Every season of Girls has one or two “bottle episodes,” which take Hannah out of the world of the show into a different location. Season One had her returning to her parent’s house in Michigan for a weekend, last season included the controversial “One Man’s Trash,” and in this past season’s “Flo,” Hannah’s grandmother’s unexpected pneumonia permits us a glimpse into the messy dynamic of the women in Hannah’s family. It’s telling, given that these episodes are premised on removing Hannah from Girls’s larger narrative, that “One Man’s Trash” and “Flo” are the best episodes of their respective seasons. I think something happened to Girls somewhere between “One Man’s Trash” and the close of the third season. The debates over race, gender, sex, privilege, and everything in between that accompanied the series’s debut, once a dull roar, have diminished so thoroughly that it can be hard to tell if people are still watching the show, in spite of the fact that the ratings for the third season were better than ever. These days, Girls carries on in a quieter fashion. It no longer feels urgent. Most of my friends have abandoned the show. They tell me, of all things, that they’re bored of Dunham’s universe. One friend who stopped watching the series in the middle of this season declared that Girls had given him fresh perspective on his own desires for television. “I always said I wanted a show that has characters that learn nothing every time, and not in the Seinfeld way where that’s part of the gag,” he said, “because that’s what real people are like.” But in the long run, that wasn’t rewarding for him—it was grating. He went on, “I don’t feel bad for the characters. I don’t feel sympathy for them. I don’t even feel superior to them. I just feel as bored as I do every day when interacting with actual not-changing people.” That’s a bit of an odd characterization given the past season, which spent a lot of time trying to recuperate audience sympathy—having slowly eroded it over the course of two seasons—by really, really showing us character development this time. Everybody did change—or at least, they found themselves in radically different positions than before, facing real promise by this season’s end. Adam gets—and knocks out (despite his declarations to the contrary)—a part in a Broadway production of Major Barbara; Hannah quits her cushy advertorial job at GQ, and is rewarded with a spot at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop; Marnie gains some self-awareness and finds out she doesn’t necessarily suck at singing. And on the other side of the spectrum, Shoshanna discovers she can’t graduate because her semester of sexual exploration has taken a toll on her grades, and Jessa continues to struggle through her on-again, off-again relationship with drugs. Given these dramatic upheavals, why does the show still feel like it’s losing steam?
Compared to the first two seasons, the third season was more polished, its pace and dialogue more punchy. There were fewer moments that lulled, and the episodes went down easy. More broadly, the development of the third season could be considered evidence of the show “maturing,” a term TV critics love to throw around when they want to say that a show has settled on a more consistent style and tone. But this also means there were fewer episodes that stuck, that made us deeply uncomfortable or inspired. As a genre, television shows have the blessing and curse of being able to adapt over time, whether to contingencies like actors leaving or to the vicissitudes of public opinion. The best shows take advantage of the elisions that necessarily separate each episode; they withhold as much as they disclose. Ironically, television’s new gold standards follow a different, more comprehensive kind of logic than would be suggested by television’s serial structure. Increasingly, as illustrated by the largely negative reception to the recent True Detective finale, it seems as though viewers find incongruity and lack of closure intolerable. Conditioned by shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, they have come to expect meticulously planned worlds, which unfold with a comfortingly consistent logic. In other words, what they want is a really long, well-made but conventional movie broken up into serial installments. When True Detective’s finale failed to live up to that standard, people were pissed. Part of the point and play of those dramas, though, is precisely to build communities around them to obsess over the tiniest of discrepancies and generate absurd theories about what’s going to happen next. But that’s not what Girls should aspire to. The worst scene this season, I think, was the four-way argument that transpires at Marnie’s mother’s friend’s beach house. Each of the girls spits venom at one another that sounds suspiciously like the boring, oversimplified hating happening on Internet comment threads: OK, yes, they’re “fucking narcissistic,” as Shoshanna eloquently puts it. What’s in it for us if they say it to each other? A similarly disappointing exchange in an otherwise interesting depiction of a relationship confronting its own limitations came in Episode 10, “Role Play.” Hannah tries to spice up her sex life with Adam by donning the persona of a hedge fund manager’s wife—and a cheap blonde wig—to seduce Adam at a bar. The ensuing sex falls apart when Hannah too overtly narrates it as it’s happening, prompting Adam to angrily accuse Hannah of being “outside” of herself, “watching everything.” This is going somewhere interesting—except then it doesn’t. Instead, what we get is an all-too-convenient explanation from Adam for his dramatic personality shift from the first two seasons to this one, in which he has emerged as the most reasonable, empathetic character on the show:
You have an old idea of who I am. Sex was a thing that kept me from drinking, that’s why I fucked women I met in bars or whatever … But then, we fell in love. Then, I just wanted to have sex with just you, as us. Just, FUCK. And be sweet! Or whatever… You think I’m some angry fuckin’ sociopath who wants to meet older women in bars and intimidate them into fucking me? Because I can do that but I have a job to do now, and I’m not here to try to fill up your life with fuckin’ stories for your fucking Twitter.
Sex was a thing that kept me from drinking, that’s why I fucked women I met in bars or whatever. This line is the most egregious offender of all, a concession to the belief that selves are essentially stable and unified, and whose actions are capable, at all times, of being explained. It’s a bit of writerly indulgence on the part of both Hannah the quirky memoirist, whose point of view we are most likely inhabiting, most of the time, and the show itself, which performs its own kind of “out of body” gaze here by having characters deliver justifications that are distractingly and improbably self-reflexive. In smoothing out its edges, Girls has responded to its critics in all the wrong ways. (I also had issues with Girls’s only serious attempt at introducing a minority character to the show, Donald Glover as Hannah’s boyfriend in Season Two, whose name I can’t even remember since he was such a fleeting presence. His only notable act was telling Hannah her writing is bad, which pretty much never happened again in Girls.) In its earlier days, the show Girls most resembled was Louie, another comedy-drama whose inner drive is the craft of its creator/protagonist; for Lena Dunham/Hannah, it’s writing, for Louis C.K./Louie, it’s comedy. Like Louie, Girls shifted, sometimes radically, in tone and in rhythm, with apparent disregard for “realism.” The episode most evocative of Louie is, of course, “One Man’s Trash” (Garrett Martin at Paste and Emily Nussbaum at The New Yorker also drew the comparison back when the episode first aired), an episode which completely excises Hannah from her everyday life for two days and pairs her with a handsome doctor living in a gorgeous brownstone. They hang out, they fuck, they sort of bare their souls to each other. I still recall the jarring topless ping-pong scene, and Hannah’s too-literary-to-sound-sincere confession that what she wants, deep down, is to be happy. Happy, with bowls of fruit and well-paying jobs and stuff, as an alternative to the immense burden of taking in “experiences, all of them” that a writer brings upon herself. I didn’t take Hannah’s words as indicative of self-delusion, nor did I find them to be completely from the heart, whatever that means. It sounded, rather, like someone feeling out words they had rehearsed in their heads but had never uttered aloud. But the episode, like many of Louie’s more experimental pieces, rang poignantly true to the experience of being in your twenties and struggling to find a foothold in the world, precisely because it showed an unfulfilled desire for connection and validation displaced, as it often is in real life, into fantasy. Dunham treats this fantasy with tenderness, not cynicism. And when it’s over, Hannah takes out the trash—and moves on.
Though “Flo,” the closest thing this season to the greatness of “One Man’s Trash,” more explicitly coheres around universal themes of dying and aging, it likewise functions as a digression from everyday life that’s instructive in how it puts pressure on our habituated ways of self-perception and relating to others.. In the middle of walking down a crowded street in New York, forking salad, Hannah gets a call from her mother, Loreen, who tells Hannah her grandma is dying—Hannah must go immediately. At the hospital, we meet Aunt Margot and Aunt Sissy, and later, Margot’s daughter Rebecca, who’s in med school and a year Hannah’s junior. In a frank conversation between Hannah and Loreen about grandma Flo, Loreen reflects, “You think that you’ve accepted that your mother wasn’t that good … and then you realize you’ve always had this hope that there’d be a conversation where the two of you would have some kind of breakthrough—when they die, that conversation can never come.” Hannah responds naively, “I don’t totally understand what made her such a bad mother, I mean, like, she was always very loving to me.” Loreen immediately corrects her, reminding, “That’s not true, not about your weight. She ruined Margot and Sissy’s lives, they’re very misshapen people.” Then she asks Hannah, to her horror, to tell her grandmother that she’s going to marry Adam, so that she can be happy before she dies. “Mom,” Hannah retorts, “I really thought you were more progressive than that.” The irony, of course, is that when Adam reluctantly agrees to the lie and then acts on it upon meeting Flo, she’s dismayed that she won’t be around for the wedding. Later, Aunt Margot dredges up an old resentment against her niece: when she was seven, Hannah told Rebecca that her father was convicted of insider trading. Rebecca accuses Hannah, at one point, of having forced her to touch her own “chachi” when they were kids. In each of these conversations, conflicting accounts and gaps in memory butt up against one another, having fundamentally altered the course of the relationships among these women. “Flo” is a particularly apt title, speaking to the myriad ways the episode thinks about the flow between fact and fiction, knowledge and ignorance. Loreen tries to not-so-subtly dissuade Hannah from a future with Adam. Outraged, Hannah tells her that Loreen’s talking about something she “knows nothing about.” Yet what Loreen actually says about Adam, though maybe not with the right intentions, is still insightful: “He’s odd. He’s angry. He’s uncomfortable in his own skin. I don’t want you to spend your whole life socializing him like he’s a stray dog, making the world a friendlier place for him.” She might be right that it’s a daunting task, but she’s also missing something important. Hannah’s world is exactly the sort of place that can make a home for someone who lacks a proper fit; she’s a writer, after all. Flo makes a miraculous recovery, and the women reaffirm their commitment to spending time with each other. Freshly off the train, Hannah is shown walking again through the busy streets of New York, when she gets another call, this time from Rebecca. Grandma Flo is dead; she had a heart attack. Regress, progress, a sudden arrest. Delivered from afar, the big news arrives only after we’ve finally stopped expecting it. But we don’t need to see it to feel its shocking weight. If only the rest of Girls followed its lead.