Close Encounters Of The 'Girls' Kind: Thoughts On The Show's Remarkable Fifth Season

If you abandoned the HBO series, it's time to catch up.

"You know you just recoiled from my touch? You recoiled from my touch like I'm a monster!"

Desi, the parasitic narcissist, squawked these words during a fight with his new bride, Marnie, on Sunday's episode of "Girls." In a way, it seems "Girls" has been transmitting the same sentiment to its spotty audience for the better part of five years. After such an auspicious debut season -- one whose soul-searching comedic voice rang louder than most freshman series' -- the show has battled meandering subplots, dicey critical reception and, particularly during its previous outing, diminishing viewership stats. 

But this season of "Girls" is different. So different, in fact, that the aimlessness that has at times weighed the show down suddenly seems not to matter. (I say this as someone who has generally remained a fan, even in its fickle moments.)

I haven't stopped thinking about this week's "Girls" since the episode concluded. Specifically, I keep returning to a single shot: Marnie, barefoot and clad in a glittering red ballgown, stumbling out of Charlie's apartment and into the blinding daylight. After a chance encounter with her much-changed ex-boyfriend, her blissful evening has given way to the agonizing reality that nothing gold can stay. Crushed by the realization that the same Charlie she just praised for no longer "trying to please anyone anymore" has become a heroin fiend, Marnie is left to stagger back to the tiny war zone she shares with Desi. The scene cuts to displays of Brooklyn's city life, and the chapters of Marnie's life collide. Our tightly wound protagonist yielded to Charlie's spontaneity, only to discover the experience was something of a fantasy.

The sight of Marnie's dispirited stroll recalls something "Girls" has revisited across its five seasons: the sensation of going home, specifically with a heavy heart and a clouded mindset. As I watched, teary-eyed, I thought of the many times the show has centered episodes on the notion of returning -- or discovering -- home. Not just the literal domicile in which a person resides, but the tingle that comes with fleeting satisfaction. Marnie dashing through Manhattan's streets with Charlie in a whirlwind of impulsivity, poaching cash from a wealthy playboy and falling into a Central Park pond? For a few brief hours, that was home. 

But it implodes, and we see Marnie dump Desi before venturing to a nostalgic emblem of home: her former apartment with Hannah, the same one where the two pals frolicked around to "Dancing On My Own" in Season 1, after Marnie processed her frustrations with Charlie and Hannah learned Elijah is gay. Even if the beats of Hannah and Marnie's contentious friendship have been trying over the years, the sight of them crawling into bed together is like a revolving door of redemption. In the world of "Girls," as in reality, setbacks of all magnitudes require characters to seek relics that represent comfort. When that comfort materializes, they are home.  

Marnie's unanticipated walk of shame reminds me of Hannah emerging from Dr. Joshua's (Patrick Wilson) lush apartment after her unexpected decampment in Season 2. Like Marnie's escapades with Charlie, Hannah's kinship with Joshua was so instant and so profound that the night she spent with him felt like a dream. Those impromptu connections -- the phenomena where the world fades and our attention is married exclusively to the present moment, and to the person with whom we're sharing it -- are rare, but "Girls" has adeptly captured them, especially during this current season. It's as if the aimlessness that crept in throughout the show -- Hannah's OCD, Jessa's obstinate underemployment, and the overblown ebbs and flows of the characters' collective friendships -- has been leading to these moments, when, finally, the concept of "growing up" has again located an authentic, piercing, sentimental voice. 

Outside of Sunday's episode, that's most evidenced via Shoshanna's new life in Japan. The show has struggled the most with Shoshanna's maturation, at times presenting her as an alien of the wired, "Sex and the City"-obsessed student we first met. But her latest brand of self-examination has taken her to across the world, where she convinced herself she'd found happiness as an assistant manager at the "second-biggest cat café in Tokyo" -- until the truth came pouring from her mouth in last week's episode: "I'm really sad, and I'm really fucking lonely."

In the next scene, Hannah, while bitterly attending a female-empowerment retreat where she was decidedly not at home, snuggled up to her mother, seeking the consolation that both women need from one another. (The reason Hannah's mom decided to stay with her gay father is because he provides comfort. "If I'd known 20 years ago," she said, before trailing off in wistful contemplation.) And then the episode cut to Shoshanna walking down a Tokyo street, empty but for the flashing lights of a city that has mostly fallen asleep. It is her literal walk home, yet we know that Shoshanna is anywhere but home. The dread of returning to the vacancies of a life unfulfilled are suffocating, and the task of finding an escape is daunting.

In seeking something unfamiliar, Shoshanna now craves any semblance of familiarity. It's an intractable paradox. In pursuing their own complicated version of home, two other characters -- Adam and Jessa -- have found it in each other. I'm always dubious of shows that shove platonic friends together for romances after several seasons (bye, "Friends"). But for these two adrift souls, both of whom attempted to smother their mutual attraction for fear of Hannah's resentment, their budding relationship has grounded them. They stabilize each other, just like Elijah -- a character that often hasn't worked, despite Andrew Rannell's winning performance -- and his sweet new beau (Corey Stoll).

In between all of this remarkable characterization, the current season of "Girls" has consistently captured the comedic groove that defined its early essence. Amid blips of melancholy comes humor, and the best dramedies know how to walk that line finely. It's what allows Hannah to simultaneously counsel her father through his first gay hookup and mourn the instability that has suddenly impeded her parents' relationship. It's what prompts Ray to gripe about a competing coffee shop's business practices when really he is lamenting his loneliness. It's the ridiculousness of Hannah's teaching decisions, bookended by clashes with a disapproving Fran.

But as the show invades my thoughts in a way it hasn't since the inaugural season, I keep returning to the image of Marnie hiking home in her shiny frock and wet hair. If "Girls" is about the proverbial journey of growing up, Marnie's emergence from her diversion with Charlie is a moment so authentic it's uncanny. Their talk of running away together wasn't even given time to fade into an afterglow -- it faded into oblivion, a reminder that experiences are ephemeral and there is, more often that not, some form of ill-fated termination around the corner. Nothing gold can stay, and Marnie's venture to solidify her divorce and clamber into bed with her once-and-forever best friend is a signal that maybe it's OK to grow up in incremental spurts instead of overnight transformations. She'd initially resisted Charlie's invitation, but then became uncharacteristically swept up in the moment. It was there that she found a side of herself she'd been seeking, almost like a fairy tale. Almost.

By the time Marnie laid down, Charlie and Desi were just vital ripples in an ever-flowing ocean. They brought her ashore, and now she will set sail again, even if that comes with a hefty amount of baggage. This season, "Girls" has mastered the sadness of changed experiences. But for Marnie, and for all of the characters on the show, there may finally be a new idea of home around the corner. 



Lena Dunham