Girls has grown this season into a stranger, more episodic, and potentially more rewarding series. But every new risk comes with the chance of failure, and after a series of bold maneuvers, Girls has finally stumbled. Tonight's episode, "Video Games," centers on Jessa — the weakest character in Girls' ensemble — and perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out to be the weakest episode in the series' history.
The episode follows Jessa and Hannah as they leave Brooklyn to visit Jessa's father in the country, and the unevenness of the premise is apparent almost immediately. I think it's supposed to be funny when Hannah asks if Jessa was molested by a substitute teacher and Jessa replies, "I don't know. Yeah. Maybe. Probably?" But it's really just a reminder that Jessa is the show's most poorly developed character. Everything we know about Jessa feels hazy, and the attempt to give her a coherent backstory in "Video Games" doesn't do the character any favors. There's an inherent riskiness in delving into the background of a major character, but done well, it can be illuminating. When Breaking Bad revealed Jesse Pinkman's upright, solidly middle-class background early in its run, it was more than a cheap surprise: It revealed something vital about his character that colored everything about him going forward.
Jessa, by contrast, has been given the most obvious and banal backstory imaginable. Her father (Ben Mendelsohn) is an unpleasant, unreliable deadbeat with a string of exes. His latest love is Petula (Rosanna Arquette), a craaaaaaaazy hippie chick who cooks the family's pet rabbits for dinner and says things like "Love is really a Western concept." They have a weird, troubled kid named Frank who walks around in turtlenecks carrying an oversized music player. "Of course Jessa is a mess," the show seems to say. "Look at her wacky family!" Girls is usually much sharper than these hoary old stereotypes, and it's disappointing to see an entire episode blown on Jessa's blandly dysfunctional home life, with Hannah stepping in as the only series regular to even appear in the episode. At times, I've written off Jessa's inconsistencies as deliberate; it may not make sense for her to go from being repulsed by Thomas-John to marrying him without bothering to actually show us what he did to change her mind, but Jessa is supposed to be impulsive.
But by making Jessa the center of an entire episode, "Video Games" shows just how flimsy her characterization really is. It doesn't help that Jemima Kirke is the least talented of the show's four main actresses, though she delivered a series-best performance during her devastating breakup with Thomas-John in "It's a Shame About Ray." Unfortunately, her big scene in "Video Games" fails to have a similar impact. Kirke is utterly unconvincing when she breaks down while confronting her father on the swing set (symbolism!) — and it doesn't help that she's delivering clunky lines like, "I'm the child," which turn the episode's already paper-thin subtext into an even thinner text.
It's possible that "Video Games" feels like such a rushed resolution to Jessa's character arc because it was a rushed resolution to her character arc — it was, after all, a no-frills way to write Jemima Kirke out of the series, if that's what's actually happening here. Jessa has already been absent for much of the second season due to Jemima Kirke's real-life pregnancy, and I'm assuming that her abrupt departure at the end of "Video Games" means that we won't see the character again this season — if at all. Girls began with Jessa blowing back into town after her aimless wanderings, and at this point, her character has no reason not to blow back out again. If Jemima Kirke wasn't interested in continuing her role, this was a quick and dirty way to send the character off.
But whether or not Jessa is really gone for good, "Video Games" finds Girls at a crossroads, and it's safe to say that fans and critics alike should probably reorient their expectations for the show going forward. Girls' second season has demonstrated a courageous willingness to play with the show's very format with unconventional, episodic experiments, which has led to some risky, brilliant successes — including last week's "Boys," which centered on Ray and Adam, and the self-contained, instantly polarizing episode centering on the tryst between Hannah and Joshua (Patrick Wilson). With "Video Games," Girls' ambitious season has its first unqualified failure. I'm still eager to see the show's next experiment, but I hope it's a more successful one.
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