If there’s one thing that’s truly scarce in the world of Girls, it’s not money, success, or love. It’s self-awareness. The characters are so devoid of perspective they’re cartoonish—in the first half of this season, Marnie (Allison Williams) drags Hannah (Lena Dunham) on stage to sing with her as a poorly disguised ploy to show off for a captive audience, while Zosia Mamet’s Shoshanna decides to be “really feminist” by alternating nights of studying with nights of casual sex.
But as funny as these characters are, there’s a tragedy there, too, because at times, the show itself hasn’t appeared particularly self-aware, either. Girls has proven so tone-deaf on issues of diversity and inclusion that it’s operating in a deluded vacuum as well. Even when the show’s writers aren’t tweeting stupid things, it’s always been hard to see where reality ends and fiction begins in Girls: It looks a lot like Dunham made a show about herself and her friends just because she was given the opportunity. Real-life Dunham can be indistinguishable from fictional Hannah Horvath—and the line between the two is intentionally blurred. The tattoos Hannah explains to Adam in season one are the same tattoos that Dunham herself has. Hannah is friends with Jessa, and Dunham is friends with Jemima Kirke. Both Dunham and Hannah have dealt with obsessive-compulsive disorder. And of course, both Dunham and Hannah went to Oberlin College. It’s tempting to conclude that they are the same person—and more specifically, that the flaws of Hannah Horvath are the flaws of Lena Dunham herself.
But the third season—and in particular, the first few episodes of the third season, which minimize Marnie’s importance and focus on Hannah, Adam, and Jessa—serves to show that if anything, Girls is more ruthlessly self-aware than ever. There’s no confusion that the protagonists of Girls are anything but awful. Mired in the painfully familiar self-absorption of youth, they’re entitled, petulant, superficial, and manipulative. And Hannah is the worst of them. Dunham has created Hannah as the manifestation of everything terrible she’s witnessed about herself—a golem so eerily like herself, in a setting meticulously built to be an authentic Brooklyn—that she’s done a good job of fooling us all.
Part of the third season’s strength is the increasing maturity of Dunham as an actress. More than once in the opening episodes of this third season, she manages to steal the scene with her peculiar, bewitching combination of artifice, insincerity, and naïveté. Her character Hannah is as frustrating as ever, but for once, the lines between the creator and the creation seem distinct. Girls knows just how awful its characters can be. Hannah is at her most unsympathetic this season—now that she has a tentative book deal and a boyfriend, she’s more insufferable than ever.
But the show still has its problems. In the third season’s first two episodes, Jessa is revealed to be in rehab somewhere far from New York City. Exactly how she ended up there—and why—continues to be a mystery. But it’s immediately clear that Jessa has not changed. She’s still confrontational and moody, prone to biting sarcasm and the affectation of invulnerability. Her caretakers at the clinic are at their wits’ end trying to keep her in check. When the show catches up with her, she’s already alienated everyone else in group therapy. Her only friend is another patient, an older man who seems as bored with rehab as Jessa is with herself. They’re urbane, sophisticated, and cool, smoking cigarettes while they play cards in his room. Jessa complains that she’s only telling these pathetic rehabbers the truth about themselves, and they’re not willing to listen. He responds that as you get older, you learn people have to find the truth in their own time. “You have to learn when honesty is righteous, and when honesty is nothing more than a party trick,” he tells Jessa.
This pithy little aphorism could sum up every critique ever written of Girls. The show has always distinguished itself with its brutal honesty about the characters it’s portraying: Nudity, narcissism, dirty talk, and crack pipes have all had their day. But the honesty isn’t always connected to something larger. Girls is great at dissecting the imperfections and contradictions of its characters—in season three, it gets even better. But too often, that same brutal honesty is less about story and more about stunt, with the novelty or shock value of a scene creating its total value to the viewer. Last season, it was easy to find scenes to talk about—for example, Adam’s degrading and humiliating treatment of Natalia while they’re having sex—but much harder to find the why. What purpose did that moment have for the story? What is the story? What is the point of Girls, anyway?
At times the stunts seem to be the whole point, and this season is not without stunts. Reminiscent of Donald Glover’s last-minute casting before season two, this season features Orange Is The New Black’s Danielle Brooks as a rehab patient for a grand total of one episode. Rita Wilson acts as if she was cast as Marnie’s mother just to play an outsize version of herself, much like Dunham’s mother Laurie Simmons was cast as Marnie’s boss as an inside joke. The introduction of trendy locations and of-the-minute fads makes the show feel like a moving version of the New York Times style section, because none of those details have anything to do with the plot. Rather, they’re all part of the show’s encoding, to assure you that these people are cool and you are cool for watching them. Which is frustrating, because that branding detracts from what makes Girls recognizable and relatable, and instead creates what can be a profoundly alienating show about a particular niche of society that has no perspective on anything or anyone but itself.
But this season, Girls knows what its themes are, though the story is still fitful. A body is found floating face down in the Hudson River, and an incriminating video makes its way to YouTube—both developments occur offscreen for reasons passing understanding. But the action now seems deliberately secondary to the characters, who don’t grow so much as slowly trace the same patterns they’re used to. The world of the characters—and their concerns—is narrow and specific. At times, the show is hampered by its inability to reach past what it’s comfortable with, but it’s also gained enough skill to convey how sad and constrained this world is.
It also shows how funny this world can be. Hannah goes to a funeral in the fifth episode, and the comedic gold in that story is reminiscent of season one’s “The Crackcident.” The show seems to have more perspective than ever—it even gracefully recovers from that messy second-season finale. Given the strength of its voice, it’s easier to let these storytelling missteps go.
When Girls is self-aware, it is one of the most fascinating shows on television. When it’s not, it can be anger provoking. Now, three seasons in, Dunham and her team are better at doing what they’ve been trying to do all along: create a string of lovely character vignettes, with a deliberate disinterest in plot and a fascination with a certain zeitgeist. This is specific enough that it has its disadvantages, but now that the characters have been around for two seasons, it’s become easier to understand their different versions of cluelessness. At some point, it would be beneficial if the characters grew up—and if the show grew up a little, too. In the meantime, at least the mistakes make for good television.
Created by: Lena Dunham
Starring: Lena Dunham, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Adam Driver
Debuts: Sunday at 10 p.m. Eastern on HBO
Six season-three episodes watched for review