“Bad Friend” strikes me as the weakest Girls episode to date. It’s one fairly slight (if enjoyable and often very funny) storyline smashed up against what’s probably the worst storyline in the show’s history, and the way the two are juxtaposed makes the slighter material feel slighter and the bad storyline just seem worse. Of all of the criticisms frequently leveled against Girls, the one I have the hardest time understanding is that of the show’s wild tonal shifts. It’s entirely possible I’m not seeing them and forgiving the show something a lot of other people find jarring, but I like that the individual storylines are often allowed to have their own tones, so when they intersect (often at the end of an episode), the tones have to battle to see who will win out. But in “Bad Friend,” I sort of got what those who complain about the show’s tone are talking about. There’s a lot of messiness here, but the tale of Booth Jonathan and Marnie just doesn’t work, and the fact that it’s juxtaposed with such a silly additional storyline makes it all the more glaring that nobody quite has a handle on the story or guest character.
Let’s start with what I did like: As a method for Hannah finding out that Elijah and Marnie slept together—something I sort of wish had never happened, though I’ll accept that it probably had to as an excuse to write Andrew Rannells out of the show so he could head out to do (sigh) The New Normal—the two’s cocaine-fueled trek across New York City could have felt incredibly forced. But I more or less enjoyed what they got up to, from the spot-on portrayal of the web start-up freelance world (I love that the site was called jazzhate, all lower-case) to the frequently enthralling sequence in the club, which has some of the better, “We’re young, and we’re dumb, but it’s so fun” moments in the show’s run. There are as many solid laughs in this plotline as Girls has ever packed into anything, and if you’re someone who primarily watches this show for the comedy, I suspect you were very happy. (In general, Elijah makes any storyline he touches that much funnier.)
I also liked how the storyline continued this season’s developing theme of the central foursome as, basically, emotional tourists. They’re trying on other personas and guises, seeing if they fit, then discarding them (and, too often, the people that go with them) in an almost carefree fashion. Take, for instance, Jon Glaser’s ex-junkie character, Laird. (HBO’s press notes don’t provide a concrete spelling for him, so if your closed captions did, please speak up. It is probably “Laird,” but I could have sworn I heard a G every time his name was said.) Laird has lived on the ground floor of Hannah’s building for ages, hanging out by the mailboxes—Shoshanna’s insistence that the junkies always hang out by the mailboxes in response to this bit of information certainly resonated with me, as that’s where the junkies hung out in my old building—and he’s got a bit of a crush on Hannah, so when she drops by unannounced, he thinks it’s finally an attempt for them to spark up the “thing” he’s felt between them. (Also, he has a turtle. He seems bitter about this fact.)
Of course, Hannah has her reasons. She’s writing an article on doing lots of cocaine for jazzhate, which is excited that it will be her first time ever trying the drug, because it’s the sort of publication that’s all too willing to exploit the stupidity of young twentysomethings who want a foot in the door. She figures Laird’s the guy who can get her the drugs she needs, only she hasn’t considered that he might be clean now. (He still looked like a junkie, she says in her defense when he says he’s clean, and it’s one of the most thoughtless things she’s said in a series full of them.) But the ex-junkie’s crush is so strong that, sure, he’ll buy her a little cocaine, so he does so, and she and Elijah hit the town—after having a lengthy, adrenaline-fueled conversation at the apartment, that’s full of such great lines as Hannah’s revelation that she says she’s against the industrial marriage complex, but that’s what she really wants—and hit a nearby club for a night of dancing and wearing weird clothes. At one point, Hannah switches tops with a guy in a mesh tank top, and she wears the new top for the rest of the episode, in a great bit of awkward humor.
Now, if you predicted that Laird would follow the two, you get some points here, but not too many, because that reveal felt a little obvious to me. On the other hand, I liked him selling himself as basically Hannah’s guardian angel when the two ran into him in the pharmacy, and I liked that he accompanied them to Booth Jonathan’s, where I can only assume he was put inside the box of doom, to have the alarmed reaction he did. But here’s where the show’s subtle notes of pathos creep in under the door. Being a junkie is something Laird will always have to live with, whether it’s in his past or threatening him in his present or future. Getting clean was a good thing, but he’ll always be marked by that experience for many people. For Hannah, doing cocaine is a one-night thing, but for him, it’s a constant specter, and the thought that she, too, might fall into that pit causes him great anxiety. How does she repay him, then? She has sex with him, both because she knows he wants to and because she knows it will make a better article. The characters of Girls are not above using people to get more “authentic experiences,” to get better stories, and Hannah’s casual treatment of Laird’s past and his crush on her, a crush she certainly doesn’t plan on reciprocating beyond this one night, is the sort of casual trying on of a persona that marks these characters and this season. She can throw it off with impunity. Her new ex-junkie friend cannot.
This whole storyline would be solid, B+ Girls, but the basically light-hearted silliness of it—up to an including Hannah’s over-the-top reactions to Elijah and Marnie’s betrayal—uncomfortably bumps up against the fact that the other half of the episode involves Marnie going back to the home of an asshole because he tells her to, then having sex with him, also because he tells her to. It’s not that I buy none of this could happen, and it’s not that I buy Marnie wouldn’t still be curious about this experience. Indeed, she very well may need to get it out of her system. But the storyline wants to have the same sort of over-the-top comedy stylings as the drugs storyline, and it’s just the sort of thing that doesn’t really work when played that way. Booth Jonathan is a creep who imprisons Marnie in a box full of screens while doing his daily chores, that she might see horrific images and listen to Duncan Sheik’s “Barely Breathing” (how horrifying!). He treats her a bit like a piece of meat at her work, then makes her lay face down and crane her neck up to look at a doll while they have sex. And later on, they’re just having a quiet conversation about the differences in coming of age during the ‘80s and ‘90s, and she seems to brag a bit about hooking up with him in her text to Hannah. No big deal.
As I said earlier, this all might have had some bearing on Marnie’s character arc. She might very well feel that this is all she deserves at this point in her life, that being treated this poorly is somehow recompense for the way she left things with Charlie or how low her work life has sunk. (Booth Jonathan mocks her for giving up too quickly, as if he’s ever had to do anything but fool people into thinking he’s insightful.) And there’s some truth in the scene between Marnie and Hannah at the end, where Hannah starts with something that’s mostly on point—Marnie shouldn’t have had sex with Elijah and hurt Hannah like that—and then wanders off into a lengthy monologue about how Marnie’s the bad friend in their relationship and Hannah’s the good friend. (The monologue mostly just seems to prove how much the two take advantage of each other.) Marnie ends up quietly devastated by it. Yeah, she’s the bad friend, she says, and it’s a moment that shows just how much confidence she’s lost in herself, how low she’s allowed herself to be pulled.
There’s a way to make the Marnie storyline work. Lena Dunham and her writers are perhaps best at pulling apart interpersonal relationships in all their knottiness, and showing how their characters continually undercut each other, rather than being the sorts of friends who might build each other up, and that’s certainly in full flower in the last few minutes of this episode. But the Booth Jonathan material is just played in too light-hearted a fashion, as a mostly comedic adjunct to a mostly comedic main plot. I didn’t really need the story to act as if what was happening was dark and horrifying, but I did want it to admit—through tone of the writing or through Jesse Peretz’s directing choices—that what was happening to Marnie wasn’t exactly optimal, at best, and verged on I guess what you’d have to call consensual sexual assault at worst. At times, it almost feels like the story is punishing Marnie, and I’m not sure why. Girls is very good at handing out demerits to its characters when they deserve them, but I don’t know what Marnie did to provoke this wrath, and it ends up dragging the episode down with it.
- Programming note: Next week will see a new episode on Saturday night at 10:05 p.m. Eastern, presumably to avoid the Super Bowl. (This also affects Enlightened.) The episodes will air at their normal time on Sunday, but my review of this, and Brandon's review of Enlightened will go live Saturday night.
- Despite finding this episode very messy, I have no worries about the season as a whole. Mostly, though, this is because HBO also sent out next week’s episode, and it’s kind of a knockout. Also, despite the relatively low grade (for me) for this episode, I probably laughed at it as much as any other episode of the show ever. Make of that what you will.
- Very little Shoshanna or Jessa this week. I’m starting to wonder just how much Jemima Kirke’s real-life pregnancy affected her ability to be in much of this season. Jessa’s always been my least-favorite of the central foursome (though many of you made some persuasive cases in her favor last season), so I can’t say I’m frustrated by this situation, but the show does work best when it’s giving all four of the characters something meaty to do, instead of just Hannah and Marnie.
- We also don’t stop in with Adam or Ray, or any of the male recurring players that aren’t Andrew Rannells, which isn’t as big of a deal. This is pretty much a story of a weird night in the lives of Hannah and Marnie, and it didn’t really have time for an Adam side-trip. (Also, we’re getting an episode named “Boys” later in the season, which I am hoping will be an episode from these characters’ point-of-view.)
- Though I didn’t enjoy the Marnie storyline on the whole, I did love her reaction stepping out of the box, particularly the way Allison Williams read, “What the fuck was that?”
- Hannah and Elijah dancing to Icona Pop’s “I Love It” may have made for some of the most purely joyful moments in this show’s run. Too bad they were stranded in the middle of this episode.
- I hope we meet the jazzhate editor again, because I loved her insistence on pointing to her stupid wall hanging as some kind of inspirational thinking or brilliant idea.
- “Is this a bank?” I assume Rannells is gone, but he brings a jolt of comic energy to every scene he’s in, even with apparently non-descript lines like the above. He will be missed.
- I thought Glaser fit in really well here, and I would love to see him return.
- Though he knows it is a cliche, Elijah does not care: He wants to raise show dogs.