Girls, Insecure and Stranger Things: how bathrooms became TV’s safe space

Kitchens and living rooms were once the heart of drama and comedy, but in an era of messy protagonists the bathroom has taken over

Bullshit! Bull! Shit! No you! You’re … BULLSHIT.” Episode two of Stranger Things 2, and Nancy has found herself a new story arc: drunk at a party, she has spilled blood-red punch down her top, and she’s trying in vain to sponge out the spot. The previous episode ended with Nancy eyeballing the mirror, paralysed with guilt at having kept quiet about her friend Barb’s disappearance into a reality-fracturing netherworld. Now she’s ditching her boyfriend Steve and resolving to avenge her pal’s sticky, cobwebbed demise.

Both of these scenes in Netflix’s creature feature share a noticeable trope in modern TV storytelling; mostly practised by a new wave of American shows that unsparingly portray their characters’ inner lives. As emotional turning points happen, they happen in bathrooms.

Before the cable TV era, viewers were used to ensemble casts knocking around in offices or big living rooms, perhaps with a kitchen as a sanctuary for their quieter epiphanies. Now, we’re all about the power of emotional truths, revealed when our TV alter egos are laceratingly honest with themselves, often behind the locked door of the smallest room.

The first ever episode of Girls, in 2012, set the tone. Lena Dunham as Hannah kookily eats a cupcake in the bath, and does it while her friend Marnie (Allison Williams) casually perches on the edge of the tub, shaving her legs, unfazed by her friend’s nakedness. Dunham’s frequent nudity is a visual cue for her effort to lay bare her characters’ psyches, with the taboo-busting spirit extending to delivering dialogue while sitting on the toilet. The smallness of the space is important: Girls appears to be a gang show, but we hardly ever see all four stars together because the drama is built on fierce, fragile friendships between one woman and another. The bathroom is the ideal venue for the fraught micro-interactions that make the series sing. Of Girls’ many bathroom scenes, perhaps the most beautiful is in season two, when Jessa (Jemima Kirke) needs to talk about the end of her whirlwind marriage. Hannah is in the bath, so Jessa instinctively gets in with her and cries.

Lena
Night on the tiles … Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) and Marnie Michaels (Alison Williams) in Girls. Photograph: Mark Schafer/HBO

Girls’ British cousin, Fleabag, regularly visits the bathroom in its quest to make the private and personal explicit. Like Dunham, writer-star Phoebe Waller-Bridge chooses the bathroom to let the viewer in. Fleabag relies on intimacy between audience and performer: we cannot judge the protagonist too harshly because we’ve been let into her confidence. For no urgent dramatic reason, Waller-Bridge does one conspiratorial monologue to camera – about her fascination with sex – while on the lav. We’re mates now. We’ve seen her pee.

HBO’s latest uber-cool dramedy Insecure does have a prominent one-on-one friendship, but it is more about the central character’s relationship with herself. Issa (Issa Rae) is forever alone in the bathroom, facing the mirror, rehearsing conversations, administering pep talks, trying to reconcile who she thinks she is with the less competent version she keeps presenting to the outside world. “[Being in the] bathroom is the only time when usually your phone isn’t with you, or you’re naked,” Rae told Vox when Insecure launched in 2016. “You’re just confronted with yourself. I think that says so much about facing your insecurities and your flaws.”

Dr Susan Painter, a former psychology professor and pioneer of the interdisciplinary field of design psychology, who is now research director at LA architects AC Martin, agrees: “The bathroom is the place where a woman is the most vulnerable, but also the most protected from scrutiny, judgment, the male gaze, competition with other women and the relentless glare of social media. Being in the bathroom gives a girl or a woman time and space to investigate, examine, enjoy, obsess and self-talk without judgment from others.”

Hank
Bog standard … Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) in Breaking Bad. Photograph: Ursula Coyote/AMC

TV’s toilet obsession reflects aspects of the real world, where more people live in smaller shared spaces rather than being able to buy lofty family homes. “Bathrooms are being designed now as ‘spas’ rather than as strictly functional spaces,” says Painter. “In a world where privacy and security are more and more diminished, those few square feet and those few minutes alone are becoming more precious and more valued.”

Even in thrillers, the can is a vulnerable place where crucial things occur. In Dexter’s defining moment, Michael C Hall’s serial-killer antihero gives up on his effort to live a double life as a solid family man when he finds his nemesis, the Trinity Killer, has not just broken in, but murdered his wife Rita as she bathed. In Breaking Bad’s pivotal season five episode, Walter White’s fatal mistake is to let his cop brother-in-law Hank take a dump at his house, the bathroom being the spot where a Walt Whitman book with an incriminating inscription sits as a toilet timewaster. In both cases a visitor to the bathroom pierces the heart, or in poor Rita’s case severs the jugular, of a benign domestic facade.

Then there is Veep, the US political satire that trades in razor-toothed clapbacks and spectacular public humiliations, but has at its core a warm, platonic symbiosis between vice-president Selina Meyer and her loyal “bag man” Gary. Again, when The Thing finally happens, it happens in a bathroom, at the community centre the Veep is visiting when she finds out she’s going to become president. After three seasons of catastrophes and frantic botches, Gary is so excited to learn that his beloved boss is finally winning that he gets a nosebleed, forcing Selina – as they both collapse in hysterics – to reverse roles and rummage through the famous bag that Gary usually reaches into for tissues or whatever else she needs. It’s a lovely release, earned by years of careful character work from Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale. The episode was submitted to the 2014 Emmys. Hale was nominated; Louis-Dreyfus won.

Nancy
Seeing things … Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) in Stranger Things 2. Photograph: Netflix

Sharon Horgan’s bitter-citrus dramedy Divorce also opens with a private bathroom moment, tellingly interrupted: Sarah Jessica Parker is listlessly examining the wrinkles around her eyes and neck, looking as if she has been there a while, as indeed she has. Her soon-to-be-ex husband, Thomas Haden Church, arrives to complain that she has refused to unlock the door for the past 20 minutes: “I was forced to take a shit in this coffee can in the garage.” Her bid to escape him, and his reaction to it, shows us everything about why their toxic relationship can’t be cleaned up, and how unflinching Horgan will be in exploring that. Horgan also co-wrote BBC2 sitcom Motherland, the best episode of which saw Diane Morgan’s apparently bulletproof slacker-mum Liz worn down by loneliness and finally pushed to tears by an inane affirmation on an ornament … in a downstairs loo.

Mad Men, a period drama with modern sensibilities, does some of its subtlest work in bathrooms. “Mad Men made virtuoso use of bathrooms from the very beginning,” says Matt Zoller Seitz, TV critic for New York magazine and author of definitive Don Draper tome Mad Men Carousel. He cites the season one episode Marriage of Figaro: “It has that extraordinary moment where Don, sweaty from building a playhouse, goes into the half-bath off the kitchen and we get a series of closeups from his point of view as he sees how feminised the bathroom is. We get a sense of how Betty has demarcated the domestic space that he has almost nothing to do with. Every season has a lot of moments like that. Season five has another great Don-in-the-bathroom moment, where he stares at himself and he’s feeling every one of the 40 years that he’s supposed to be celebrating on his birthday.

“Bathrooms have always been a great place for intimate drama, because the central focus is the mirror,” Zoller Seitz continues. “That’s the place where you stare at yourself while washing your hands, or shaving, or fixing your hair. As TS Eliot might put it, per J Alfred Prufrock: it’s the place to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.”

Dr Painter thinks that, “the bathroom is where you can most be your true self, without your masks, where the threat posed by the outside world is the least. It is a room of mirrors where you can face yourself in privacy, and look others in the eye without confrontation.”

Today’s confessional, cathartic TV has entered that room, with its bright light and reflective surfaces within which nothing can be hidden, and utilised it. The bathroom is the private centre of the home, which makes it the perfect location for dramas about people who have stopped pretending to be perfect.

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