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'Girls' Recap 7: In 'Video Games,' Ben Mendelsohn Guest Stars as Jessa's Flaky Father

Television
by Beth Hanna
February 24, 2013 9:30 PM
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Jemima Kirke and Ben Mendelsohn in "Girls"

In Season One’s “The Return,” we see Hannah and her parents in their natural Horvath habitat, Michigan. In Season Two’s “It’s About Time,” we’re offered a brief glimpse of Jersey girl incognito Marnie’s passive-aggressive relationship with her mother. In this week’s episode, “Video Games,” we’re introduced to Jessa’s father (Ben Mendelsohn) and gain some insight into his character, and the characteristics he’s transferred to his daughter.

As Jessa and Hannah wait at the backwoods Manitou train station for Mr. Johansson (we never learn his first name) to pick them up, Hannah wonders about Jessa’s impromptu visit: “I thought you weren’t talking to your dad…?” We get the sense that Mr. Johansson, like Jessa, lives perpetually in the “right now.” He lives in a certain location right now, has a certain girlfriend right now, is or is not in contact with his daughter right now -- all things subject to change at a moment’s notice.

The only thing Jessa sees as a constant in her dad’s behavior is his unreliability. He’s late to arrive at the station, with some bullshit excuse about a vacuum cleaner, and then blames the Camry he was stuck behind en route. He’s a total wonk, with ancient computers crammed in the back of his car, and dust bunnies mating on the floors of his ramshackle country home due to his distrust for housekeepers. His current girlfriend, Petula (Rosanna Arquette), is equally nutty, with a sincere theory about the world being a video game: “It’s not a metaphor.” She states this matter-of-factly to Hannah as they cuddle with the house’s chubby rabbits, poor critters that wind up as dinner later that evening.

This episode has a quiet stillness to it that I like. The establishing shots of the train station and its grassy, softly buzzing overgrown surroundings capture the listless feel of summer in the country. Shots late in the episode, resting on the watercolor paintings adorning the walls of the house, give a keen sense of place. The sleepy house with its outlandish occupants is lived-in and homey, but is only one point on Mr. Johansson’s spectrum of vagabond travels, and isn’t a place that Jessa identifies as home. This is a central theme of “Video Games”: the strange overlap of the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Yet the episode has distinct weaknesses. A subplot involving Petula’s awkward son, Frank (Nick Lashaway), spins its wheels. Hannah has had a new sexual playmate in practically every episode this season, and it’s become a narrative crutch. We get it -- Hannah is adrift after her breakup with Adam. As she told Joshua (Patrick Wilson) while staying in his magnificent brownstone, “I just want to feel it all.” But something about her voluminous hook-ups this season feels audience-mongering. “Girls” partly made its first season reputation on the show’s (or, Lena Dunham’s) frank portrayal of sex, and now seems addicted to keeping up that standard.

At any rate: Hannah hooks up with Frank, he’s likely a virgin, and it’s all fairly boring. It distracts from the meat of the episode, which is Jessa at loose ends following her separation from Thomas-John. As she mentions, “It’s like everything has been stripped away from me and I’m just one big festering sore.” She’s lost one life-line, and here reaches out for another, her father, with whom she only ever had a tenuous connection.

A floppy-haired Mendelsohn (“Animal Kingdom”) lends his brand of off-kilter loopiness and simmering frustration to the role of Jessa’s dad, but it still feels like a missed opportunity. Mr. Johansson’s trademark is that he’s either late or a no-show, which has the effect of keeping a quality actor like Mendelsohn out of the narrative for stretches at a time. During a pivotal scene between him and Jessa, in which Jessa voices years of disappointment with her father’s inability to be the adult in their relationship, Jemima Kirke does most of the heavy lifting. She manages fine, believably summing up anguish, but I wanted more for Mendelsohn to do. Then again, maybe that’s the point: Mr. Johansson never gives enough of anything when we, and Jessa, really want him to.

Bits and pieces:

  • This episode is directed by Richard Shepard, and written by Bruce Eric Kaplan.
  • Best line goes to Mr. Johansson: “Camry drivers are cunts!”
  • Jessa characteristically flakes at the end of this episode, leaving Hannah to ride the train home by herself. She calls her parents to thank them for being reliable and consistently loving -- her “hammock under the earth.” Do I sense an impending visit from Tad and Loreen Horvath?

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