March 2, 2014, 10:00 p.m. (EST), HBO
One a season, Girls likes to isolate Hannah from the rest of the girls and tell a story about her individually. These episodes (season one’s “The Return” and season two’s “One Man’s Trash”) tend to be among the season’s best, usually because they play to the show’s strengths. Girls has never been great at plotting. It is better at creating a mood and at exploring characters as they navigate their way through crisis points. “Flo,” this season’s Hannah-stands-alone story, is a knotty, emotionally rough, and ultimately beautiful episode of television about the last days in the life of Hannah’s grandmother.
Though ostensibly about Flo, the episode is really about the various family dynamics at play in the life of Hannah and her mother, and also, partially, about the connection between Hannah and Adam, what it means, and what it may (or may not) someday mean. Oscar nominee June Squibb plays Flo, and does wonders with very little screen time, turning Flo into the sort of hardscrabble, matter-of-fact woman she played in Nebraska, and bringing to bear her considerable talents at evoking a life fully lived. We hear a lot about her failings as a mother in the episode, but we mostly see her as a frail, prickly, funny old woman weathering the illness that ultimately fells her.
Flo’s illness draws Hannah, as well as her mother, two aunts, and a cousin, into old patterns and old resentments. The older women squabble over Flo’s engagement ring, but it is mostly just a metaphor for the ways they fail to fit together and the things they don’t like about each other. Hannah tries, falteringly, to bond with her cousin Rebecca (Sarah Steele), a hyper-driven med student who barely disguises her distaste for Hannah beneath a veneer of cousinly bonding.
“Flo” also works as another study of Hannah’s detachment and the way that being a writer tends to distance someone from the rest of humanity. It’s probably a little weird that people have to keep dying for Hannah to confront her ambivalence (and this, I think, is an example of the show being somewhat as self-absorbed as its heroine, which it is from time to time), but it is pretty much worth it for the way the episode ends, with Hannah standing, lost, in a sea of people, unable to comprehend how her cheese-sandwich eating grandmother could possible have had a heart attack and died since she left. It is a gorgeous moment, and one that speaks to the sudden shock of finding out someone you cared about has died. It is also a reminder that, though Hannah is selfish, self-absorbed, and callous, she is a human being with feelings, even if she can’t always understand them or modulate them to match society’s expectations.
I’ve spoken about how this functions as the season’s Hannah-stands-alone episode, and yet perhaps the best parts of it are focused on Hannah’s mom Loreen. Becky Ann Baker is fantastic at playing the full rang of this woman’s life, from her general warmth to her particular resentments. I love the way she can turn on a dime to from benevolence to being annoyed by something Hannah is doing; it feels so perfectly maternal, in a way, and Baker’s performance always makes Loreen feel completely lived-in, even if she doesn’t get a lot of screen time. All of the stuff with Loreen and her sisters is fantastic, the sort of bruising, emotionally raw interactions this show is great at, and yet with a totally different age group and with characters we haven’t seen before (and may never see again). Finally, Loreen talks openly to Hannah about whether her being with Adam in the long term is really a good idea. She points out that it is difficult being married to an odd man (which truly makes me long for an episode that is just Loreen and Tad living their lives), that Adam is angry and that he bounces from one thing to the next. In short, she doesn’t think Adam has long term potential.
Which brings us back to the biggest character development in the episode, as Hannah and Adam broach the subject of whether they might get married. It is treated as a bigger deal here than it feels like it should be (Hannah has casually said things about spending the rest of her life with Adam a few times this season, so it shouldn’t feel like the bomb it does here), but still, it is a movement forward. Nothing really comes of it here, and I’m not sure we’ll see a continuation of that conversation at any point soon, but I mostly walked away with the feeling that Adam would marry Hannah in the long term, and Hannah is terrified by the fact that she isn’t sure. Marriage is clearly not something she has put much thought into, and in fact it sort of takes her by surprise when she finds herself having that conversation with Adam. She sees him in a certain way and in a certain context, but she hasn’t put in much work visualizing him differently. And when she does, it isn’t clear what she’ll find.
“Flo” shouldn’t fit together as well as it does, honestly. It is sort of about Hannah’s emotional distance, sort of about the experience of losing her grandmother, sort of about the resentments in multiple generations of her family, and sort of about her relationship with Adam. All of these disparate elements should make this episode a mess, and it is a little messy, but in a way that reinforces the reality of the situation. This isn’t one story, so much as its stories piled on top of one another, playing out at different speeds and at varying levels of importance. In that way, it’s sort of like life. Nothing ever shuts down everything else in your life for long. There are always a million different things going on, some of which are on backburners and some of which are commanding your immediate attention. “Flo” exists in a moment where the title character’s impending death drowns out many other things, but it can’t quite swallow the lives of the people it brings together entirely. There is still ancient bitterness here; still old grudges that are sticking and wounds that have yet to heal. These people are still living their lives, still hurting and causing hurt, still focused on themselves, their goals, and their experiences. The episode is a slice of life in the best sense of the word. It feels torn from a particular period in Hannah’s twenties whole cloth, where some other episodes of the show feel more constructed. Some day, Hannah will probably write an essay about the week her grandma died, and part of her is probably mulling that over throughout the episode. But as it ends, she is just standing there, stuck with her feelings and their repercussions as the death of her grandmother drowns everything else out for a moment. It’ll all seep back in, and more quickly than it probably should. But there, on that street corner, in that moment, Hannah is fully present. And that’s kind of scary. And that’s kind of rare. And that’s kind of beautiful.
- -Dierdre Lovejoy (of The Wire fame) is fabulous as Margo, and Amy Morton is also quite good as Sissy. For all the flack this show occasionally gets about its insane focus on its core cast of self-absorbed women, it is incredibly good at creating well realized characters on the fringes of its world that I would die to spend more time with.
- -“Grandma, that’s the worst. I had pneumonia once when I was little and I had to watch TV for, like, two weeks.”
- -“Mom, I really thought you were more progressive than that.” “No, I’m not.” “What are they even talking about in your women’s book group? That’s crazy!”
- -“I am. I am very committed to you at this time.”
- -“You see? This is why I started my advocacy group for the childless.”
- -“He insider traded! It’s not like he sex trafficked.”
- -“I don’t have very many friends.” “Well, I wish that surprised me more.”
- -“I have a boyfriend. His name is Dane.” “Hot name.”
- -“Do you think you’re that funny? You’re not that funny.” “Well that’s just crazy.”
- -“Ok, don’t only text me ‘car crash’!” I loved this moment a lot. It is perfect Hannah-Adam.
- -“Joe has a plate in his head, and you can tell.”
- -“Here’s what I have to say about being married.” “Ok…” “Some day you will look at him, hating him with every fiber of your being, wishing that he would die the most violent death possible. It will pass.”
- -“Old maid no more.”
- -“I ate one cheese sandwich, and I’d like another.”
- -“People aren’t always right.” That is clearly true, and exactly what Hannah wants to hear in that moment. But also, we quickly learn that the people in question, the doctors were right.