a psychology professor at UCLA, fantasizing about the death of a partner is the only viable option to get out of a marriage without failing it: “There’s no failure involved” in death. The failure of a marriage is your fault; your partner’s death no so much. The fantasy is thus an escape, and signals an unconscious desire to break free of the relationship.
That said, I believe Hannah’s thoughts about Adam’s death are less a symptom of feeling trapped than a writer’s exercise of imagining and reimagining a scene, and writing and rewriting the scene, over and over again in her head.
This is precisely why Hannah appropriates Caroline’s fictitious story about the death of her equally fictitious young cousin Margaret and tells it to Adam at the end of the episode—with a difference: she is the one related to Margaret in the retelling.
Hannah and Caroline, along with Laird and his dead turtle, which he’s crammed into a bottle—“My turtle has died, and I didn’t even think that was possible,” he says, deadpan—go frolicking through Woodlawn Cemetery, doing cartwheels and tossing said dead turtle around like a football. Caroline then tells them about 12-year-old Margaret, whose death resulted from the progressive and debilitating ailments caused by muscular dystrophy. Laird cries, but Hannah-the-writer wants clarity on the details of Margaret’s dress—”was the dress tiny, or did the disease make her tiny?” Caroline, that is, needs to fully flesh out the character of Margaret so that Hannah completely understands the story. Caroline, tossing her head back in a fit of laughter, cries out, “What is wrong with you?!?!”
Hannah’s only concern—other than the fate of her e-book—is that Adam will become “bored and stifled by someone who can’t match his strength of emotion”: “Adam has such a depth of feeling, and no one can even rival that; I definitely can’t.”
But, Hannah has a plan, and it is born from Laird’s unmitigated stream of tears, even after hearing that Caroline’s story was pure fiction, created solely to evoke some kind of “sensible” emotion from Hannah. He explains that he’s still crying because, “Just ‘cuz it’s fake doesn’t mean I don’t feel it.”
Her plan, in other words, is to create the feeling of empathy around the experience of death without actually feeling it herself. She does so by telling the story of Margaret to Adam, whereby the feeling of empathy is cathected and bound to the art form of the story itself, rather than to Hannah’s body. The magician’s trick is that Hannah is the writer who narrates the story, giving the perception that the feeling is inherent to her own body, and thereby satisfying Adam, who, surely, is wondering if she’s a cylon.
So, sitting down next to Adam on the stoop of their apartment building, she begins, with choked voice, “I am shocked about how random life can be…. It always takes me a little while to process my emotions…. My champion is gone,” she says, alluding to David. And, then, the piece de resistance, “I think I should tell you about Margaret. She was my cousin and she died when she was 12….”
The brilliant point about death that Dunham makes in this episode is that it is always already a story. Death can only be witnessed, not experienced—it is impersonal in that regard, whereby we can never experience our own death, because it is not something that we live through to tell about to others. Death, as well, is a profoundly, temporally finite event. Once it happens, it is done. So how can death be rendered in order to prolong the event past its temporality?
By telling a story about it, of course.
Telling a story about a death, creating a narrative around and of it, ensures its duration. Doing so is, ironically, coincident with the process of grieving, but it is also self-serving. Telling a story repeatedly keeps one anchored to the event, to the death. In this light, and to use Caroline’s own estimation of Hannah, perhaps her behavior can be understood as an ethically elevated, or “secure,” response to David’s death.
Or maybe she’s just a cylon.