There's a fascinating and complicated discussion to be had about the sexual act that Hannah performed on Matthew Rhys' writer character on Sunday's Girls. The entire episode was a ping-ponging battle about consent, and Lena Dunham didn't provide any uncomplicated moments. The most strange and ambiguous of all was the scene at the episode's end.
"We had a lot of discussion, up to and including the idea of whether she would touch his penis or not," Shepard told Vulture. "For me, it was deeply important that she do that. It complicated things in a very real way — this idea of power and what people are supposed to or expected to do, and how that can be manipulated in such terrible ways. For me, it was very key that she does touch it. Society has brought up people to think if this presents itself, this is what you’re supposed to do. She almost falls for it, and then, of course, realizes this. In my mind, his character’s doing it not so much to be pleasured but to prove that he can do it. Which is why he’s got that smile on his face in the last scene when his daughter’s playing the flute, because he’s won."
He allows that the real Dunham would have probably reacted differently than her character Hannah. The semi-soft assumption has long been that Hannah is more or less a projection of Dunham's personality. The larger soft assumption has been that Girls is supposed to provide a universal message for how to move through life. Both of those assumptions are ridiculous.
"What Lena Dunham might have done in that situation is different than what Hannah Horvath would’ve done," Shepard told Vulture. "I do think you see the difference in that. This script, there were some discussions, but in general, this is very close to her first draft. We were very lucky to have an entire day of rehearsal, which doesn’t sound like much, but in television, a day in rehearsal is a real big thing. It was just Jenni and Lena and Matthew and me in that apartment, going over every scene, every word, every piece of blocking. When we got to filming it, we could really focus on the text and all the other meanings underneath it."
That thoughtfulness will ultimately be Girls' legacy. The show will exit never having been the inspirational, aspirational show that many assumed it might be. It's always been messy, often been unpleasant, and doesn't give any answers.