Credit: Mark Schafer/HBO
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Did Girls lose you last season? I watched it all, eventually, but by the end it felt like getting dumped in Coney Island with a smashed piece of cake and no purse: trying to make the best of a few good crumbs, in other words, but still pretty bummed about the overall scenario.

Even die-hard fans have probably never had what you could call a straight-up love-love relationship with the show; creator, star, and pixie-cut id Lena Dunham didn’t really design it that way. Her characters are exactly as clueless and self-absorbed as their privileged twentysomething circumstances demand, and their total obliviousness is half the series’ charm — as intrinsic to its DNA as arbitrary nude scenes and tree-dappled Brooklyn streetscapes. (Do these characters only exist in the summertime, or at least on the cusp of it? It always feels that way.)

But five episodes into the penultimate season, something does feel like it’s changed for the better, and here are a few guesses why:

1. Less Hannah, more everyone else

Four characters have ostensibly been the core of the show from the beginning (or at least they always get equal face time on the promo posters). Still, after so many episodes where the other three seemed to exist mostly as satellites and foils for Dunham’s Hannah, Jessa (Jemima Kirke), Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), and Marnie (Allison Williams) have finally expanded beyond archetypes. Yes, Marnie’s still a Type-A princess with massive control issues; Jessa’s remains a flaky, bra-less boho dream girl; and Shoshanna may or may not be a 3-D cartoon; but they’re also each exploring adulthood, and slowly stepping outside the square narrative pegs they’ve been snugly fitted into for so long. Also: Bonus points for the evolution of Elijah (Andrew Rannells), whose romance this season with the gloriously named TV newsman Dill Harcourt (Corey Stoll) has been a sweet, nuanced surprise.

2. Tokyo is sexier than Iowa

No offense to the Midwest or the heady lure of academia, but Hannah’s time in the Writers Workshop started to feel less like a fish-out-of-water opportunity than a cornfield exile that could just as easily have been called Seven Types of Jerks You Meet in Grad School. Shoshanna’s candy-colored adventures in Japan, on the other hand, have given us some of the best left-field moments of the series so far — and also allowed for fantastic guest stars like Hiro Mizushima and SNL’s Aidy Bryant.

3. Jessa and Adam’s love story

Some loyalists are so mad about their pairing, but honestly, Jessa and Adam seem like the gonzo couple we should have had all along; if anything, they’re almost too alike to work, and yet they do. Season 4 saw Hannah and Adam sputtering through the last ugly death throes of their relationship, and it might be that this whole season 5 romance was concocted just to keep Kylo Ren on the show. Still, all the things that confounded or annoyed Hannah about him — his unreliability, his oddness, his general lack of house-brokenness — seem to make sense to Jessa, and she’s softened him, too. That scene in last week’s episode where he not only defended her to her half-sister but offered to pay for her tuition might have been the most genuinely romantic gesture this show has ever seen: With one brief, heartfelt speech, he showed that he believes in her more than Hannah or her sister or anyone else who claims to love her ever has.

4. Fran the man

He’s basically the Ghandi of boyfriends, in his infinite (or possibly a little finite, judging by next week’s preview) patience for Hannah’s shenanigans. But he’s not exactly a pushover either, and Jake Lacey has made Hannah’s fellow teacher Fran one of the most human, fully fleshed-out secondary characters Dunham’s written for the show so far. (Mimi-Rose, you are not missed.) Whether or not Hannah decides to dump him after her women’s-weekend swerve into bisexuality, he’s already given us an excellent proxy for all the things we want to tell Hannah to her face but can’t. (Well we can, but it’s just yelling at the TV.)

5. Bottle episodes

Whether it’s Shosh in Tokyo or Dunham’s (abbreviated and admittedly much more bougie) take on the bleak 1971 Al Pacino classic Panic in Needle Park in last Sunday’s episode, the weeks that play like standalone mini-movies have been some of the show’s strongest — and not just because we got to take a vicarious trip to Japan or finally find out what happened to Christopher Abbott’s Charlie. (Apparently, the path from potential Zuckerberg to jean-jacketed heroin addict was shorter than anyone knew.) It makes sense that Dunham would be looking to expand her characters’ worlds as the finish line for the final season comes into view, but the fact that she’s done so not by going wide but by drawing in closer has been an unexpected boon to the show. In fact, this blurb is now a formal ask for an Elijah & Dill standalone. (A girl can dream.)

Girls fans, what do you think? Did this season bring you back, or had you never left? What do you want to see in the coming episodes, and for the final season next year?

Episode Recaps

Four young ladies live in New York City, and it’s SO hard.
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