Last week, I took Girls to task for its shortcomings with regards to serialization. The show has problems telling long range stories, and particularly in pacing them out (more on this in a moment), but one thing it tends to be great at is conveying the journey the characters have gone on over the course of the season, if not in its finale as a whole (those tend to be a bit shaky, and “Two Plane Rides” is no exception there), then in its final image. Each season of Girls tends to roughly open and close with images that speak to each other. Season one began and ended with Hannah eating pasta and later wedding cake, tracking some of the fitful maturation she had gone through. Season two opened with Adam breaking into Hannah’s apartment, forcing her to call the cops, and concluded with Adam heroically kicking in her door in a grand romantic gesture that reunited them. And season three began with the two lovers deeply entwined in each other’s arms and deeply co-dependent. But it ends with Hannah alone, strong enough to stand on her own two feet, brave enough to take a leap for herself. It isn’t a happy ending, necessarily, or at least, it is definitely bittersweet in some ways. But it is a mark of progress for the character as the season ends.
One of the most frustrating things about Girls is the way it occasionally falls in love with its own mystique, loses sight of its satirical angle, and basically becomes the show its detractors criticize it for being. “I Saw You” is hardly the worst example of this tendency in the show’s history (in fact, season three has probably been the show’s best in this regard, if not in some others), but it is an episode that I could show any of the show’s harshest critics to basically validate their opinion of the series.
Over the last decade or so, a cult of serialization has risen up in discussion of television. We all bow at the altar of the serialized television show and write our psalms to its greatest successes. Long form storytelling of this sort is perhaps the greatest triumph television has accomplished to date, but it is hardly the only color in the crayon box, and despite our protestations, plenty of the other hues still work fine. Girls is, technically, a serialized dramedy, but in reality it works more like a collection of essays of the sort that make up Hannah’s now-fallow manuscript.
One a season, Girls likes to isolate Hannah from the rest of the girls and tell a story about her individually. These episodes (season one’s “The Return” and season two’s “One Man’s Trash”) tend to be among the season’s best, usually because they play to the show’s strengths. Girls has never been great at plotting. It is better at creating a mood and at exploring characters as they navigate their way through crisis points. “Flo,” this season’s Hannah-stands-alone story, is a knotty, emotionally rough, and ultimately beautiful episode of television about the last days in the life of Hannah’s grandmother.
And as quickly as it was cast, the spell is broken. Season three of Girls, more than either of the two that came before, is learning how to be a TV show. That sounds, on the surface, like a compliment, but I’m not sure that it is. This season has been more consistent than previous ones, yes, but while I can applaud the show for reducing the amount of lows, it is hard not to miss the staggering highs that counter-balanced them. “Beach House” is the closest season three has come so far to a masterpiece of the same quality as “The Return,” “It’s a Shame About Ray,” or “One Man’s Trash,” a spell-binding half-hour that felt like it had something to say not just about these characters, but about friendships more broadly, and also about the strengths and weaknesses of television as a medium for addressing these issues. “Incidentals” is an inevitable step back down into what is at this point standard fare for the show. It is a funny episode that creates a good vibe and some good laughs, but mostly it feels like a placeholder before we push into the season’s final stretch.
One of the tough lessons in life that television rarely teaches is that friendship doesn’t have to be forever. This is one of the bold narrative changes that has begun to separate cable television from the network model, or more accurately, that indicates the shift from the old to the new. Until recently (And in many cases, currently), television was not built as a satisfying narrative medium. It was built to last. Television shows were not novels, with planned beginnings, middles, and ends—they were engines that could churn out stories until the money wasn’t there anymore. This isn’t to say there isn’t great TV made in this mindset. In fact, most of the greatest television ever made was forged under this system. But it is one way in which television has not always reflected life.
Being a writer is hard. Not just in the obvious sense that writing something worth paying attention to in a world completely suffused with intelligent, original, dynamic voices is a difficult thing to do, but also because breaking into writing is an uphill climb even for those who have the talent to write something interesting. Most people are not writers. Even most people who fancy themselves writers are not writers. And among the people who are writers, only a minute subset are actually doing the kind of writing they dream of doing, the kind of writing they feel like they were meant to do, the kind of writing that makes them seethe with jealousy when they encounter it in other people (who are, obviously, only there through some massive cosmic luck, right?).
This season of Girls is slowly shaping up to be a story about how easy it is to feel stable, collected, mature and driven when things are going well, and how quickly that delusion can fall apart if things take a turn for the worse. “Only Child” shows us this with Caroline and Marnie, but the focus here is squarely on Hannah, who has painted herself as a paragon of adulthood, with her mental illness in control, a live-in boyfriend, and a book deal. After her tailspin last season, Hannah believed she had figured it all out, that she had found her happy ending.
The biggest stride that Girls has made so far in its third season is in reassuring the audience that it gets how awful its characters can be. Lena Dunham’s work has always been incredibly personal, and while I thought that she communicated the distance between herself and her character fairly well in the show’s first few seasons, this is a whole different level. In some ways, in fact, I wonder if this new increased sense of detachment might be the show going too far out of its way to let us know it knows how awful its characters are. “Deep Inside” is the most constant barrage of horrible behavior we have seen so far this season, with Hannah’s callousness, Jessa’s discovery that a former friend faked her death to get Jessa out of her life, and Marnie’s temper tantrum at Ray. While the show may be pushing a little too hard to remind us these are flawed people, “Deep Inside” also tells an interesting, if frustrating, story about Hannah’s attempt to process death.
Girls is a show that works wonders when it exists as short snippets from the lives of these characters, captured moments frozen in amber. “She Said Ok” speaks volumes about the characters at its center without ever making too large a deal about it. It is a story about Hannah’s twenty-fifth birthday party that is fine on just that level, but it also works as a story about Hannah, Adam, Marnie, and Ray without having to fully commit to telling a cohesive narrative about any of them. On another show, this might feel shapeless, but Girls manages to use these snippets to speak to larger truths about where these characters have come from and where they are going.