After three seasons, it is clear that Girls works best when it follows its muse with a damn-the-consequences regard for convention or obligation: When it’s more like carefree and careless Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and less like pleasing, conformist Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet); when it can’t be so easily reduced — like the way I completely reduced Jessa and Shoshanna in my strained effort to embellish whatever idea I was going for there on the front half of that semicolon. It’s this quality that has given us only-about-Hannah (Lena Dunham) gems like “One Man’s Trash” and “Flo” and has allowed breakout characters like Adam (Adam Driver) and Elijah (Andrew Rannells) to move center stage. If that frustrates our expectation that Girls should behave like an ensemble each and every week — as suggested by the plural in its title or the images of its marketing campaign, or challenges our assumption that a show called Girls should be about, you know, “girls” — then so be it.
Not everything works when Girls “follows its muse,” but it never fails to be interesting or make us feel something when it does. I can’t say I enjoyed season 3’s digression with Caroline (Gaby Hoffman), Adam’s outrageously alienating sister, who represented an attempt to offer insight into the origin of Adam’s character, but instead boiled him down too simply. He’s an extreme personality born from an extreme family! She was also part of a dubious trend/pattern bordering on the formulaic of introducing colorful characters played by colorful character actors — Richard E. Grant, Patti LuPone, Louise Lasser among them — to play toxic-influence devil-tempters to our protagonists, badgering them to dubious, self-destructive action or debasing self-conception. And yet Hoffman is a vibrant actress who can’t and shouldn’t be resisted (ditto all those aforementioned guest actors). Caroline is an expression of the raw, reckless, uncompromising creative spirit of the show that I value so much, so damn if I didn’t smile in the finale when she popped out of Laird’s apartment pregnant and poisoned Hannah’s already fuzzy head with one more cynical thought about Adam.
Girls was strongest this season when it focused on Hannah’s identity as a writer, Adam’s evolution into an actor-artist, and their shared life as a couple. Since these storylines dominated the season from beginning to end, I would say season 3 was a success. The qualifying “But..” you are sensing here concerns the finale, an eventful, entertaining half hour that was flawed for being the version of Girls that I like least, the version that feels obligated to service every single one of its characters, with some attempt at affecting the appearance and feel of season arcs for all of them. Doing so only exposed how poorly scaled and nourished those arcs were, such as they were. It also exposed that Girls has a dwindling amount of imagination for Jessa, Shoshanna, Marnie (Allison Williams), and Ray (Alex Karpovsky), or is simply stuck in the protracted second act of its life as a series, with nothing more to say about these characters except the last thing it has to say about them. If it’s not yet time to give Dunham and her collaborators an end date for their remarkable enterprise, then perhaps it’s time for Girls to shed anything and everyone that impedes its growth and saps its vitality. Which, ironically enough, just might be the entire point of the series.
Hannah’s painfully awkward misadventures in twenty-something myopia may or may not have reached a turning point. It all depends on what you think the wannabe voice of her generation will do with that ripped-up, taped-together acceptance letter to the University of Iowa’s prestigious post-grad writing program — a perfect symbol for Hannah’s own hunger for affirmation and pathological tendency for self-sabotage. Will Hannah take control of her destiny, put her grubby-fab Manhattan life on hold — if not give it up altogether — to pursue her dream? Or will old patterns and weaknesses stop her from moving forward? Adam? Another crippling bout with OCD? Another lost weekend with Patrick Wilson?
Waitasecond: Back up. University of Iowa writing program?! When did Hannah take the time to fill out that application? On the bus to the Hamptons for Marnie’s ill-fated attempt at a re-bonding weekend? While waiting for Patti LuPone to show up for her canceled interview? Maybe a slow moment during Grandma Flo’s funeral?
The letter broke into Hannah’s life and changed it (maybe) the same way Adam barged into Hannah’s apartment and saved her life from downward spiral in the season two finale. But unlike Adam’s rom-com deus ex machina last scene heroics — which felt like Girls punching a panic button and resetting a franchise that had gone too dark and slightly astray — Girls ultimately earned this twist by building an entire story around it, one that brought the season’s winning emphasis on Hannah the Writer to a satisfying if surprising head. The arc had brought her to a tender place: In a New York minute, Hannah had gone from being the next Mindy Kaling (bye-bye, peanuts-paying e-book deal) to being just another failed starving artist making good money writing advertorials for GQ magazine. But an encounter with Patti LuPone and her sad-sack failed writer husband spooked her into bailing on paycheck pragmatism in spectacular, burn-all-bridges fashion. (Memo to my own self-esteem and security: Stay away from Patti LuPone.)
So Iowa’s acceptance was an adrenaline shot of much-needed affirmation. She exulted, and rightly so. But Hannah being Hannah, solipsistic and insecure, she couldn’t resist imposing/inflicting her narrative on everyone else, immediately, especially Adam. She believed Iowa’s acceptance portended her ascension as an artist, which in turn would make everything right and balanced with her boyfriend, whose own ascension as an artist had her convinced that he’d be ditching her, sooner or later. Hence, Hannah just absolutely had to tell him all about Iowa and all of its implications — like how it would effectively destabilize their relationship, which, with his blossoming acting career, had brought some much needed stability to Adam’s chaotic life — just minutes before his Broadway debut. And so it went that once again Hannah found a way to a make a moment that belonged to someone else all about her. Nice timing, Hannah.
Everyone seemed to think that Adam rocked his part in Major Barbara. He gave good presence, he nailed the accent, he wore that coat well. But Adam felt he sucked, and he blamed Hannah for thoughtlessly burdening him with her “good news” right before the most important, high pressure moment of his life. Foreshadowing, fulfilled: All season long, Adam has been sweating the implications of Hannah’s self-absorption and lack of empathy i/r/t their relationship — that it suggested she might not be mature enough or emotionally equipped to love him the way he needed to be loved — from the moment in episode 2, when he stopped the car on the way to bailing Jessa out of rehab to escape Hannah’s me-me-me blah-blah-blah, to the end of episode five, when he lambasted Hannah — somewhat hypocritically — for kicking Caroline out of their apartment. (“She’s my sister! I’m supposed to be taking care of her!”) For anyone who has wanted to see Hannah punished for her self-absorption, Girls granted your wish by having the show’s most likeable, compelling character dump Hannah for exactly that reason.
And yet, the finale allowed Hannah to ring out the year looking and feeling triumphant. The last image echoed the first image of the season: Hannah — alone — smiling and cradling her acceptance letter, the way Adam cradled her in the premiere. She may have lost a boyfriend, but regained her dream of herself. Were we supposed to be happy for Hannah? Sad? Mad at her? A season that often seemed to acknowledge our frustration with this self-absorbed, immature person — and then rub our face in it — ended on one more sly provocation.
“Two Plane Rides” was a strong finish to a strong season for Hannah and Adam (and their actors, Dunham and Driver). It also gave ample time to Jessa, Marnie, and Shoshanna, but again, their season arcs felt so haphazardly scaled, it was hard to connect the dots between beginning and end. And in the case of Shoshanna, there were very few dots at all. The show trotted her out now and then to give voice to audience infuriation — most notably the “Beach House” episode (“I am so f—ing sick of all of you!”) — but otherwise kept her waiting around all season for three killer moments that blew up her character, all in the finale: learning she had not accumulated enough credits to graduate college; learning Marnie had been sleeping with Ray; begging Ray to take her back, only to be rejected. “Please.” Heartbreaking. I wish Shosh had been given more to do this season. Of all the central characters that aren’t Hannah and Adam, she has the most story left to offer the series. Her picking-up-the-pieces post-college struggle for identity could be an interesting mirror-counterpoint to Hannah’s own return-to-college do-over. (Should she actually go for it, of course.)
Jessa had a busy year — busier than last year, for sure — with a stint in rehab, a stab at maturity with a ho-hum job managing a children’s boutique, a sink into manic cocaine use, and a strange bit of business with a suicidal artist. Girls seemed to be passing a judgment on Jessa’s dead-end free-spiritedness and setting her up for a more sincere, sober bid for maturity (and a legal reckoning?) next season. Or not. It remains difficult to know if Girls is actually interested in maturity or following in the footsteps of Seinfeld and The Sopranos and mocking the whole idea of “character growth,” at least as commonly presented by Hollywood narratives. Meanwhile, Marnie spent a third of the season lost without Charlie, another third messing around with Ray, and another third chasing after artistic fulfillment and romance with Adam’s actor/musician friend Desi (and the whole season regretting that video she made of singing Edie Brickell’s “What I Am”). I felt Girls punted away from Marnie-Ray too quickly, and I felt Marnie-Desi was redundant with Hannah-Adam, which may have been intentional, but you know, whatever. I’d offer more in-depth character analysis of Marnie if I actually thought she was interesting or had any affection for her. But I don’t, so I won’t. It’s not that I hate Marnie. I just hate how Girls hates Marnie. And if it doesn’t, it needs to try harder to convince me otherwise.
Hannah’s potential move to Iowa could bring us bunches of new characters, purge or permanently marginalize existing characters, basically create a whole new version of Girls. This excites me. Follow that muse! Besides, after three seasons, I think Girls has sufficiently deconstructed the romantic, idealistic view of friendship and community promoted by narratives like Friends and Community. An image that sticks with me the most is the final scene of “Beach House” — the season’s most explicit (and contrived) proof of that Team Hannah-Marnie-Jessa-Shosh is a total system fail — in which Hannah starts performing those dance moves, and the other three join in, but limply, with no joy, sharing a point in space and time together, yet profoundly disconnected from each other, four former intimates going through the motions of friendship. Is this as good as it gets for them? Is this enough? Or is it time for all of them to reach out for something new? (Season four: Girls in the Purple Rain.) The scene in the finale between Shosh and Ray foreshadowed what could be the code key for the show’s big-picture perspective on these friendships. Shosh, lost and adrift, needed a life jacket and jumped at Ray. Ray tried to gracefully reject her, telling her that he was grateful for their time together — it had made him a better, more mature man — but the man he had become had nothing to offer her, and no need or room for her.
Be like Ray, Girls. Cut the cord. Move on. Love your friends by setting them free.
Beginning with Marnie.