“How can I be manipulating you if I don’t even know I’m being manipulative?”
This, out of Hannah Horvath’s mouth after asking her father for a loan. This is the question of the Girls S2 finale. What does interpersonal manipulation really look like? Can we manipulate in a way that appears to be denying our manipulations?
For instance, watch how the episode ends. Only the first two minutes of the above clip are pertinent.
Hannah calls Adam on FaceTime, which she insists was the result of an accidental button-press. The camera shows what a mess she’s in—teary-eyed, hair butchered by a scissors and mirror job. Adam asks what’s up; rather than be direct, she gives a cursory “Nothing much, you?” He asks, more directly now, what she wants. Again, Hannah makes inane small talk, beats around the bush, starts projecting. “I was just checking in on you, wanted to say hi, see if you’re doing better.” He says he’s OK. “Good; I’m so glad, ’cause life can be scary, life is much intense [sic], you kinda have to ride it like a pony or you’ll get a haircut, so.” “What the fuck is wrong with you?” he asks, because now that she’s brought up the haircut, he can as well. She, in turn, uses the opening he has provided her, playing out an OCD tic with timing too perfect to be labeled coincidence. She nods her head over each shoulder eight times. “Nothing,” Hannah says, “I’m really good.” She’s saying one thing, but communicating another: she is not okay; she’s in free fall, but she can’t say this directly, out loud; it must be instead conveyed with plausible deniability to seem revealed or leaked, instead of intentionally conveyed. It’s a signal masquerading as cue.
We’re used to the concept “a cry for help,” but the underlying dynamic, of paying lip service to one reality—in a way which is not quite convincing by design—while subtly contradicting the explicit messaging? That dynamic is timeless. “What did you just do over your shoulders?” Adam asks. “What shoulders?” she plays dumb. It’s not remotely convincing, but again it doesn’t have to be. “Kid I saw you, I can see you in this thing; I thought you were done with that.” “So did I. I feel like I’m unraveling Adam. I’m really, really scared.” What is this, other than a request advanced through a statement? But in some sense, what he wants from her is a communication, so he’s willing to play ball.
The idea that communication is manipulation arises from the horror of self-consciousness, the ability to anticipate the actions and responses your own speech will engender in others. When you can see down the forking paths of your own speech, see where each route leads, you are presented with a choice between destinations and consequences. The idea of authentic self-expression begins to feel small and pitiful, next to the concretia of real futures picked between.