I’m not sure what show “Flo” is an episode of, but it certainly doesn’t feel like Girls. For thirty full minutes, we’re introduced to a cast of fully fleshed out characters with personalities and problems entirely independent from Hannah’s. Cousin Rebecca feels like more of a human being than Shoshanna did for the entire first half of the season, and Lorraine’s sibling squabbles flesh out a category of female relationship that’s just as real and complex as that of a post-college clique. It’s a brilliant demonstration that Girls’s emotional range extends far beyond that of its main characters; Hannah might not be able to see beyond her own tiny world, but the people who write her sure can. So we get “Flo,” a one-act family dramedy slipped into a series about twenty-something friends.
The inciting incident of “Flo” is the illness of its namesake character, the one and only June Squibb playing a sweet grandma type who didn’t used to be that way. She’s got pneumonia and isn’t likely to survive it, so the women of the family gather to say goodbye. At first, I thought this was going to be an episode like “The Return,” where we find out more about Hannah’s character by taking her far away from Greenpoint and watching her sink or swim. Instead, we get a window into the inner life of a character we’ve spent a decent amount of time with thus far, but apparently not enough: Hannah’s mother, played by the wonderful Becky Ann Baker.
Hannah’s relationship with Flo factors a tiny bit into the episode: she’d do sweet things like cut out Cathy cartoons for her granddaughter and send them to her in the mail, and not-so-sweet things like comment on her weight. But the family drama is really centered on the tensions between Lorraine and her sisters Sissy (Amy Morton, from Up in the Air) and Margo (Deirdre Lovejoy, who I spent fifteen minutes furiously trying to place before IMDB told me she’s Rhonda from The Wire).
“Flo” is a wonderful episode for many reasons, but my favorite thing about it is that even as it throws new character after new character at us at breakneck speed, it makes time for each of them to become fully realized. Even better, we don’t just get Flo, Margo, Sissy, Lorraine, and Rebecca; we get the dynamics between them. Sissy is the dedicated but self-righteous child, selling her spinsterhood to both her sisters and herself as moral superiority. Margo is the headstrong one turned bitter and jaded, getting shit done by bulldozing everything in her path. And there’s Lorraine, who has problems of her own but uses her sisters’ trainwrecks to feel better about herself.
In a way, the audience’s relationship with Lorraine reflects that of many twentysomething kids with their parents. Most of us remember the first time our mom or dad started treating us as a gossip partner; it’s almost as much a hallmark of growing up as financial independence. Through Lorraine’s venting, we’re starting to realize that she’s a person apart from her nuclear family, carrying her own emotional baggage. She’s still got more perspective than Hannah, as most adults with three decades of responsibility under their belt do, but we know to take her assessment of her sisters as “misshapen people” with a grain of salt the size of the chip on Rebecca’s shoulder. Hannah does, too.
About Rebecca: she’s awful, but the contrast she draws with Hannah as the only young person we’ve met on her way to a stable career is an important reminder of what a bubble Hannah’s ensconced in. To someone outside media, theater, fashion, or any other one of New York’s many self-important industries, people like Hannah look like “a ridiculous class of people who make everything about themselves,” and fueled as that assessment is by childhood resentment, it’s not wrong. While Hannah prattles on about artistic integrity and e-books, Rebecca’s toiling away at med school. The tension between them is all too familiar to anyone who’s ever been compared to a higher-achieving extended family member (or if you’re a Rebecca type, a more creative, adventurous one).
All of this is revealed to us through the black comedy that often surrounds a fictional family head’s impending death. The three sisters divvy up Flo’s meds, bickering over who gets more Demerol; we find out a seven-year-old Hannah once told Rebecca her dad was going to jail for insider trading; Hannah’s dad is billed as “Tad Horvath: body like a little gymnast, mind of a toy poodle.” In the funniest sequence of all, Rebecca insists on ignoring every PSA our generation has ever watched—“You’re gonna be a doctor and you don’t know how fucked up it is to text while driving?!”—and barrels straight into the back of a parked car.
That’s when Adam shows up at the hospital, bringing the episode’s only non-familial subplot to the fore. Lorraine stirs the pot by asking Hannah to tell Flo she and Adam are engaged, triggering a conversation about where their relationship is heading that Hannah never intended to have. Already shaken by the idea that Adam doesn’t see marriage in their future (though we do know, from last week, that he “ditto” doesn’t want to love anyone else, ever), we get Lorraine’s frank assessment of her daughter’s beau: “I don’t know him very well. But I see certain things. He’s odd. He’s angry. He’s uncomfortable in his own skin. He bounces around from thing to thing…I don’t want you to spend your whole life socializing him like he’s a stray dog. Making the world a friendlier place for him. It’s not easy being married to an odd man. It isn’t.”
Hannah can’t brush this off, because this isn’t the first time she’s heard that bit about bouncing around; Caroline may be gone for now, but her specter remains. We’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop since we watched the happy couple spooning in the season premiere, and if you’re like me, watching the picture of domestic bliss at the start of “Flo” made your stomach drop. So maybe this is how Hannah and Adam ends: not with a bang, but a slow realization that in the long run, they’re just too different.
Unlike the explosive argument that split them up the first time around, that kind of breakup takes maturity, and a recognition that loving someone and being right for them aren’t the same thing. If that’s why Hannah eventually ends the relationship, it’ll be a testament to how far she’s come since she couldn’t bring herself to tell Adam she wasn’t ready for him to move in.
But first, she’s got to go back and attend Flo’s funeral, because not even wrapped-in-a-bow resolutions to family feuds are enough to stop death when the time comes. It’s a winking nod to how real life doesn’t adhere to TV show conventions, and a perfect way to end a stellar episode.