Every once in a while over its six seasons, HBO’s Girls aired what’s known as a “bottle episode.” These installments depart from the normal storytelling style in that they are self-contained arcs that narrow the scope to one character or one location, without bothering to check in with others or connecting the narrative to previous or subsequent episodes. Often dialogue is at the forefront and can either carry or bury the episode.
Every time Girls aired one of its boundary-pushing bottle episodes — all four of which ranked among the whole series’ most memorable half-hours — the debate around the always-debated show kicked into high gear. Here’s how we ranked them:
1. Season 5, episode 6: “The Panic in Central Park”
It all starts with a scone and it’s not exactly a stroll in the park from there on out. When Marnie runs into her ex Charlie (Christopher Abbott) on the street (who has a new beard and accent), he’s no longer the docile pup she once knew. Out of curiosity or something more, she agrees to spend a day with him — complete with sailboats in Central Park — only to later discover he’s a drug dealer and heroin addict, thereby deflating her short-lived fantasy of them running away together. It’s a perfect and necessary episode in that Marnie (and viewers) absolutely deserved more insight into the abruptly ended, and at-the-time serious, relationship. It provides necessary closure that was equally painful and freeing for Marnie. Her initial anger becomes regret, then hope, then disappointment, and finally acceptance as she departs from the romantic fantasy that exists within in this episode and hopefully those she has constructed since for good. Even if you can’t stand Marnie, you can empathize with her throughout this whirlwind episode, and in doing so, Girls resurrects affection for Hannah’s would-be best friend — and that is how you know this episode delivers.
2. Season 6, episode 3: “American Bitch”
In this final-season bottle episode, Hannah is invited to the home of a prominent novelist named Chuck Palmer (The Americans‘ Matthew Rhys) after she writes an article outing him for using his celebrity to take sexual advantage of young female fans. The episode showcases both sides of the story: While Hannah is adamant that using her voice to speak up for the marginalized is the correct course of action, Chuck perceives that he is the one unfairly victimized by Hannah’s takedown, pointing to his right to privacy for what he sees as consensual interactions. It’s easy to side with Hannah’s initial impression of the novelist as a self-important a–hole as he ostentatiously displays photos of himself with Toni Morrison around his apartment and drinks from a mug that reads “I <3 Chuck,” but as the episode progresses and Chuck shares his take, part of our initial distaste starts to thaw along with Hannah’s. Sadly, we are taken in by what turns out to be a ruse: The final scene sees Chuck expose himself suggestively to Hannah. It’s not wholly unexpected, it’s just disappointing and the episode depicts that perfectly. The moment, and episode as a whole, highlights an important point: consent or no consent, there’s expectation that comes from power imbalance and Chuck, like many others in similar positions, exploits that. The powerful back-and-forth between Hannah and Chuck reveals the impact of privilege and self-worth that society simultaneously awards and imposes.
3. Season 3, episode 7: “Beach House”
Girls is set in perpetual New York City summer time, so it was inevitable that at some point the gang would rent a beach house, as New Yorkers are wont to do (though normally can’t afford). Taking the girls of Girls out of the city and exposing them to the sea air brings all those barely suppressed tensions swirling to the surface. Marnie tries hard to make the weekend enjoyable for her friends, but mostly it’s an excuse for the focus to be on her and her pain. Things escalate and erupt in an on-point outburst from Shoshanna, who has this to say about Hannah: “I have never met anyone else who thinks their own life is so f–king fascinating. I wanted to fall asleep in my own vomit all f–king day listening to you talk about how you bruise more easily than other people.” She’s not wrong, nor is she inaccurate in her takedown of each of the other girls. You can’t help but appreciate the ability of Dunham, the writer, to take criticisms of the show and weave them into the narrative. The scene probably should’ve ended the friendship right there, but this is Girls and it has never really relied heavily on the belief that this group actually values one another’s presence. Instead, the fallout ends in a choreographed dance scene. If nothing else, the episode will make you want to go on a beach weekend with friends (who are hopefully way better than this bunch).
4. Season 2, episode 5: “One Man’s Trash”
This one certainly isn’t trash, but it’s not the best of Girls‘ bottle episodes either. Hannah witnesses Ray get into a heated discussion with Greenpoint local Joshua (Patrick Wilson) over the correct place to deposit trash and then follows the man home, because this is Hannah and she is nothing if not highly adept at social interaction. From there, Hannah and the older doctor embark on a two-day romance that includes sex on a ping-pong table. After a dicey moment where Hannah faints in the shower, she has a kind of emotional breakdown, admits that all she wants is to be happy, and in one of her more self-aware lines confesses, “Whether I’m lying or telling the truth, there’s something broken inside. You think I’m a crazy girl? If anything, I think I’m too smart and too sensitive and not crazy.” This was a key revelation that should’ve been explored further in an otherwise self-indulgent and un-impactful episode that polarized opinions (many believed the scenario was just too unrealistic). But that, if nothing else, is precisely what Girls intends to do. And Joshua’s brownstone is really pretty.