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‘Girls’ Tackles Sexual Assault In Its Most Powerful Bottle Episode To Date

Matthew Rhys guest stars on ‘Girls’ as the complete antithesis to Lena Dunham’s Hannah, creating the comedy’s most important and socially relevant standalone episode yet.

If there’s a standout takeaway from “American Bitch,” the latest bottle episode of Girls, it’s the following line uttered by guest star Matthew Rhys: “You can’t let politics dictate what you read or who you f-ck.” In the midst of such divided times, it’s a reminder not to be confined or limited to an echo chamber, to listen to people, to consume opposing ideologies. But considering the source, maybe we should take the vulgar guidance with a grain of salt.

Girls welcomes The Americans star Matthew Rhys as Chuck Palmer, a successful novelist recently entangled in a sexual assault scandal, which grew legs from an accuser’s Tumblr post and Hannah’s subsequent op-ed for a “niche” feminist website. Chuck invites Hannah to his doorman-greeted upscale apartment (we’re not in Greenpoint anymore) to discuss the piece and clear his name. As he sees it, he’s innocent. He’s the victim, the witch in the center of the Salem trials, being taken down by women with “hurt feelings.” Oh, Hannah gives ol’ Chuck an education.

From the moment Hannah walks in the door, we know that something is off with Chuck. Hannah kicks off her shoes, but her silver flats touch his suede boots. He asks for her to separate them. That’s not to suggest that people with particular organizational methods aren’t to be trusted. It’s to suggest that Chuck and Hannah couldn’t be more dissimilar, from shoe placement to feminist leanings. And their tête-à-tête proceeds with such flagrant opposition.

When Chuck takes his initial swing at Hannah’s article, padded with praise, Hannah delivers her defense like a media-trained pop star knee-deep in a PR nightmare. She’s a writer speaking up for the silenced majority who have encountered the effects of another person abusing their power and influence, just as Chuck has. Allegedly, of course. Chuck interrupts their conversation, accepting a call from his ex and mother of his daughter. It’s an interesting detail. A man accused of taking advantage of women has a daughter—a daughter suffering from clinical depression.

“You’re the mother, you’ll win,” Chuck rattles at his ex about custody, revealing another shade of his fragile relationship with women and masculine power. Returning to their discussion, Chuck dismantles himself as a broken shell of a man who can’t sleep, takes pills, struggles in therapy, but has never forced a woman to have sex with him (despite once hiring a hooker). He thinks he’s being punished by these women and Hannah, unable to understand why Hannah has jumped to defend his accusers without having met them. How does she know they’re telling the truth?

Lena Dunham, Matthew Rhys. Photo: Craig Blankenhorn. Acquired from HBO Media Relations site.

Hannah recalls an inappropriate event from her childhood of a fifth grade English teacher rubbing her neck. Before reading a piece Chuck wrote about one of the women he slept with on his college book tour, Hannah schools him on the power imbalance. Whereas Chuck believes women seek out these experiences to have a story, Hannah explains “it’s so she feels like she exists.” Two differing stances on the same issue. That’s what makes this episode so vital.

Chuck and Hannah have a civil, one-on-one conversation in an attempt to better understand where the other is coming from. Opinions might not change, and they’ll still subscribe to their truth, but it’s the conversation. See how far we can get with peaceful, intelligent conversation? However, Chuck and Hannah become too cordial talking about Philip Roth’s When She Was Good (the inspiration for the episode title) and their lives. These are Chuck’s games.

As if the evidence hadn’t been damning enough, Chuck proves he’s twisted. The evil grin that spreads across his face after he convinces Hannah to lie down with him and puts his penis on her leg is truly menacing. Hannah made a choice to lie down with him and to touch his penis, but we see his predatory actions firsthand. She stays to watch his daughter play Rihanna’s “Desperado” on the flute, taking note of his strange, almost ironic fatherly pride.

Beyond its important discussion, the episode boasts pin-sharp writing from Lena Dunham brimming with subtext. The symmetry in the opening and closing shots perfectly bookend the episode. Hannah first approaches Chuck’s building to an optimistic score. In the end, she exits to the dark “Desperado,” walking past a crowd of women who enter the building. The episode doesn’t offer any finite conclusions or silver linings, opting instead for the discomforting reality to simmer.

Unlike the bottle episodes of Girls seasons past, “American Bitch” doesn’t weave an enlightening tale about family or a dalliance gone weird. Instead, Girls seemingly accepts its self-fulfilling prophecy—the “voice of a generation” quote from the pilot it can’t quite live down—and turns in its standalone episode with the utmost power and fierceness in grand societal scale. It’s the thinly veiled commentary on our president’s “locker room talk” we need.

What did you take away from the episode? Sound off in the comments!

The final season of Girls airs Sundays at 10/9c on HBO.

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