It’s been a weird, up and down second season for Lena Dunham’s comedy about a group of twenty-something ladies trying to make their way in the Big Apple. But when I say “up and down” I don’t really mean in terms of quality because, for me, Girls has yet to make an outright bad episode. Honestly, I’ve never found an episode disappointing; certain moments or scenes, perhaps, but each episode contains at least one element I really love.
On occasion something doesn’t ring true or things get just a bit more romcommy than I would expect, but on the whole I continue to find this one of the most inventive, interesting shows currently on television with no hugely severe drops in quality.
So when I say “up and down” I mean it in the rollercoaster sense. Season 2 was full of major emotional highs (Hannah gets a book deal) and some intensely emotional lows (Hannah’s book deal, literally, drives her crazy). I also mean it in terms of how a number of episodes shot off on these odd tangents, like with the two self-contained episodes (“One Man’s Trash” taking place entirely in a guy’s house and “Video Games” being the country episode), not to mention huge tone shifts. The penultimate episode of the season, “On All Fours,” was by far the darkest the series has ever gone with some genuinely skin-crawling moments that set me on edge. Contrastingly, the finale itself went about as unabashedly upbeat as the show���s ever attempted.
Another reason I find it difficult to label individual episodes of Girls as uniquely “bad” (or “good” for that matter), is that this unpredictable, bouncing around, zigzagging storytelling it’s been doing has managed to characterize the season itself. The peaking and dipping has crafted an erratic tragicomedy tapestry that jigsaws together as a journey for the protagonists. I can’t imagine I would ever introduce someone to the show with just one episode of Season 2 as I think it needs to be watched in full to be truly appreciated.
Even though there are, again, the self-contained episodes like “One Man’s Trash,” it would be impossible to understand how interesting and different that episode’s somber mood and short-film-like style are from the more “conventional” episodes of the series dealing with multiple plotlines about all the protagonists dealing with various issues. That difference affects the mood of the entire season, something which would not be conveyed to someone who had only seen the one episode.
Season 2 was about the unraveling of lives and that made it a lot less happy-go-lucky than Season 1 where we got to have a chuckle over Shoshanna accidentally smoking some crack and then kicking Ray in the balls. I wouldn’t definitely say that Season 2 was just plain better, but I found it more interesting. It was weirder and willing to try more new stuff and take the show in directions I never expected of it.
But then Season 1 was easily funnier. However, let us never forget that Judd Apatow produces Girls and his tendrils of influence occasionally creep in. I’m okay with the guy to some extent, but his idea of comedy often plays broader than I care for and the show’s desire to more obviously be a comedy back in its early days often meant we dove deeper into the heart of Apatow than I cared to.
Season 2 got much more comfortable with letting the show be funny at the same time it was being tragic, dark or moving. With Season 2, Girls demonstrated that it was really finding a groove of being a show that can pull off these sincere moments while still being aware of how laughable they are and I think that’s a great place for it to go. Not to mention, we got Hannah and her Gay ex-boyfriend, turned roommate, Elijah taking coke and going out clubbing, which, actually, might’ve been funnier than Shosh on crack. Sorry, Shosh.
Incidentally, I totally lied to you all before because I do have favorite episodes this season and the coke episode in question (the third of the season), “Bad Friend,” is one of them. It was one of the funniest as it allows Lena Dunham (Hannah) and Elijah Krantz (Elijah) to go for some slightly over-the-top yet still realistic-feeling comedy as they ramble around NYC on cocaine.
This is also one of two episodes featuring Jon Glaser as Laird, the former junkie who lives in Hannah’s apartment building, who is one the greatest, funniest characters the show’s ever had, despite his brief screentime (he has a pet turtle who he claims “can be a real asshole sometimes”). But this episode also manages to do what I brought up before. It’s obviously a comedy all the way through yet still introduces a major plot point: the stark and obvious rift in Marnie (Allison Williams) and Hannah’s friendship which remains unresolved until season’s end.
The episodes I loved beyond that accomplished the same feat of big dramatic things communicated through brilliant comedy. Episode 4, “It’s a Shame About Ray,” has an ingenious setup of Hannah holding a party at her apartment which unravels quickly as all Hannah’s friends have various dramas and tiffs simmering just beneath their surfaces, all of which bubble over. It’s a great episode for Lena Dunham as the episode isn’t focused on Hannah and she’s rendered something of a (bad) moderator, trying to keep the party mood light as she innocently digs into a Bundt cake with the anger swelling around her.
One can’t really discuss this season without bringing up Episode 5, “One Man’s Trash,” in which Hannah spends a lost weekend having sex with an older guy she’s just met (Joshua, played by Patrick Wilson) in his house. Except for a few minutes at the outset, this makes for almost a Girls’ bottle episode and also one of the stranger, more conceptually-risky episodes of the entire series run thus far.
The half-hour is essentially devoted to watching Hannah and Joshua (who doesn’t like to be called Josh) have an immediate, intense connection that gradually peters out, getting more awkward and questionable as time passes. There isn’t much to laugh at in “One Man’s Trash,” but it isn’t really trying to be funny. Still, it was probably the most affecting episode of the season, if not the series. Watching it left me in a weird state and demonstrated the show’s willingness to go for the super-unconventional, singlehandedly upping its interestingness that much more.
The following episode, “Boys,” was also one of my favorites as it teamed up Adam (played by Adam Driver) and Ray (Alex Karpovsky), the two blunt, abrasive male characters on the show and it was a match made in loud weirdo heaven. Considering the title suggests a show about women, Girls is admirable in that it puts considerable effort toward making sure all of its leads, male or female, are fleshed out.
Adam has become one of the standout characters and Ray has gone from the standard “cynical guy with no social filter” character he was for much of Season 1 into, well, still that guy but with the addition of revealing how being that guy also makes him really sad and frequently disappointed in himself. Adam and Ray’s trip to Staten Island to return a dog (that Adam stole) to its owner makes this the funniest episode of the season. But it also ends with two of the series’ saddest moments with Marnie and Hannah in need of each other’s friendship but too prideful to admit to it and a final, heartbreaking shot of Ray alone with the dog, sitting on a bench, looking out over the water and sobbing.
Continuing the dark trend is the episode before last, “On All Fours,” which had Hannah’s OCD (she used to have it in high school) flaring up and making her pretty darn crazy. In a scene I nearly covered my eyes for, she ends up rupturing her eardrum with a Q-tip. Creepier still is that later, Adam, who’d been portrayed as a sad, interesting, vulnerable guy for most of the season, comes off as something of a sexual predator as he has violent, largely unwelcome sex with his new girlfriend. This episode was so dark (though there were quite funny moments too), freaking me out in ways I never expected of this series and that in itself impressed the hell out of me.
But, again, this season was about everybody’s lives coming undone and the deep, dark level we arrived at in Episode 9 was foreshadowed throughout. Each character’s life took a major downturn, pretty quickly in fact, and we were largely just watching the following tragedies play out:
Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), having lost her virginity to Ray, begins a relationship with him. They even declare their love for each other, but Ray’s lack of ambition and cynicism gradually grate on Shosh and she cheats on him. They break up in the finale.
Jessa (Jemima Kirke) is deluding herself being in a marriage to a rich businessman that makes absolutely no logical sense. Inevitably, the marriage falls apart (over the course of one episode, in fact). Already emotionally unstable, Jessa then meets with her oft-estranged father who disappears on her (as is his wont), causing Jessa to disappear as well (as is her wont). She does not return for the rest of the season.
Hannah breaks up with Adam and has sex with, well, kind of a lot of guys. Her and Marnie’s falling out from the end of the first season only gets worse and, in the latter half of the season, they barely share any scenes. Hannah lands an e-book deal at one point, but has a lot of trouble writing the book. The stress and lack of a friendship support structure drive her crazy.
Marnie… jeez, Marnie. Marnie, who was presented as the one who had it all together in the first season, flounders for all of Season 2. She loses her job and lands a completely unglamorous hostess position. She spends some time sleeping with Booth Jonathan (a total asshole, moderately-famous artist played by Jorma Taccone), who eventually breaks it to her that he sees her as nothing more than a casual sex partner. She and Hannah refuse to make up as well. But, throughout it all, Marnie attempts to maintain an exterior of pride and of things being okay, which just makes her all the sadder.
Again, I don’t think the show ever completely failed at any point, but the weakest episodes were the first two of the season and the finale for failing to completely solidify aspects of the season’s arcs. The ten-episode run might have something to do with it, but the early and final episodes felt like they had to work really hard and quickly to set up and resolve a lot of plot threads so, on occasion, stories (like Shoshanna falling out of love with Ray, the dissolving of Adam’s new relationship, the ramping up of Hannah’s OCD) felt rushed or not firmly established. There are enough hints of these plotlines throughout to make them basically work; they just weren’t always totally solid.
Compared to the majority of the season, the finale itself was extremely positive and went for some major romantic moments that were a little more dramatic than I’m used to for Girls. Charlie and Marnie rather cheesily declare their love for one another and get back together. Adam has a shirtless run through the streets of New York to save Hannah from herself and the final shot is of him, in an awfully manly pose, cradling Hannah like she’s a rescued damsel (which I guess she kind of is at the time). This is a far cry from Season 1’s final shot (which I much prefer) of Hannah alone, eating cake on the beach in the dark.
But I have more faith in Girls than to assume it sees all these developments as just plain great and that everything is good from now on. They feel like nice moments right then but, in the grand scheme of things, these people are still totally screwed up. Hannah and Marnie are both back with people they had previously become completely repulsed by and Shoshanna, in breaking up with Ray, has regained the freedom she needs to explore her recent sexual awakening, but it’s unclear if that’s a really good thing yet or not.
There are a lot of signs pointing to the fact that these moments of joy are going to give way to bad times. I’m sure there will be some good times in there too, but I definitely anticipate a hefty dose of bad times. Perhaps serving as omens of this are how many issues went completely unresolved: Hannah and Marnie never made up, Shoshanna never admitted to cheating on Ray, Jessa didn’t come back, and Hannah failed to deliver on her book deal, implying she might actually be sued.
Something quite interesting is that, for all the rockiness and for all its highs and low lows, Season 2 kind of ended with the characters in effectively the exact same places they were when the whole series started. Jessa is out of the picture traveling somewhere, Shoshanna is single, Marnie’s with Charlie, and Hannah and Adam are together again.
The dynamic of each of these relationships has changed some as a result of all the stuff the characters have been through, but we’re oddly sort of back at square one here. Conventional sitcoms tend to use premises that ensure the situation can “reset” with each episode and I wonder if this is Girls’ meta-riffing on that or if it’s just the natural conclusion. People frequently do fall back into old patterns, habits and people and they seek out the familiar when all else makes them feel lost, so these characters returning to what they once were feels right, at least on a gut level.
In truth, I think part of the reason this series gets so much leeway from me is that I am happy to be put in a state of confusion and uncertainty. I also find it hard to criticize a show this unpredictable. I don’t feel I have any authority telling Girls that what it’s doing is right or wrong because I frequently have no clue what it’s trying to accomplish or where it might be heading next.
But it’s not as though Girls makes no sense. It can almost feel that way at times, but as Film Crit Hulk noted in his article titled “Why Girls Is Remarkable,” the series bases itself on emotional logic. Characters may not always do what years of conventional narrative in TV comedy have conditioned us to expect because it’s less about what makes sense structurally than what makes (non)sense emotionally.
In other words, characters often do what they do in this show because of their mindset at that time. Shoshanna cheated on Ray because she was feeling alienated from both him and her old friends. Adam got drunk and had violent sex with his ex-girlfriend because he ran into someone he once felt comfortable with, Hannah, while in the middle of feeling alienated from his girlfriend and her circle of friends. All of Marnie’s behavior this season is the product of someone falling apart as she simultaneously attempts to display signs of keeping it together.
I would never say Girls descends into stuff happening because Lena Dunham and the other writers just wanted it to happen that way. Even when the plot takes turns I don’t entirely follow the logicistics of I can, on some level, feel the confused, emotional “logic” of the characters. Certain plot points felt rushed along or appeared or disappeared with little fanfare. Sometimes moments were played at a level of unabashed sincerity that I would deem inadvisable. But the events that took place during Season 2 leading us eventually to the disillusion-resolution that was the finale all, at least broadly, lined up with the show’s themes, characters and internal logic.
I am more than certainly onboard with the lives of these people and hugely looking forward to whatever events take place for them next. And, as it’s been confirmed that the next season will consist of twelve episodes rather than ten, hopefully each of those events will get the amount of time dedicated to them that they are deserving of.