Death has a way of bringing a family together so that loved ones may find comfort and support amidst the chaos and pain. If, however, that family happens to be deeply dysfunctional and decidedly awful (as is the case for Hannah Horvath), the net result can make a bad situation worse.
This week’s episode begins with Hannah’s mother Loreen (Beck Ann Baker) calling her daughter with a stark message: Her grandmother is dying and she should come to the hospital at once. And so begins our fascinating and depressing journey into the heart of Hannah’s maternal family, illuminating – for the first time – the odds that have been stacked against her from day one. It turns out, Hannah is miraculously well-adjusted.
PREFACE: A NOTE OF CONFUSION
Was I the only one perplexed by the geography of this episode? As far as we’d known, Hannah and her family hail from Michigan. So when Hannah received the aforementioned call from her mother, I assumed Grandma Flo was dying in a Michigan hospital. Hannah then packed a small bag for the trip. And Adam expressed his regret at being unable to join her, as it was the first week of rehearsals. I incorrectly assumed she was headed to the airport. It wasn’t until Adam showed up at the hospital towards the end of the episode that I realized we were in New Jersey. Specifically, Passaic. So Hannah spent her early years in NJ? Weird. But then again, after meeting Hannah’s family, it’s not hard to imagine her folks leaving the state to get far away from them. Unfortunately, for Hannah, no amount of distance could insulate her from the dysfunction. It runs deep in her mother’s blood and her own as well.
HANNAH’S FAMILY CIRCUS
Perhaps it isn’t fair to judge Hannah’s family, given the setting. Grandma Flo, the matriarch, is dying, and this episode gives us a particularly raw glimpse into the personalities of Hannah’s mother, cousin, and two aunts. But let’s be honest, these people are insufferable assholes. And I can’t help but appreciate Hannah more than ever given this context. Did I mention these people are assholes?
Arriving at St. Mary’s (in Passaic, not Michigan), Hannah is met by her Aunt Margot. She is obnoxious, high-strung, and has a penchant for dropping f-bombs. Very classy, to say the least. She declares her martyr-status to Hannah in no uncertain terms: “I’m the one who has to keep it all together so that everyone else can fall apart.” Then, she preps Hannah before they enter Flo’s hospital room, warning her that grandma looks terrible, and forbidding her to cry.
At Flo’s bedside, Hannah delivers some classic Hannah material. When her grandmother tells her she has pneumonia, Hannah empathizes like only Hannah can, saying, “That’s the worst. I had pneumonia when I was little, and I had to watch TV for, like, two weeks.” Flo responds, stating the ever-loving obvious: “Well, it’s not the same at all when you’re my age.” But as bad as this sounds, it’s easy to see that Hannah – despite her lack of tact – is easily the most genuine person in Flo’s hospital room, honestly trying to make a connection, and bring her grandmother some comfort. Flo’s daughters, however, have had a closer and more complex relationship with their mother, and their motives are harder to decipher.
Next on the scene, we have Hannah’s mother and her Aunt Sissy. Of the three sisters, the oddest is Sissy. She’s unmarried, unemployed, and without children. To clarify: these three characteristics are all perfectly normal states of being; however, in the case of Sissy, it seems these weren’t necessarily life choices, bur rather, a result of some sort of arrested development. Additionally, she’s relatively less put together than her sisters, sporting a plain, shapeless dress, and no makeup. She has been living with her mother as the primary caretaker, and it’s clear she harbors resentment towards her sisters, stirring up drama at the first opportunity, as she points out her mother’s delight at the gathering, and implying everyone else’s absenteeism up until this point.
Taking her mother out for a bite to eat, Hannah gets a good dose of Loreen’s dysfunction. Throughout this series, we’ve seen a few sides of Loreen. Although Hannah has shared a couple of tender moments with her mother, the lasting impression is that of a bull-headed, insensitive woman. And this episode doesn’t do her any favors. In fact, we see that Hannah may have inherited some of her self-centered tendencies from her. Loreen is not mourning the impending loss of her mother, but rather, a lost chance for the breakthrough in their relationship she had been hoping for. Loreen judges. Everyone. And in her judgement, Flo was not a good mother, and it seems she was looking for some sort of an apology that likely will never come. Although Hannah questions her mother, saying that her grandmother was always very loving to her, Loreen counters hard, reminding her that she wasn’t, in fact, very loving when it came to Hannah’s weight. And, she adds, “she ruined Margot and Sissy’s lives. They’re very misshapen people.” How is the view from up there, Loreen? Despite her harsh judgements, however, Loreen has one request of Hannah: She wants her to lie and tell grandma that she is getting married. Hannah rightly balks and refuses.
BACK AT THE RANCH (THE CIRCUS CONTINUES)
Another great thing about this side of Hannah’s family is how tenaciously they hold on to grudges. Aunt Margot is still angry with Hannah for spilling the beans to her cousin about her father being convicted of insider trading. At the time, her cousin was six years old. It was “inappropriate.”
“But I was 7, so why did anyone tell me?” she rightly asks. “You insisted,” her mother replies, smugly clearing herself from any blame.
Inside, we watch as the sisters divvy up grandma’s wealth of remaining pharmaceuticals, and coarsely stick post-it notes on the things in the house they’d like to claim. Sissy, however, declines, announcing she wants nothing. Nothing except for mom’s engagement ring. This, of course, raises the ire of her sisters who each have daughters (and who each expect to have it for their own). But as Sissy explains: When Jerry Milburn didn’t show up for her prom, Flo promised her that ring. She promised! O.M.G. (*Cuckoo clock sound*)
REBECCA AND THE BEST NIGHT OUT EVER
Somewhere else in the house, Hannah sits down with her aforementioned cousin Rebecca. This scene is an epic clash of personalities, thanks to a particularly intense performance by Sarah Steele. Rebecca is like some bizzaro version of my beloved Shoshanna. Both are fast talkers and given to creating awkwardness via their blindness to social cues. But whereas Shosh is exceptionally dull, Rebecca is on her way to medical school. And whereas Shosh is a self-proclaimed social butterfly and consumed with fashion and pop-culture, Rebecca is an anti-social weirdo (or, as Hannah calls her, a “bitch.”) who seems to have been raised alone on another planet.
Assumably they haven’t seen one another for a while. But after a perfunctory hug and a smile, Rebecca makes no visible effort whatsoever to be warm or welcoming, countering everything Hannah says with snarky criticism. Hannah persists: “It’s a really big deal to have a doctor in the family. And now I’m fulfilling my dream of having someone i can text will my medical questions at all hours!”
“I’m not really studying 15 hours a day to fulfill your dream,” Rebecca answers, cutting her off. And then, to Hannah’s shock, she asks if Hannah wants to meet for a drink later. So very awkward. Anyhow, they do end up at a bar together, but Rebecca doesn’t drink during the week. Hannah is confused. “I just feel like a bar is the right place to go with a person like you.” Okay then! It continues: Rebecca is still sore about Hannah telling her about her dad’s prison sentence back in the day. Then, she goes on to talk about an ex-boyfriend who was a writer and enumerates the many reasons why writers are a “ridiculous class of people that just make everything about themselves…” Wowzers.
Before it’s over, she tells Hannah that she isn’t “that funny”, and grandma Flo said she was “loose” behind her back. On the awkward car ride home, Rebecca also dredges up another uncomfortable memory when they were both 7 and Hannah allegedly encouraged her to touch her own “chachi.” She denies it completely. One last thing: despite Hannah’s very vocal protests, Rebecca fields a text message from her mother while driving and crashes the car, landing them both in the hospital. So yeah. Best night out ever.
Adam, who apparently received a text from Hannah that simply read, “CAR CRASH”, headed straight from NYC to Passaic on Desi’s motorcycle. He’s a goddamned boss. And after seeing she’s alright, and scolding her for the terrifying text message, he plants a long kiss on her lips.
Loreen and her sisters arrive at the hospital where Flo’s fever is spiking. After some initial concern over Rebecca and Hannah, tensions between them mount, and soon they are causing an awful, embarrassing scene in the hall. Loreen apologizes to Adam, regretting he had to witness it. Adam, who perhaps should be concerned about this unfiltered glimpse into his lover’s family, is unfazed. In fact, when Hannah takes him in to meet Flo, he surprises Hannah by announcing their “engagement.”
Flo perks up and offers this sage advice to Hannah: “Someday you will look at him, hating him with every fibre of your being, wishing he would die the most violent death possible. it will pass.” Harsh! But to an extent, pretty accurate.
Afterwards, Hannah and Adam are feeling pretty lovey-dovey after their pseudo-engagement announcement. Before Adam leaves, he kisses Hannah and even goes in for a semi-awkward kiss on Loreen’s cheek. But as soon as he’s out of earshot, Loreen – ever the judge – casually suggests that Adam isn’t the one for Hannah and she should keep her options open. Hannah is shocked and offended. “How dare you talk about something you literally know nothing about,” she says. And while she admits she doesn’t know Adam well, she tells her what she “sees.” He’s an odd person. He’s angry. He’s uncomfortable in his own skin. He bounces around from one thing to another.
“I don’t want you to spend your whole life socializing him like he’s a stray dog,” she tells her. And although I’m with Hannah and Adam all the way here, and this scene literally had me angrily shaking my head at Loreen, I can’t help but be struck by the accuracies – however incomplete – of her statements. There is a wisdom here, and a concern that perhaps transcends the intoxications of a first love. Hannah is her only daughter, and faced with the suggestion of their union, Loreen chose to be honest, even if it wasn’t nice.
RECOVERY AND RELAPSE
The family stays the night at the hospital. Hannah wakes up alone and goes to her grandmother’s room to see a miracle: Flo has recovered! It looks like she’s not going anywhere just yet. The family is joyous. Having narrowly escaped tragedy, the sisters make a pact to be together more. Hannah shares a touching moment alone with Flo. She’s tells her she’s glad the doctors were wrong. “People aren’t always right,” Flo says. Hannah, still reeling from her mothers unwanted advice, can’t agree more.
Just off the train and back in the city some hours later, Hannah gets a phone call from Rebecca. “Grandma’s dead,” she says flatly and without warning. It turns out she had a heart attack and died moments earlier. Rebecca tells her to turn around and head back. Rebecca hangs up. Hannah stands still on the sidewalk, dumbstruck as people walk around her, unaware of all she’s been through. She is in the city. Alone. Unable to comprehend the notion of returning to the emotional roller coaster she just got off.
What can I say. This show is proving to be staggering masterwork. I largely chose to forgo the excitement and glamor of the Academy Awards ceremony to instead continue the journey into Lena Dunham’s difficult, depressing, and brilliant world, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I, for one, am looking very much forward to a double dose of Lena next weekend: First, out of her usual element, hosting SNL. And then episode 10 on Sunday.
Please tune in next week for more sentences and paragraphs.