Season three of Girls ended with Hannah (Lena Dunham) learning she’s been admitted into the Creative Writing MFA at the University of Iowa. As season four begins, we fade in on—actually, this isn’t really a fade-in kind of show—we cut to Hannah’s last day in New York before she takes off for Iowa the next morning.
Maybe it’s not as abnormal as I think it is, but it at least feels unique to me, the manner in which Girls chose to end its previous season and begin its current one. Most shows, I think, would’ve made this episode its previous season’s finale. Or, another option would be to do away with the goodbye to Hannah altogether and skip ahead in time, which I more-than-half-expected the season four premiere might do, starting out with Hannah already in Iowa (especially because the episode is called “Iowa”).
Doing that, however, would’ve meant the unfortunate omission of a wealth of lovely and poignant character interactions that make for a sweetly melancholy season opener. And I think this is what’s different about Girls. Again, it would be more TV-conventional to end a season with this sort of episode; going out on a character goodbye is an appropriately sappy way to give us some catharsis and remind us of our fondness for the program so we’ll be sure to remember to watch it when it comes back the following year. Contrastingly, Girls’ season three finale was dark: Marnie (Allison Williams) homewrecked a relationship, Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) had a tragic breakdown of sorts, Jessa (Jemima Kirke) became the assistant in an assisted suicide, and Adam (Adam Driver) and Hannah had what appeared to be a severe falling-out. And now, rather than washing all that away and starting us out with a bunch of good times, Girls prepares us for its new season by getting all bittersweet and weepy.
It’s an interesting and unique approach. That or they accidentally plotted everything out wrong and meant to do this episode last season.
At any rate, though we don’t skip over Hannah’s last day, some stuff has transpired in the interim.
Adam and Hannah are still together after all and seem, well, sort of fine. Or, well, fine to the extent that the two of them seem happy with and into each other again, but Hannah’s imminent departure is obviously going to have heavy repercussions on their relationship (something which Adam seems resolved to not address).
I’ve commented on how Girls handles relationships before, but it’s worth noting again just how good it is at this stuff. Despite their big fight at the end of last season, Adam and Hannah being together makes more sense than not. I’m so used to how television (at least comedy television) treats relationships as having these blatantly defined endings marked by one big event like a particularly bad fight or somebody catching one character kissing another. But, on Girls, people do and say awful things and then just kind of keep putting up with one another regardless.
Relationships on Girls are certainly affected by everyone being shitty to one another, but they are rarely outright destroyed. For example, after Marnie slept with Elijah (Andrew Rannells), Hannah and Marnie largely avoided each other for season two (and quite a bit of three as well), only passively-aggressively interacting from time to time. Elijah actually did get a blatant ejection from the show during season two, as Hannah kicked him out of their shared apartment, but then he just sort of lazily drifted back into Hannah’s life by happenstance midway through the following season. Hell, at one point Hannah was actually frightened of Adam, thinking he might be a violent, stalker type and then they proceeded to maintain a relationship for a whole season.
And this is actually a very authentic depiction of relationships on the whole. There are so few times in life that one’s connection with another person has an evident, finite point. People actually, for whatever reason, have a much higher threshold for each other than a lot of fiction would have you believe. I knew a guy in college who threatened to kill me through email and then ended up being one of my housemates the following year (yes, really)!
Also interesting here is that we learn Adam got an acting gig being one of those people in a shitty advertisement for depression meds (though there are worse meds to be in ads for). He does, of course, hate that he did the ad, but he still did it (and even shaved his beard for it). This Adam is a far cry from the freakish, anarchic guy of the first season who would storm out of an audition if he didn’t like the director and spent much of his time in his creepy apartment doing shirtless woodworking. The path of Adam’s character continues to be one of the show’s most interesting ones to follow. It’s amazing he started out kind of a mental case but has now revealed himself as normal enough to be a sellout.
Marnie, who’s basically been in a downward spiral for two consecutive seasons, is on kind of an upswing. She’s now romantically involved with Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and they’re composing folk music together. Of course, this means Desi is cheating on his girlfriend Clementine (Natalie Morales) and, when Marnie and Desi perform at a jazz brunch, they’re ignored to the point that Marnie flees the stage, crying. Okay, never mind. Marnie’s still fucked up.
But still, infidelity notwithstanding, at least Marnie’s getting something she wanted, and, as for her music, it’s a far cry from the awkward stuff we’ve watched her warble in the past. It’s extremely conventional and probably too transparently sincere for its own good, but it’s competent stuff, filled with pretty harmonies and all. Her failure here has less to do with her and Desi being bad performers and more with the horrible nature of gigging. A jazz brunch (which a quick Googling reveals is a real thing) in a restaurant is the sort of situation in which performers are almost guaranteed to get little to no respect, no matter how heartfelt your music or even, as Marnie hilariously protests, if some of your songs are about death. It’s pretty great that the person who comes to give Marnie her heart-to-heart after she runs out of the restaurant is Elijah, as he doesn’t attempt to make her feel better but, quite rightly, informs her “this business is not for sissy bitches.”
Jessa doesn’t do a ton in this episode, but we get a sense she’s going to be left adrift. In addition to Hannah’s leaving, Jessa’s forced to say goodbye to the old artist lady, Beedie (Louise Lasser), who she took care of and then subsequently helped overdose on pills. Beedie decided to back out of suicide at the last moment, leaving her alive but on thin ice with her family, so her daughter shows up to steal her away to Connecticut. It’s a funny, sweet scene with a nice little turn from Natasha Lyonne as the daughter, who goes on a diatribe highlighting a crucial tenet of this show: previous generations’ complete frustration with the current one. “When my generation, and every generation before me, were called ‘special,’” she explains, “we were smart enough to know it meant that we were stupid, so it made us work that much harder to stop being stupid.”
Shoshanna finally (and unceremoniously) graduates from NYU, which results in the appearance of her divorced parents who are both named Mel—Melvin and Melanie—played by Anthony Edwards and Ana Gasteyer respectively. Shosh remains easily one of the funniest characters on the show and this introduction of her same-named parents (a fact she says is “the worst thing that ever happened to me and it’s like the first thing that ever happened to me”) only makes her funnier. Shoshanna wasn’t heavily focused on in season three and I made a hopeful prediction that this season would be the Year of Shosh. I doubt they’d get Ana Gasteyer in to be a screaming nut for only one scene, so I can only assume and pray we’ll return to Shoshanna’s parental strife again this season.
Like the two season premieres to come before this one, “Iowa” has to concern itself a bit with updating us on everyone’s status, but it’s all packaged with the added emotional kick of Hannah’s leaving and it’s actually a real treat to just witness how the principals in her life react to it. As basic as this may seem, in a post-Seinfeld world, it’s a bit of a neat trick for a comedy to simply present characters genuinely exhibiting emotions without any wink or snark to undercut it.
Jessa lashes out at Hannah for leaving, seeing it as a betrayal since Hannah previously told her she couldn’t keep taking off and had to stick around in NYC. Adam and Hannah both independently decide to not say goodbye, her choosing not to wake him up and him pretending to be asleep. And, finally, Marnie is revealed to be probably Hannah’s best and closest friend, coming to see her off in the morning and then breaking down crying. As mentioned, there’s been a lot of passive-aggressive bullshit between the two, but this ending sequence is something of a revelation, driving home how important Hannah and Marnie really are to each other.
“Iowa” makes for a sad, but sweet (and, though I don’t think I really communicated it, often quite funny) way to open a season, not to mention a great build-up to whatever drastic changes are in store once Hannah starts her new life in Iowa proper.