“You make the choice you need to survive, you make the choice you need to survive, everyone’s path will unwind just right, everyone’s path will unwind just right….,” Hannah (Lena Dunham) repeats to herself in a mirror in “Iowa,” the first episode of the fourth season of “Girls.” It’s a mantra meant to provide courage, but at least in the first five episodes sent to press, those words couldn’t be more wrong. While she had her share of ups and down through season three, for the most part, Hannah was finally succeeding on her own terms. She was nearly going to be a published e-book author until her editor died, but she settled into (rocky) domesticity with Adam (Adam Driver), and as the season ended, was accepted into the very well-regarded writer’s workshop at the University of Iowa. And as the premiere episode title suggests, Hannah does decide to take the leap and move for school, but her biggest battle won’t be with the culture shock, but entering a world where she’s not surrounded with the constant and almost automatic support of her friends and family.
What emerges in the first half or so of the season is Hannah finally encountering real criticism and feedback on her autobiographical writing. It’s an awakening that her voice can’t skate by on its distinction alone, that her choice of subject matter in her writing does have the potential to offend in a real way, and is perhaps sometimes clumsy in how it approaches serious topics. In a sense, one gets the feeling that Dunham herself is working out her relationship with critics through the Iowa storyline. Hannah resents the pointed opinions, but that doesn’t make them any less valid, however the cumulative effect is that it leaves her feeling defeated, and she eventually responds childishly in kind. But perhaps the biggest wake-up call for Hannah is that in Iowa, she’s responsible for her own fate. She may say the mantra noted above, but only away from home does the full weight of what that means dawn on her, and she’ll be faced with some tough choices about her future both personally and professionally, made all the more complicated by a relationship that remains in the balance, and the expectations not just from her parents, but friends too.
And while the stakes are somewhat smaller, Marnie (Allison Williams) is really giving her music career a go, though she too will need to toughen up. In “Iowa,” a “jazz brunch” concert leaves her in tears after she’s effectively booed off the stage, but like Hannah, she will also have to learn that there are those that just won’t like her (admittedly awful) songs. But it’s hard to deny that in Desi (the douche-tacular Ebon Moss-Bachrach) she finds a worthy creative and sexual partner, even if she’s essentially having an affair with him, though in typical Marnie fashion, she’s in denial about what their relationship actually is. Like Hannah, she will also be forced to make decisive maneuvers to put herself in a space where she feels her life can excel, and that seems to be the running undercurrent to the fourth season.
With Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) graduating and trying to find a job, and Jessa (Jemima Kirke) getting clean and sorting out her life, the quartet of girls are now, more than ever, contending with being adults, and living with the results of the paths they choose to take. And, as far as Hannah goes, if it doesn’t quite exacerbate her narcissism, season four underscores it. And while the usual conversations will be raised about Hannah’s self-absorption, it’s a reflection of a character who is simply unable to see outside of her own needs (and this should hardly be a surprise for anyone who has watched the show for this long). While having Elijah (the pitch perfect Andrew Rannells) deciding to join Hannah in Iowa might seem like an easy bit of comic relief, he actually serves as a pointed contrast to how Hannah approaches her new life. While she almost immediately isolates herself from her classmates, Elijah — escaping his own issues back in New York City — immediately creates an active, cooperative, social circle around him, that goes beyond just partying and finding guys (though there’s that too). In short, he finds fulfillment from collaboration from this new community, while Hannah puts up her guard when she isn’t immediately, unquestioningly accepted for who she is. But Dunham is wise not to necessarily judge Hannah; it’s simply the nature of her character, flawed as she is, and it’s what makes “Girls” worth watching, even as unlikeable as she gets.
As for the show’s men, their narratives are mostly secondary. The older Ray (Alex Karpovsky) takes more of a wise sage role, though his entanglements with with Shoshanna and Marnie aren’t necessarily over. Meanwhile, Adam’s acting career isn’t quite living up to what he thought it might be following his Broadway performance, and Hannah’s excursion to Iowa has him asking his own questions about the nature of their relationship and what the future holds. It’s certainly a far more tamed Adam than we’ve seen before in season four, and it’s a growth that results in one of the show’s most moving moments in episode five, “Sit-In.”
Overall, Dunham hasn’t lost a step, and season four is arguably a touch higher on the quality scale than the somewhat patchier third season. That said, thus far the new season is missing those memorable standalone episodes (“The Return” from season one; the second season’s “One Man’s Trash” and “Video Games“; season three’s “Flo“) that have marked some of the best entries the show has ever had. However, perhaps that can be politely overlooked as Dunham juggles members of the cast across two major, distant locations with ease, without losing her unique sharpness. And with heavy hitter guest stars (Gillian Jacobs, Spike Jonze, Zachary Quinto, Marc Maron, Maude Apatow) mostly absent across the first five episodes, the latter half of the season promises some very exciting turns as Hannah continues to find out not only who she is, but what she is capable of handling (and what she isn’t). In short, Hannah is stretching her wings, and you’ll want to see where she flies to next. [B]