“People have to come to things in their own time. You have to know when honesty is righteous, and when honesty is a party trick.”—Jasper
In its first two episodes of 2014, Girls seems intent on letting the viewers who strongly dislike or even outright hate Hannah Horvath and friends that it’s on their side, at least a little bit. Did you think that scene of Adam racing through the streets of Brooklyn to come to Hannah’s aid in last season’s finale was just a little bit too romantic of a gesture for this show? Did you find yourself wanting to vomit? Well, life went on. Hannah and Adam fell into about as relaxed of a relationship as they could. In this episode, Natalia shows up at the new coffee shop Ray manages to let the two of them know how awful people they are, and just how much they’re going to destroy each other. Need a ticking time bomb for the season? Here’s one, even if it’s one any longtime viewer of the show can see coming from a long way away.
In his review of this season over at Grantland, Andy Greenwald argues that Girls, while still good TV, has shrunk its ambitions just a bit. Where the first season often felt largely improvised and done by the seat of its pants and the second season was an endless spiral into the cerebral cortex of Hannah (to its detriment and benefit), this third season combines the best of both approaches and feels, more or less, like a TV sitcom. Both episodes tonight are more forthrightly funny than anything in season two, and while there’s poignancy here, the dominant tone (outside of petty people being awful to each other) is humorous. Greenwald points to how the show uses a road trip with both Shoshanna and Adam going along as a way to build toward laughs like most sitcoms would. We know Adam and Shoshanna well enough by now to know that the two of them being enclosed in a car together is a bad idea, and the show builds toward those laughs very well.
But that predictability can be the antagonist of invention. At its best, Girls feels like a show where anything can happen, but now that it’s in its third season, it’s a franchise, so there needs to be some level of protection of the franchise, even when it’s doing things like sending the characters to pick Jessa up from rehab in an episode that kinda sorta feels like season one’s “The Return” or season two’s “Video Games,” in that it gets everybody out of the city for a while, but also feels very much like “a normal episode of Girls” (whatever that means), in that it has the characters behaving in just the ways you’d expect, for maximum humor potential.
Please note that what I’m talking about here isn’t a problem, per se. Girls remains one of my favorite shows on TV, and I like the reminder that it’s, ultimately, just a TV show and not a swirling vortex of thinkpieces that somehow took human form and wandered onto HBO’s schedule. I’m just trying to pinpoint how this season feels somehow more confident and assured than the previous two, which very much felt like TV made by people who were thrilled to have the opportunity but also didn’t yet know what they couldn’t do. Season two’s raw ambition remains impressive to me—and “One Man’s Trash” was my favorite television episode of 2013—but its intense focus on Hannah and her downward spiral meant that the very things that made it rewarding also kept tearing it apart at the edges. Characters would disappear for weeks, then return and have had huge shifts in their lives. It made sense if you looked at it as Hannah’s story. She wasn’t really in a place to be engaged with her friends to the level she might have been the season before. But if you’re not the type of person to find Hannah intensely fascinating, even as you find her difficult to take, it wasn’t exactly pleasant television. Much of the unexpectedness and the spritely humor of season one had been lost in the deluge of dark, and it made for TV that was hard to watch.
Season three, at least the first two episodes, is also hard to watch—but in a very calculated way, a way that indicates at all turns that, yes, Lena Dunham knows she is trolling you, person who hates (x) about this show. These episodes engage with almost every criticism people had about season two head-on, outside of diversity complaints (which I will get to), and it often seems like the show is doing so just to insist that, yes, it knows these characters can be awful people, but wasn’t that why we started watching in the first place? Also, interestingly, the series has made Hannah and Adam the show’s more or less stable center. In the montage that opens the premiere, Hannah and Adam are doing normal people stuff, like having breakfast and taking their meds, falling into a routine, while Marnie is sacked out in Rainbow Brite sheets on her mother’s couch, Shoshanna is extricating herself from the arms of some college guy, and Jessa is cleaning dishes in rehab. When last we saw Hannah, she was falling apart. Now, she has a boyfriend and the faintest glimmers of a writing career, while everybody else is falling apart. If anything, this is the newest thing the season attempts.
Honestly, it’s the thing I like best about these two episodes. By making Hannah a screwed up person who nonetheless seems to be holding it together in both a relationship and career, there are more reasons to follow her around as a protagonist. Look, you guys have read me long enough to know that I would extend my empathy to a banana slug if it was filmed and written about in an interesting enough fashion, but I also know that’s not the case for a lot of people who needed Hannah to be going after something to really be able to sympathize with her. A character with a goal or a purpose or a drive is the oldest and most central building block of human narrative, and now that Hannah both has something worth holding onto (Adam) and something to pursue (the furtherance of her writing career), she can step up to the center of the show while her friends seem to be falling apart.
And fall apart they do! Shoshanna and Jessa have always been more poorly served by the show than the other ensemble members, but these episodes give them more to do. In particular, we get a much better sense of how monstrous Jessa can be to people when she feels boxed in or bored. While in rehab, she lashes out at the other members of her group in ways that seem designed to pull them apart at the seams as effortlessly as possible. And she’s really good at it! Since we’ve mostly seen Jessa in settings where she feels largely in control, this is a side of her that we haven’t gotten to know as well. But once she starts ripping into the others in her group, the episode becomes something like cringe-horror. She keeps pushing and pushing and rubbing her finger in the wound, and nothing anyone can say to her will get her to let up.
Yet the second episode managed to bring things around to a place where I was more or less empathetic toward Jessa, while still understanding that she’s a complete train wreck who has so much further to fall before she realizes all of the help she needs. I feel the connection between Hannah and Jessa so much more than I do between Hannah and Marnie right now (and intentionally so, I think). Hannah’s been so let down by Jessa at this point that she no longer needs her friend to be someone who is constantly there for her. She wishes Jessa had been there when she went through her dark period, but she’s learned enough now to know she can’t count on her friend. In some ways, that’s the most powerful lesson of all about your best friends: They’re the people you can count on when they’re around. But when they’re not, you’re probably on your own. Or, as Adam puts it when talking with Hannah about her wanting to have her friends over: “You hate them when you’re not around them.” Hannah’s friendship with Jessa is simply evolving toward one where both involved in it essentially know what to expect from each other: not much, which makes the moments when they are there for each other that much more precious.
Shoshanna, meanwhile, gets more development by being really fucking annoying, yet in a way that’s vaguely endearing, I think. (Mostly, that’s because Zosia Mamet is such a winning comedic actress.) My favorite scene in both episodes is the Truth or Dare game that gives the second its name and culminates in the game that Adam cuts short when he realizes what it will mean to play with Shoshanna. I loved the weird, lumpy rhythms of it, the way that Adam and Shoshanna sort of cancel each other out while they’re in a scene together. But I also loved how it revealed the space that’s developing between Adam and Hannah and everybody else, who’s out there alone. These little gulfs open up between people and their friends when they’re first really committed to a coupling, and that’s happening right now.
The second episode, to me, was stronger than the first, which worked a little too hard to remind us that everybody on the show is an awful person. I like Girls best when it knows that we can get what it’s going for and go along with it, but after some of the reactions to season two, I can also understand why all involved wanted to remind us that none of these people are supposed to be particularly admirable. The best the series can aim for is getting us to understand these characters and what drives them, which is why watching these episodes is like a never-ending scavenger hunt in terms of who they are. Three seasons in, we know them well enough that maybe they can’t surprise us, but they can sure intrigue us and turn things around, to some degree.
And yet even as the series seemed to spend most of its premiere reminding us of its central mission statement, it continued the show’s problems with diversity issues. I’m not someone who necessarily believes the show should suddenly become a giant, multicultural ensemble, but I wish that when characters of color appeared on the show, they were portrayed with slightly more empathy than they usually are. The series has gotten progressively better at pulling out of the perspectives of the characters on screen to see them as they’re seen by those around them, but it has yet to be able to do that with, say, Danielle Brooks’ Laura, who at least gets a nice moment with Jessa when the latter goes to her room to “apologize,” then just gets turned into another thing for Jessa to run over, with little sense of how Jessa’s actions affected her. She’s not quite a prop—and in that regard, Laura is a step up from many of the show’s previous characters of color—but she is someone I wish had been more than a collection of tics and tropes. Maybe there wasn’t room for that in just the one episode.
Running throughout both episodes, however, is a sense that maybe even this will fall away in time. If Hannah’s stability is the most notable difference between this season and the last one, then the show’s perspective is probably the most welcome. Yeah, the scenes where the characters basically just tell the main characters how awful they are lay it on a little thick, but there are other, quieter scenes like the one I quoted at the start, scenes where the characters struggle to be honest, while not realizing that being honest sometimes isn’t the best policy, because sometimes, intimacy requires being kind, above all else. Hannah and company are so oblivious so often that they don’t realize the people they bowl over on their way to their next adventures, but it’s getting harder and harder to ignore everything they leave in their wake. All they can do is what hopefully we all do when we realize we’ve been wrong: They try to be a little better, a little more grown up the next time and apologize if necessary. Slowly but surely, they’re getting there. And it’s still fun to watch them do so.
- Welcome back to The A.V. Club’s Girls reviews. There is nothing to see here.
- Richard E. Grant is really wonderful in his short scenes as Jasper (whose name I had to look up on iMDB, because I don’t think anyone ever speaks it?), and it was wonderfully appropriate that it all ends with him being just another person she can’t count on—and a mirror of the person she very well could grow up into.
- I always forget Shoshanna is still in college. And I, too, appreciate her plan to make sure she has a diverse college experience.
- Ray only pops up in scenes at the coffee shop, but I love the way that he grins through Natalia’s attack on Hannah. He seems so entertained by it.
- Hannah laying on the ground in the middle of the great wilderness and listening to This American Life feels like everything the people who hate this show hate about this show encapsulated in one tiny image.
- Dunham directed both episodes—and did some very nice work with close-ups in episode two—but only wrote the premiere. The second episode was written by co-executive producer Jenni Konner, who’s one of the show’s unsung figures.
- Okay, another complaint: I’m still not sure what we’re supposed to be getting from Rita Wilson as Marnie’s mom, except for the fact that she and Allison Williams are really similar in many ways. I hope we get a better sense of the people Marnie comes from at some point this season.