Across its first four seasons, “Girls” established itself, not without some controversy and many thinkpieces, as a series that would be bracing in its depiction of sex, unapologetic about the choices its characters would make, and one that would boldly go down whatever narrative path it chose to follow, in its portrayal of the lives of four young women in New York City. But perhaps what makes the first four episodes of the show’s penultimate season sent to press so intriguing is that they might be the tamest run of shows “Girls” have ever put to air. Aside from one masturbation sequence where both participants are mostly clothed, and an amusing montage of bad sex, “Girls” returns on a gentler note.
“I started working on this show when I was 23, and now I’m going to be 30 so it kind of feels right that this show kind of sandwiched my 20s and then I go off into the world,” writer creator/writer/producer/star Lena Dunham said last fall about the approaching end of the series. There is certainly a greater sense of maturity in season five, that makes “Girls” more accessible, yet less explosive than it has been previously.
If Dunham’s Hannah had long held the crown for most self-absorbed, self-interested, and obnoxious character on the show, that torch is passed to Marnie (Allison Williams) in season opener, “Wedding Day.” Yes, she is marrying the skin-crawling douchebag Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), and the term “bridezilla” has nothing on Marnie who uses the occasion to be condescending, rude, and narcissistic to Hannah, Shoshanna, Jessa, and everyone assisting with the big day, and yet, she makes a perfect match for her husband. They are both wildly insecure and this union provides for them at least the facade of emotional stability. And while things seem somewhat on a steady keel for now, one senses it’s as haphazard and fragile as the walls Desi builds inside their tiny, New York City studio apartment, to try and give Marnie the one-bedroom living space she’s dreamed of. If that physical shortcut to happiness is any indication of how Desi handles the emotional navigation of their married life, they could be in trouble.
Meanwhile, it’s Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) who seemingly has her life the most in order. Leaving for Japan at the end of season four, the sojourn has been an enjoyable surprise for Shoshanna, with her work turning into a dream job, and her assimilation into the culture of the country going almost better than could be imagined. She’s still maintaining a fledgling long distance relationship with Scott (Jason Ritter), but her romantic and professional interests are very much in Japan. It has been a long road for Shoshanna in general, who had struggled to find herself in New York City, but events conspire to have her return to the metropolis that caused her so much confusion, and she’s not ready go. Shoshanna has always been consistently underrated and underutilized in “Girls,” but I really hope the complexity of her situation we’re presented with in these first four episodes gets the proper space to unfold in the latter half of the season.
Certainly, it should trump what might be the most fleeting of storylines, that involving Ray’s (Alex Karpovsky) struggles with his coffee shop, which is losing customers to the hip, new joint across the street with the perfectly, eye-rolling name, Helvetica. Meanwhile, Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Adam (Adam Driver) also have a minor key subplot as the pair try to resist a growing attraction, with Jessa perhaps rightly noting, it can only end disastrously given their personalities. But their flirtatious sparring is charming and winning, even as the spectre of what Hannah’s reaction might be if and when she finds out, looms above it all. However, if there’s one relationship that will be the easiest to root for, it’s Elijah’s (Andrew Rannells) dalliance with famous New York City news anchor, Dill Harcourt (Corey Stoll). What you think will just be another anonymous fling for Elijah, turns into something tender and real, and unlike anything we’ve seen him experience before. Rannells play it with touching wide-eyed wonder, almost as if Elijah has never realized he could have something like this, and it indicates an exciting moment of growth for the character.
And this brings us back to Hannah, whose primary concerns in the first part of the season have to do with her seemingly normal, sweet, and unassuming boyfriend Fran (Jake Lacy). Nearly everyone around Hannah tells her not to let him go, but fractures soon appear in their domestic bliss, brought on by Fran’s indifference to her feelings when it comes to preserving his own moral stances, coupled with a subtle sense of superiority when it comes to each of their approaches to teaching. Hannah prefers an emphasis on expression rather than on the rigors of grammatical accuracy, which bristles against Jake’s preference for rules and order. But that’s not the only issue Hannah faces. Her very job may be on the line when it’s discovered she’s teaching her eighth-graders Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus.” Meanwhile, she also has to deal with father Tad Horvath’s (Peter Scolari) tentative entry into the gay dating scene, which is coupled with his overblown expectations and fragile emotions.
Overall, these might be the lowest stakes yet Hannah has faced in any season of “Girls.” Fran has been a polite but also unremarkable presence in Hannah’s life, and as an audience member, his departure wouldn’t necessarily be a major narrative disruption. Granted, her parents slowly combusting marriage could send Hannah into a tailspin (the expression on her face at the end of second episode, “Good Man,” when her father tells her, “I don’t know what to do,” is heartbreaking) but her resiliency should not be underestimated. And I suspect her feelings about the crumbling union between her parents has more to do with the loss of a relationship ideal that perhaps Hannah never realized she wanted.
These initial episodes of the fifth season bring a new sensation to “Girls,” in a greater sense of calm, and a sturdier poise. We have left behind the women who in the early seasons were careening around New York City, trying to find a sense of purpose, and see them here established in careers, marriage, and pursuing with no great frenetics their various goals. That’s not to say they each don’t face challenges, but they feel less dire here. In previous years, there was a sense of danger with “Girls,” that these women, figuring out who they were, would take wild risks. Those days seem to fading, but it also makes “Girls” a slightly different viewing experience than before. No worse perhaps, but it remains to be seen if that means it’s better. [B]
“Girls” returns to HBO on Sunday, February 21st.