Traditional TV wisdom would tell you that airing opposite the Oscars is a death slot, but in an age where overnight ratings have never mattered less, a show like HBO's Girls can take the biggest night in Hollywood and use it as a pointed platform. Last night's potent, Lena Dunham-penned bottle episode "American Bitch" found Dunham's Hannah going to the home of a very famous author, Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys), whose reputation has been sullied by accusations of sexual assault. Meanwhile, over on ABC, the Academy handed this year's Best Actor statuette to Casey Affleck, whose own reputation has been sullied by accusations of sexual harassment. Mel Gibson, despite his own history of domestic abuse, verbal abuse, and anti-semitism, was also nominated for an Oscar last night. Whether the timing was deliberate or not, Dunham's incisive episode felt like a very deliberate comment on the Oscars, and their role as an embodiment of Hollywood's willingness to protect—and celebrate—its famous, successful male abusers.
For all the boundaries Girls has crossed in its depictions of sexuality, mental illness, and the thorny intricacies of female friendship, one area it has veered away from is sexual violence. The closest the show has come to depicting rape was unintentional–the infamous season two scene in which Adam (Adam Driver) and Natalia (Shiri Appleby) share a degrading but consensual sexual encounter, which some viewers felt crossed the line from regrettable sex into assault. That same gray area is explored in last night's episode, an extraordinary two-hander which plays out like a Socratic dialogue as Hannah and Chuck debate consent, rape culture, and the risks of being tried in the court of online opinion.
"If one more male writer I love reveals himself to be a heinous sleazebag…" begins the article which Hannah writes for a niche feminist website, prompting Chuck to summon her to his house to explain his side of the story. In the space of barely 20 minutes, Rhys establishes Chuck as a fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional creep, a prickly narcissist who exudes neurosis and does not respond well to no longer being in control of his own narrative. He doesn't see himself as a predator, though four young women have accused him of coercing them into sex–he's an introvert who lost his virginity at 25, and through success has been given the opportunity to connect with the kinds of women who ignored him when he was their age.
Though she's often been depicted as wilfully flawed to the point of caricature, Hannah is very smart and very perceptive, and one of her more defining character traits has always been an ability to cut through bullshit. That's on full display here, as she parries all of Chuck's self-pitying rationalizations, pointing out the wild power imbalance he's ignoring in his encounters with college students. "She admires you," Hannah tells him, her voice brittle with the pain of personal investment, "and then you unbuckle your pants. What's she gonna do next?"
But the horribly convincing part is that Hannah is eventually (if temporarily) won over by Chuck, who reveals his true, wolfish colors toward the episode's end. His flattery is all deeply patronizing; he tells her she should use her talent to talk about something that matters, because "this isn't the civil rights movement—it's me getting head in some sterile hotel room in Rhode Island." When his flattery crosses a line, Hannah doesn't immediately run a mile like we want her to, because she loves this man's work so much her copies of his books are dogeared. And though she soon comes to her senses and bolts, the episode's haunting final shot re-emphasizes that she is not the first, and she will not be the last. Chuck's industry protects him. Reading accusations on Tumblr may keep him up at night, but there is no suggestion his career has been impacted by any of this.
This brings us back to Affleck, who will soon be enjoying the potential career boost that comes with a major Oscar win–a flurry of top-drawer scripts, meetings all over town, probably a seven-figure franchise deal if he wants it. It should not come as a surprise that a man accused of sexual harassment can thrive in Hollywood when a man accused of sexual assault by half a dozen women was just elected president. Nor should it come as a surprise that an industry that has rallied around Roman Polanski should be so ready to forgive Mel Gibson, despite his track record of domestic violence, physical and verbal abuse, and overt anti-semitism. None of this ultimately matters, because men like Affleck and Gibson will always be protected, no matter the level of public outcry.
There's a persistent myth that women regularly make up abuse and assault allegations to get attention, and it's one you'll often hear trotted out in response to famous men being accused of misconduct. Chuck implies as much about his accusers, many of whom are young aspiring writers who want "a story" to tell. Hannah's response is the most important line in one of Girls' most important episodes: "People don't talk about this shit for fun. It ruins their lives."
Emma Dibdin is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles who writes about culture, mental health, and true crime. She loves owls, hates cilantro, and can find the queer subtext in literally anything.
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