"Vagina Panic" is an attention-getting episode title—but nobody's really panicking in the second episode of Girls except Hannah, whose takeaway from a childhood viewing of Forrest Gump is an obsessive fear of contracting AIDS from "stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms." "Vagina Denial" might cover the subject a bit better.
Not that Marnie's interested in any truth-telling about her boyfriend, who she can't bring herself to look at during sex. That sex scene opens with Charlie suggesting that they stare into one another's eyes when they come; Marnie has her head turned away and eyes screwed shut. Her next move is to propose switching to doggie-style, so she's not even facing him, but it's still Charlie back there, and he seems to have confused "thrusting" with "continental drift." The next day, Marnie bitches at Charlie to . . . well, act more like Adam, to get pissed at her and not care what she thinks: "It's what men do." Then she mocks his testicles.
Hannah, eating a yogurt, observes that it's okay if Marnie is just bored. Marnie defensives, "That is a really simplistic explanation of what's going on." It's also . . . the actual explanation of what's going on, and Marnie should just break up with Charlie, but she doesn't want to be the kind of girl who breaks up with The Most Solicitous Man In New York, so she tells herself it's more complicated than that.
Jessa is also in denial, to a degree. She's moody during the first half of the episode, broodily smoking pot with her headphones on, then lashing out at Hannah and Shoshanna when they have the gall to defend a The Rules-ish self-help book about dating. (Hannah doesn't defend it so much as laughingly admit that she "hate-read" it at the airport, which is exactly what I did with the actual The Rules.) After bombasting that she's "offended by 'supposed-tos'" like those the author posits, Jessa bitches at Hannah for studying her face for "one of [her] novels," then announces that she wants kids someday, and she's going to be "amazing" at it. Of course you do, Hannah says, and of course you are—but Jessa's not done: "I want to have children with many different men of different races."
This United Jessa of Benetton declaration seemed random at first, and I didn't know how to react to it initially, other than to conclude that a character who considers her future offspring multi-racial-chic accessories should absolutely not have a baby right now. But I think that's the point—and it's touched on elsewhere in the episode, too, when Adam and Hannah discuss the abortion. Adam deems it "kind of a heavy fucking situation," but Hannah wonders if it really is: "I mean, I feel like people say that it's a huge deal, but how big a deal are these things actually."
Hannah then gets concerned that Adam thinks she's too flip about the issue, because of course it's a big deal—but the dialogue raises some interesting, sticky questions about how our culture and our narratives treat abortion. Specifically, I mean the tendency of many, many films and TV shows to classify an abortion as an incomparable trauma, as Marnie does in so many words; Hannah's raised eyebrows note, sans dialogue, that she can think of more traumatic situations—sexual assault, for example, or the death of a partner. And this is on the few occasions when the script goes through with it, versus having the character miscarry or otherwise sidestep the issue (see: Julia on Party of Five, et al.). Is that appropriate? Or do writers default to that position because it's the least likely to cause offense? Of course an abortion is a game-changer for some women, and not a positive one—but for others who avail themselves of that choice without regrets, I think there's a pressure to suffer, to grieve, to be seen as paying somehow.
The show is not necessarily equipped to answer these questions, and wisely doesn't try. Certainly Jessa isn't delving into them; she's dressed for the procedure in harem pants and complicated lace-up heels. She's also late for the procedure because she's in a bar, drinking White Russians, pontificating about the sinking of Venice (of course she is), and making out with a stranger who borrowed her cell phone—which is how she finds out she won't need the procedure in the first place, because her period is late too, but now it's here. Menses ex machina!
Everyone else has gathered at the clinic, though, to support Jessa and/or get tested for STDs. Marnie is incensed that Jessa is late, except she actually loves it, because she gets to feel a better, more responsible martyr than Jessa, which is what her whole relationship with Jessa is about. But when Hannah goes in for her appointment, Shoshanna can't maintain her denial any longer, confessing to Marnie that she's a virgin. Marnie is taken aback, but shrugs that it's no big deal and sex is "overrated" anyway. She assumes that Shoshanna has given BJs, right? "Yes! . . . No!" Maybe it's because we just saw Chris Eigeman in last week's ep, and he's a lead in Kicking and Screaming, but that put me in mind of the running gag with Otis in that movie. "Is that a pajama top, Otis?" "No! . . . Yes."
We end the episode with Hannah facing one fear head-on as she slides into the stirrups. This is Hannah, so she's babbling more or less uncontrollably to the GYN about how having HIV does in fact have its up sides: it's a great excuse to bail on your job hunt, say, or get really mad at the guy who gave it to you. (She should do that anyway, of course, but: you know. Denial.) Maybe she's not afraid of getting AIDS, she says; maybe she actually wants to get it. The GYN informs her that that's a ridonkulous thing to say, and disgorges a PSA's worth of stats about women's infection rates, and that response is no doubt the result of a network note to the effect of "please make it clear that we're not expected to think this is funny." (It put me in mind of the My So-Called Life pilot, and Angela Chase observing that Anne Frank was "lucky" because she was stuck in an attic with a boy she really liked.)
I didn't think we needed the prod, because the episode keeps coming back to a question about certain charged topics and conversations, namely: How much of what we do, of our reactions, is what we think we "should" do? It's in Adam's "little-whore stuff," which is cast as goofy rather than threatening. It's in Hannah’s wondering if abortion is always a really big deal every time, for everyone, and her frightened Googling about rogue semen. It's in Marnie’s not wanting to come off like a bitch, and coming off like an even bigger bitch as a result. And it's in that disastrous job interview Hannah goes on, when she starts out acing it on a vibing-with-the-interviewer level, then unfortunately feels comfortable enough to make a date-rape joke and shoots herself in the foot. She's supposed to feel that that isn't an "office-okay" topic or tone, because obviously it isn't—but why will she censor herself and her disappointment with Adam, then push the "humor" envelope in an interview? Why does what she "should" do, the idea of "being good," pertain more in this farkakte romantic relationship?
I don't know the answers; I don't think the show does either. But in spite of some kludgy, on-the-nose dialogue in spots this week, the episode successfully showed that issues and people are complicated, and don't resolve in 30 minutes. Or ever, sometimes.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded TelevisionWithoutPity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com.