Six seasons in, Girls still knows how to whip up a cultural maelstrom. This week’s provocative episode, “American Bitch,” is poised to be a Category 5.
The episode airs on HBO Sunday night but was released early Friday morning on HBO Go, HBO Now, and On Demand services, so as to not conflict with the Oscars. That means many of you have already seen it: the Matthew Rhys guest performance, the debate over rape and consent, Lena Dunham touching the penis.
(SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t seen the episode.)
“It is a prosthetic,” director Richard Shepard laughs.
Lena Dunham did not actually touch Rhys’s penis in the episode, but instead, it turns out, an incredibly hard-to-find fake one from a medical supply company. “Interestingly, just on a purely technical level, usually you can’t find a three-quarter-erect penis. Usually you need to get a dildo that’s basically a hard penis or not.” He laughs again: “I had quite a tutorial about it.”
We talk at length about the fleeting penis moment. He knows lots of other people will be, too. It’s not often on TV you see a character grab a penis. “If we are the first ever show to have that, God bless it,” he says.
But the episode is about so much more than that moment, while at the same time it might be all about that moment. Few episodes of Girls, or television in general, seem as primed to get people talking.
The episode finds Dunham’s Hannah Horvath going to the palatial apartment of famous author Chuck Palmer, played by Rhys. Hannah had written a piece for a Jezebel-esque feminist website surfacing stories from several college women claiming that Palmer used his power and influence to sleep with them on his book tour.
When Hannah wonders whether all those encounters were consensual, Palmer flips. “How exactly does one give a non-consensual blow job?” Dunham’s response: “It would be something very chokey…”
They spend the episode discussing the nuances of consent and privilege. He thinks the women were seducing him so that they would have “a story” to tell. She thinks they were too intimidated by his celebrity to say no. He vents about the state of the world, in which his life can be destroyed by girls posting about sex with him on “something called Tumblr, without an e.”
Their conversation is surprisingly intelligent and measured. This is season six Hannah—she’s not soapboxing or being entirely rude and unyielding. She’s confident enough to express her opinion, and now mature enough to consider Palmer’s rebuttal. That is, until Palmer takes out his penis and Hannah makes an impulse decision to touch it, before recoiling in disgust.
What are we to make of that? Cue the think pieces.
Beyond the episode’s provoking content, there is sure to be fascination over how, even more than usual, viewers will have a hard time delineating between Hannah Horvath’s dialogue and the opinions of Lena Dunham, who wrote the episode.
“I’m not trying to punish you,” Hannah says. “I’m just trying to give voice to the women who have historically been pushed aside, or silenced.”
Dunham has been open about her own experience being sexual assaulted and is a vocal advocate for fellow survivors, highlighting that if she, a white woman in Hollywood, is made to feel uncomfortable or disbelieved coming forward with her experience, what struggles might women without her privilege feel?
For his part, Shepard has made it his specialty to helm Girls’s lightning-rod “bottle episodes,” the narrative-halting, debate-inciting, character-developing half hours that function like one-act plays and typically feature just two characters. He directed the Dunham-Patrick Wilson two-hander “One Man’s Trash” and last season’s sublime Marnie showcase “The Panic in Central Park.”
With “American Bitch” sure to join those ranks, we rang Shepard to break down the episode.
Are you bracing yourself for a lot of reactions?
[Laughs] Well, I mean, it’s going to get some reaction because, you know, Lena wrote it to get some sort of reaction. I’m excited for it, to be quite frank. The timing of it—considering what’s going on in our country—is particularly perfect, and I think one of the great things about Lena as a writer is that she would still manage to make it feel like a Girls episode, even when it’s different in so many ways. It was one of those scripts where I read it and I was like, “Wow.”
Knowing Lena and knowing the show, what was your initial reaction to reading it?
I’ve been so lucky that Lena’s given me a number of these bottle episodes, whether it was “One Man’s Trash” with Patrick Wilson, or the Marnie episode. Those other bottle episodes dealt with emotion between characters in a more honest, humane way than a lot of other times in the show, so I was always attracted to that. But this episode was not about a romantic, human connection. It was powerful on the first draft, and I think it only got better as Lena started getting reactions from Jenni [Konner] and Judd [Apatow] and myself. Just people trying to make sure that it didn’t turn into a debate, but was instead a conversation that was also entertaining as a piece of television.
So making sure that it wasn’t just an intellectual litigation of rape and consent.
Lena has always been so great, in my experience with her, in that she really listens to notes in such a smart way, and finds solutions that are very organic to what she’s trying to say. In this case, you know, I just didn’t want it to be so cut-and-dry. I wanted his character to have a point up to a point. You know? And not be just a monster, but have a point of view that, ultimately in the episode, you see he uses his power in a way that is almost proving her point. But it was about a balance.
How did casting Matthew Rhys play into that?
From a directing standpoint, I was really pushing to cast an actor who had an inherent likability like Matthew, because it was important that we like him in spite of what he says, until that minute when we just can’t like him anymore. Casting Matthew, I didn’t know him personally, but I knew from his work that he would find a way to make the guy ingratiating in a way that seemed honest. For me, he had to be a certain type of man in order for her to go into his bedroom after everything she had talked about.
So often with Girls, people’s knowledge of Lena and her own life and what’s she talked about affects how they read into what Hannah says and does. I imagine that might happen more than ever with this episode.
Well, listen: Lena is obviously a lightning rod for so many things. But she is so different than Hannah in many ways. For many seasons of this show, Hannah was really self-destructive, and Lena always has a direction and is an incredibly motivated human being. They couldn’t be more different in many ways, but obviously people are going to read into it what they want. It took a level of maturity for Hannah’s character to have this debate with him, and I feel like this episode in season one or two would’ve felt like Lena was putting her point of view in it. But now, it makes as much sense for the character as it does for the writer who wrote the episode.
Did you have any conversations with Lena about why she made this a bottle episode and tackled this topic? What she was hoping to accomplish?
I think Lena can probably speak to her inspiration more than I can, but I do know that the topic of power and the use of power by men over women—especially in the entertainment business—is a conversation that’s being had all over, especially on the set of Girls. There’s the idea of this ingrained power struggle in which men use power in ways that they sometimes don’t even realize are hurting people—of course, sometimes they do realize. I think that was something she wanted to explore, and was sort of in the ether of conversations that she’s been having since I’ve known her.
We have to talk about the penis scene. I want to know a lot about it.
That was a hugely important moment for me. There was a conversation back and forth about whether or not she should touch his penis.
Oh wow. So whether or she touches the penis was a question going in.
I wanted her to do it, just for a moment—as if that is what is expected. I think that speaks to the power dynamic: you’re in my bedroom, I’ve got you on my bed, this is expected of you. That, to me, was very interesting. What was challenging, of course, was that it’s also funny, also odd. I wanted people to laugh and be uncomfortable. There are takes that are broader, obviously.
Was the penis real?
It is a prosthetic. Interestingly, just on a purely technical level, you can’t find a three-quarter-erect penis. Usually you need to get a dildo that’s basically a hard penis or not. I had quite a tutorial about it, but we ended up getting that penis from a medical-supply company. It’s used for people who’ve either been in accidents or are transitioning. It’s a fake penis you can wear in your pants. Lena very specifically didn’t want it to be a full hard-on. But, of course, it becomes such a technical thing: you’re shooting penises, and the actor’s looking at the penis, and there’s a lot of penis jokes, and you have to get through that to get to what you need. But it ended up looking very realistic.
It fooled me.
To me, that was key, because it’s not onscreen for that long. And I did it purposefully in a wide shot, so you may not even notice it at first. And, of course, Lena is such a fine comic actress that she was able to make that moment. You believed she would touch it and you believe her reaction. Matthew has this almost shit-eating grin on the bed, and it’s a great reaction.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a scene on TV before where you’ve actually seen somebody grab a penis. I’m curious if HBO had anything to say about that.
None. I think, had the scene been with an erect penis and truly sexual, instead of a comedy-power position, I think there probably would’ve been a discussion. Because of the tone of the show and the nature of the way that sequence was done, it seemed to skirt any issues. Quite frankly, I just directed in the way that I thought best represented what Lena wanted, and I assumed that HBO had approved the script, so nobody told me otherwise. And if we are the first ever show to have that, God bless it.
Let’s talk about the very last shot at the very end. Am I crazy, or is it all women on the sidewalk? And are they all going into the apartment building?
Yes. You’re not crazy. That was actually a pitch of mine. Both the daughter playing the concert and that final thing were things I asked for. I wanted them to sit and watch the daughter and be stuck and not be able to talk. And I really wanted to—believe me, this was a back-and-forth between the producers of the show and me about that last shot—but I really wanted it to basically say, “If we don’t change course in terms of the way we deal with these power dynamics, there will be more victims, even if someone theoretically escaped.” So it was more of a statement in a surreal sort of way, without hopefully hitting anyone over the head. I think a lot of people will miss it.
I anticipate, as there typically are, a flood of think pieces about this episode.
I read a lot of people saying that there are going to be think pieces, but I’ve yet to read a think piece. I think there’s more people talking about think pieces than actual ones.
It’ll be people having litigation on what’s right and what’s wrong, and what we should take away from this. I’m curious if you have something you hope people take away from it.
I hope that people walk away from the episode going, “That made me think. It didn’t hit me over the head.” Because that’s a truly difficult thing to do in a piece of entertainment, and I think Lena has crafted such a fascinating script that challenges us to not continue [enabling] this position of power men have over women based on the way society has been. That we have to change things up a little bit, or more than a little bit. And I think she nails it. Again, if it was so cut-and-dry, it would be so boring, and I think she made it far more complicated. The fact that Hannah walks into that bedroom and lies down on the bed next to him is earned, and that is why the episode is challenging in a great way, and why people watching are thinking and feeling. Those are not everyday occurrences on any television show. I’ll let Lena speak to the bigger political things she’s trying to achieve or not achieve because, at the end of the day, for me, it was how to craft the best half-hour of TV.