'Girls': Little Women and Little Men

The Atlantic Wire

This may be controversial, but I'll say it: I think Little Men is a more enjoyable book than Little Women. There's no terribly sad saw-it-coming-a-mile-away death of [I won't spoil it for you], and the relationships between the characters are interesting and poignant and at times sad and also lovely, but most of all entertaining. There's joy in that book, and there's fun. Still, you could argue that Little Women is a more popular book than Little Men, and maybe it's a more important book, too. After all, it's a female writer’s portrayal of what it means to be a girl (much like herself) growing up to be a woman (much like herself) in a particular time in history; an examination of what kind of woman that girl is supposed to be, and what she can be if she rebels against certain established precedents. You might even say that it's the voice of a generation. 

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The reason I'm going on about Little Women and Little Men is because of Girls, and “Boys,” the title of last night’s episode. True to its name, it gave us the opportunity to spend more time with Adam, Ray, and Booth Jonathan than we have in any other episode this season, and certainly more time than anyone should ever need or want to spend with Booth Jonathan. Within the episode, the book Little Women is a key plot device. As we know, plot devices — the good ones, at least — have meaning beyond simply moving a plot forward. So what's the deal with this one?

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We begin with Hannah, who's having a meeting in a café with a man important enough to know “money people.” He wants her to write an e-book. (Ka-ching?) He tells her, “You do something writers find hard to do, you found a voice.” What this voice is, exactly, is beyond Hannah herself, and I’m not sure her seeming "mentor" ("Call me when you need to; don't call me when you don't," he tells her upon their departure) could describe it in less than three words either, but no matter: Hannah’s all grown up, she’s got herself an e-book deal. Who cares that he wants her to write it in a month? She leaves, thrilled, and vomits upon a sidewalk tree. This is not your grandmother's Jo March.

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Displaying another side of “adulthood,” Marnie’s in bed with Booth Jonathan; he’s nude, she’s tracing her fingertip against his chest. A text from Hannah arrives, and Marnie is disparaging: “She keeps saying she has news, but I bet she wrote a blog post or found a really good hot dog or something.” Booth, perhaps understandably, asks why they’re friends, and while he doesn’t care what the answer is, Marnie does, whether she knows it at this moment or not. They’re “ingrained” in each other’s lives, she explains. That doesn’t mean that they like each other; it's a friendship that's existed so long it's hard to do anything else, or so she would tell Booth if he cared to listen. This again nudges at the “people as replaceable” theme we’ve seen this season, but I don’t think Marnie and Hannah are sure they want to be done with each other — not yet, perhaps not ever. They’ve both failed, over and again, to come up with suitable substitutes, for one. And, yes, they’re ingrained in each other's lives.

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Marnie’s relationship with Booth Jonathan is far less complicated than her friendship with Hannah, much because it’s all in her mind. She wants to be his girlfriend, and acts like it — praising him, taking his side in an argument with his assistant Soo Jin, who took a bite of his rosewater ice cream, an act that Marnie calls “psychotic." The assistant quits, and Booth Jonathan asks Marnie to be his hostess for a reading he’s throwing. She takes that as a sign their relationship is evolving. Later, as she tries on dresses (all too basic, she’ll have to shop) that she might wear to the event, Shoshanna does nothing to disabuse her of the notion that everything is going so well with this new boyfriend. “He totally likes you,” she says, envying Marnie’s supposedly perfect life.

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Maybe it’s going well for Marnie and for Hannah (or so it seems: How adult and intriguing a book deal is!, says Shosh) but the rest of them are struggling out in the open. Shoshanna is trying to convince Ray to be a little more entrepreneurial — maybe he should see Donald Trump speak. Speaking of books, Ray wants his copy of Little Women back from Hannah. It’s got some notes in the back, from his godmother, helping him parse out “his shit.” The book, though, has been left at Adam’s apartment, so Ray has to go retrieve it for himself.

As luck has it, Little Women is in the bathroom of Adam’s “primal” and “masculine” apartment (as Ray puts it). Complicating matters further, Adam has acquired a dog since we left him, and that dog, barking madly, is in the bathroom, too. The dog’s name is Dog. It’s not “a breakup dog,” clarifies Adam. He just wanted a dog, and this one was outside of a coffee shop, tied up, in apparent need of rescuing, so he took it. This does not mesh with Ray’s sense of morals about dogs or stealing. “What you did is like kidnapping a baby,” he says. Ray once, we learn, had a dog named Constantine. A man-voyage (with possible bromance) begins to slowly, weirdly unfold! Adam tells Ray there’s an address on Dog’s collar. They can return him together. The magic words: “I need backup.” Ray asks, “Extra muscle in case shit gets real?” Yes. These boys want to feel like men. “O.K., I’m in,” says Ray.

The dog is from Staten Island. Aboard the ferry, en route to Dog’s homeland, Ray and Adam start to talk girls. Ray complains that Shoshanna wouldn’t get his joke about storming the beaches of Normandy, and the two determine that “women under 18 and over 40 are the best in relationships,” and “the in-betweens are too difficult.” Ray says, “We’re not so different … maybe it’s because we’re both honest men.” Adam doesn’t disagree, but adds, “Maybe it’s because we’re both kind of weird looking.” This boat scene might be my favorite in this episode. We get to see these two guys being as “Girls”-esque as Hannah and Co. have been all season. They are trying and failing. They’re narcissistic. They’re lying, maybe, not only to each other but also to themselves. But they’re searching, and in a strange way they’re growing as they seek answers, I think. I think — maybe because the alternative is too bleak?

Back in Brooklyn, Hannah is trying and failing to write her e-book. Jessa falls asleep in the tub and breaks a wine glass, waking to come out and ask, “How’s your book of shit?” Though she’s rude and even cruel (“This book doesn’t matter, that’s the first thing you need to know,” she says, “It’s not going to matter to the people who read it or you”), Jessa is sort of the only friend Hannah’s got at this point. After the abuse, Hannah tells her, “You can stay as long as you want.”

Our buddy flick-let with Adam and Ray does not last long. What started with talk of love ends with talk of love, and then it just ends. Ray admits that his four-week-long relationship with Shoshanna is the longest he’s been in. In a startlingly accurate metaphor about how some relationships seem to play out, Adam tells Ray that dating Hannah, for him, was like a carnival game — he got so involved in the game he forgot that he wasn't going to want the "Tweety bird" to carry around after he won in the first place. Of course, he didn't win the game; Adam is still carrying both torch and grudge. Then Ray does the unacceptable — he talks shit about Hannah. Adam lashes out at Ray for (he presumes) wanting to sleep with Hannah, telling him, “You don’t know shit about love. You’re just babies holding hands,” and walks away, leaving Ray with Dog. When Ray finally locates Dog’s owner’s daughter, the girl won’t take the dog back and screams insults, like “Go back to Yogurt Towne,  kike,” at poor, already-thinks-he's-a-loser Ray.  

Hannah appears at Marnie’s party, at which, despite it all, Marnie either needs her, or wants to impress her; probably a bit of both, so she’s invited her.. But this party, so promising to start, ends badly for both of them. Booth Jonathan offers Marnie $500 for hosting. “You don’t have to pay me, I’m your girlfriend,” she says. “I didn’t realize I had a girlfriend,” he retorts. She bursts into tears. “I feel really stupid,” she says, sobbing dramatically and a wee bit unbelievably. “Usually when I think someone’s my boyfriend, he is, and I’m not delusional,” she says, adding, “I think I fell in love with the idea of you,” she says. The thing is, I don't think she's crying over Booth Jonathan, because no one can cry over Booth Jonathan. She's crying because yet another identity she's tried on and thought she might like to keep has failed, so she's still scrambling to figure out who she is, and that's exhausting. Booth Jonathan hates this comment, though, even as he uses everyone else’s idea of him when it suits him. “Everyone just uses me for what I represent to them,” he says. “I hate all my friends.” Join the club, Booth Jonathan. Join the club. 

Meanwhile, Hannah’s waiting in the bathroom line. She tells the guy behind her about her book; he responds that she should talk to one of their friends, who’s also got a book— “it’s just an e-book but that’s a book,” he says, or ponders. Deflated, Hannah leaves, returning to her apartment to try again to write. When that’s fruitless she calls Marnie, who’s heading home and has removed the weird see-through plastic top layer  (symbolism!) of the not “basic” dress she wore to the party for her way home by subway. They both lie through their teeth to each other, Hannah saying the book’s going great; Marnie saying the party is equally great; she’s “in Booth’s garden watching the fireflies.” “Love you, bye,” they both say, and Hannah punches her pillow. Nothing is as great as it seems, for boys or girls.

Back in Staten Island, a dog and a boy sit on a bench. “I’m not even a kike, I’m nothing,” says Ray, crying, holding the dog’s leash. The dog leans in, comfortingly.

If I were going to go literary-thematic, and apparently I am, I’d suggest that Louisa May Alcott writing about women (like herself, at least, sort of, including a writer character) and what they want at a particular time and place in society is not entirely unlike Lena Dunham writing about women (like herself, at least, sort of, including a writer character) and what they want at a particular time and place in society — even if those times and places are as different as Concord, Massachusetts, in the 1800s and Brooklyn, New York, in the 2010s. And I’d say that Women and Men are just as similar as they are different, with, often, the very same wants and needs and hopes and hang-ups in their lives. Boys may be just as shallow and narcissistic and confused and trying to figure-it-out as Girls. Maybe there’s something heartening about that. Also heartening: I think the upswing in Girls is continuing. I liked this episode!

As for Little Women and Little Men, it’s a matter of opinion as to which book you like best. There are insights to be found in each, if you read carefully, but, really, if you haven't, you should probably read them both. 

Winners: Ray and Dog. I know, we left Ray dejected and alone on a bench in Staten Island, confessing to the water that he's nothing, not even a racist insult. But in those very last seconds of the show, Dog turns to Ray with such a look of understanding that I see a future for these two. Who cares if Ray doesn't have an apartment? Maybe what he needs is a dog to love him, to make him feel whole. I would love to see a man-and-his-canine-companion spin-off. Dogs. or Boys. Or Dogs and Boys. Dog-Boy. Somebody with a talent for naming shows get on this. 

Also: Louisa May Alcott. Before Carrie, before Hannah, there were Amy, Jo, Beth, and Meg.

Losers: Oh, Hannah and Marnie. The only thing worse in a friendship than yelling and screaming and hating each other is telling each other complete and total untruths in an effort to protect yourselves. But I predict this is temporary, and there's a light at the end of the tunnel with these two, even if it's only the light of a flickering candle that drunk Jessa put at the side of the tub before she took her bath and fell asleep. When friendships are ingrained, maybe that's enough.

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