Over the course of its second season, Girls has solidified itself into the most analyzed show on the internet, with each episode bringing up a whole host of issues and a mountain of blog posts. While season two started out on upbeat notes with each of the titular girls going after new beginnings, the second half of the season took on darker material, turning the show from a comedy with satiric edge to more of an out-and-out drama with humorous elements.
Early in the season, Hannah and company played at adulthood, but mid-way they turned to actively coveting the lives of older, more successful people. Episode 5 was a bottle episode devoted entirely to Hannah’s tryst with an older doctor on the verge of divorce. She spends two straight days with him, but seems primarily interested in the illusion of his well-decorated brownstone, a point driven home with the line, “I want to be happy. I want the bowl with the fruit and the fridge with the stuff.” This episode was book-ended by two others that showcased Marnie’s non-relationship arc with Booth Jonathan, with whom Marnie is much too happy to help host an art party. When she later reveals that she thinks Booth is her boyfriend (and furthermore, that she’s enamored with his career), her turn on Desperate Housewives: Art Star edition is cut short.
Even as the characters clamored for that coveted grownup status, they soon encountered actual adult difficulties and quickly regressed. Being a grown up, they discover, actually sucks. Encountering her divorce, Jessa visits her recovering addict father, where we learn her flightiness is the result of a serious abandonment complex. After spending much of the season in freefall, Marnie chases Charlie again upon learning he’s sold an app and is suddenly flush with cash and running his own tech startup. She decides her true dream is to be a singer, and croons a cringe-worthy rendition of Kanye West’s “Stronger” at Charlie’s company party. And in a deliciously cringetastic moment, she presents this performance as if it’s a gift.
Of all the characters, Hannah leaps the furthest, getting a book deal (actually, an e-book). Then she regresses most of all when the stress of an insane one-month deadline causes her OCD to resurface. She becomes more and more isolated over the course of the season (by my count, she and Marnie haven’t shared a scene since episode six), and the self-centered Hannah ruptures her own ear drum with a Q-tip and blows her deadline so badly that she’s threatened with a lawsuit. Suddenly, Ms. Horvath needs some real empathy after having failed to show it to everyone else.
With the reappearance of Hannah’s illness comes season two’s turn toward life’s darker side. Hannah’s symptoms aren’t sitcom-cute, and each time she repeats an action eight times, we see her mind unravel a little more. Meanwhile, the same episode saw Adam breaking his sobriety. At an uncomfortable engagement party with his new girlfriend, he orders a drink and she — despite having been introduced to him through her mother’s connection to Alcoholics Anonymous — is inexplicably fine with it. Immediately afterward, they have a disturbing sexual encounter that highlights the differences between Hannah and Adam’s new partner. Neither storyline is played for laughs and thus, Girls descends from a mostly light but satiric comedy into a darker melodrama.
Reaction to the change in tone has been mixed, but it makes perfect sense when considering the debt Girls owes to earlier works about women coming-of-age in the big city. For all that Dunham’s been compared to Woody Allen and her show is held up against Sex and the City, the show reads thematically closer to Rona Jaffe’s 1958 book The Best of Everything (not to mention Mary McCarthy’s The Group, released in 1963). The parallels haven’t gone unnoticed, and in fact, Emily Nussbaum reported both books were required reading for Dunham’s writers.
The Best of Everything follows a loose group of female friends exploring careers, relationships and sex in New York, striking a tone that’s subtly funny in the observation of social interactions. Both it and The Group are, of course, rife with beaus (hey, they take place in the 50s and 30s) similar to Adam. Friendships between women feature prominently, and both books take grim turns as they unfold, seeing characters with facades of promise mentally deteriorate, eventually dying as a result. Since reading both books, I’ve wondered whether any of the characters on Girls would meet their onscreen demise. It didn’t seem like a possible route for a comedy — and yet after this season, I, Carrie-like, can’t help but wonder if it’s a possibility.
After dragging us through so much sadness, the season was bound to end on more of an upswing. Shosh finally gets the gumption to break up with Ray, showing just how much more adult she is than the others, and Marnie and Charlie have their inevitable reunion. The real climax, though, comes when Hannah is finally desperate enough for help that she reaches out to Adam. The result is Adam running shirtless through Brooklyn to a swelling rom-com soundtrack. He arrives at Hannah’s apartment, encountering her locked door. And hence, the man who Hannah had arrested earlier in the season for his stalkerish behavior (okay, technically, it was an unpaid parking ticket that got him cuffed) breaks down her door to save her from herself.
Watching this sequence, I actually yelled, “Are you serious?!” at my friend’s television, like a sports bar patron whose winning team suddenly took an inexplicable dive in an important game. It’s not that I couldn’t see Hannah and Adam coming together again. She’s clearly in a place where she needs some tough but honest compassion, and Adam, as a member of AA, would be poised to offer that kind of help. But the maudlin cliché of his shirtless sprint through Prospect Heights — punched up to the hilt by that song — was disappointing. For a show that’s been so adept at avoiding cliché, the finale could have been just as powerful without the forced grandiosity.