When Girls debuted on HBO two years ago, I greeted it with a flush of joyful recognition. My experiences with Brooklyn in my early twenties tended more toward heat stroke and food poisoning than drug binges and spontaneous marriages, and my gay best friends may have been political reporters rather than kept boys. But, as I wrote at the time, Girls was a hugely reassuring promise that even if you completely humiliated yourself, you’d have friends who still appreciated you when you had to get out of a cab to throw up in a Park Slope trash can.
Two years later, I feel less like one of Hannah Horvath’s peers, and more like a different cultural archetype, maybe Liz Lemon in Deal-Breaker Lady mode. It’s not like I have vastly more life experience now than Hannah does, though my timeline is moving a little faster than hers, and thanks to a more fortuitous graduation rate, my career’s a lot further along. But as the seasons of Girls have gone by, I’ve found myself wishing I could give the characters some much-needed real talk. Getting paid less than the cocaine probably cost you to do it for the first time and write about it? Pretend you’re into being a sexy housewife to an incredibly dreadful finance guy with turntables and an inability to say no to the yearnings of his manly bits? Telling the boyfriend that you’ve recently reunited with that you want to have little brown babies with him? Deal breaker! You’re all deal breakers!
To a certain extent, though, that’s the point. Girls is about a particular moment in your life when you’ve got to learn things the hard way, even though valuable insight from nonjudgmental people is available to you in greater quantities and quality than it has been at any time previous. Sometimes the show goes too far in trying to establish its characters’ imperviousness to the wisdom they ought to be picking up on: At moments, Girls’ second season felt like it had no goal other than to prove Lena Dunham knew that her characters weren’t admirable. But even as Girls can drive me to old-lady-ish ramblings about how we’re humans who live in a society — particularly this year as Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) has been replaced by what seems to be an alien convinced reality television is an important broadcast from humanity to the stars — so help me, I still enjoy the darn thing.
The first two episodes of this season do something smart and tricky that clarifies the gap between the characters’ self-perception, and the way the world, including us, sees them. “Females Only” and “Truth or Dare” are defined by moments when minor characters deliver withering assessments of the core cast, but in ways that make it clear why the characters wouldn’t be able to absorb their judgments or advice. Girls has always been about unreliable narrators, but in the third season, it’s counting us among them.
In “Females Only” and “Truth or Dare,” the main objects of this flood of in-show truth-telling are Adam and Jessa. Adam becomes the first target when, stopping by Grumpy’s to pick up Hannah’s keys, he runs into Natalia and a friend of hers (played by comedian Amy Schumer), who decide to tell him — and then Hannah — off. The tirade Natalia delivers is meant to wound the couple, but it reveals as much about her as it does the objects of her rage, and a number of things about Adam and Hannah that Natalia doesn’t actually intend. “You know what you have on your hands here, right?” she demands of Hannah. “You know. You know that you’ve got an off-the-wagon, Neanderthal, sex-addict sociopath who’s going to fuck you like he’s never met you and like he doesn’t love his own mother.”
All of this is true! Adam did perform sex acts on Natalia that she hadn’t explicitly consented to, and that she didn’t much like. And yet, for some reason she’s hugely upset to see him with someone else. Natalia may think Adam’s a “Neanderthal sex-addict sociopath,” but the tantrum she’s throwing suggests that she still wants him, or at least doesn’t want someone else to have him. Her speech reminds us of something else, too: Hannah likes Adam at least in part because he is that guy. And yet with her, he’s in part something else, too: a guy who spoons his girlfriend in her sleep, and gets her orange juice and her psychiatric medications in the morning, making games of checking to see that she’s really swallowed it.
An even less reliable evaluator of Adam’s character accidentally provides an even more perceptive assessment of him when, on a hike in New York on the way to pick Jessa up from rehab, Shoshanna tells Adam how great she thinks he is. “Hannah needs so much, and you just give, and give, and give like a saint,” she declares. “I’m serious. Think about it. What would she have done during this period of mental unrest if her boyfriend had been, like, an actual human being, like, existing in society. What if you had, like, a job, or responsibilities, or places to be during the day, or a best friend.”
So far, I hate the brain transplant that Girls seems to have given Shoshanna this season, suggesting that the war between the pop-culture sugar she’s consumed and her own spiky personality is over and terrible interpretations of Sex and the City declared victory. But Shoshanna is right both that Adam has been a wonderful solace to Hannah, and that the thing he’s been to her is ultimately unsustainable. Whether Adam can recognize this diagnosis of his present state from a woman who isn’t aware how remotely devastating she’s just been will be an interesting aspect of Girls’ third season.
Something similar, and harsher, is happening to Jessa in rehab, where she fancies herself a more perceptive analyst of her fellow patients than their therapists, but also keeps knocking up against some ideas that illustrate the depth of her self-deception. “I feel like you are using being molested as an excuse,” she declares to Laura (Orange Is the New Black’s Danielle Brooks, who I wish had been cast for a longer arc on the show, and for a purpose other than Jessa’s moral education). “I’m really sorry that your uncle fucked you, but at the end of the day, we’ve all been through a lot. We can’t go around blaming other people for our shit behavior. I feel you’re being a bit whiny.” Later, after Jessa’s caught having sex with Laura, who thinks she might be a lesbian but has never kissed a woman, Jessa will tell the rehab administrator, “So I went down on fat, gay Laura. It was basically charity.”
There’s no situation that Jessa can’t find a way to turn more provocative or unpleasant in the name of some sort of radical honesty, a tendency that undermines her sometimes quite good insights into the lives of those around her. And three different people will call her on this recasting of callousness into a virtue. First, there’s the administrator, a square Jessa mocks at every opportunity, who poses a blunt question that Jessa can’t even hear, much less confront (and to be fair, it’s not exactly posed in helpful, therapeutic terms). “Are you a sociopath?” the woman wants to know. “Are you a method actor researching a role?”
Easier for Jessa to engage, in part because she views him as a fellow seer-through of rehab cliches, are the insights of a fellow British patient. (Played by Withnail and I star Richard E. Grant.) “People have to come to things in their own time. You have to learn when honesty is righteous and when honesty is nothing more than a parlor trick.” “You’re a real shit for not knowing how old your daughter is,” Jessa snaps back at him, but it’s an accurate analysis of the principles Jessa’s operating under. She’s not an inherently cruel person — in fact, part of Jessa’s delusion is that she sees herself as helpful and generous — but she’s convinced that everyone other than herself is avoiding a harsh confrontation with reality.
But the man persists, and gets an admission out of Jessa that, as we’ll later learn, Shoshanna might benefit from. “I expect you’ve had many, many experiences. Too many, probably, for someone of your age,” he muses. “I’ve had fun,” Jessa insists. “But it wasn’t always fun, was it?” he wants to know, with the recognition of someone who’s been through a similar bout of self-deception. Later, he tries to push Jessa into having sex with him, and reveals that he’s been high during most of their conversations. It may invalidate, for Jessa, his observations into her character, and certainly these revelations don’t make him a comfortable surrogate for those of us watching at home. But the words still hang there in the air.
The one person to whom Jessa can make a promise, in part because she trusts her judgment, but also knows that judgment is clouded by a haze of sentiment and memory, is Hannah. When Jessa tries to deflect Hannah’s anger at having made a totally unnecessary trip to pick Jessa up from rehab, she compliments her friend’s OCD-induced haircut. But Hannah, for once, won’t be entirely deterred. “This haircut happened upon me at a very challenging time that you weren’t present for. And I’m glad you like it, because I wake up every morning and I question it,” Hannah tells Jessa. “I would really like it if you would stop leaving because I’m really looking forward to you being around more.”
Jessa says she’s done with that, and the greatest suggestion of growth in this pair of episodes is the suggestion that she might actually mean it. But in a milieu where the closest thing any of the Girls has to a life plan is Shoshanna’s alternating nights of random hookups and studying, which looks a lot more like napping in the library, the idea of major life change may be a lot to ask.
Hannah’s Dinner Party Game: I’m fine with Elijah’s belated entrance this season, but I miss the giddy sight of the two ex-roomies preparing to host their friends for the evening. Compared to that, Hannah’s sad debate over take-out tacos (which, come on, Marnie and Shosh are never going to eat) and how many tubs of Breyers to get just feels miserable. Of course, it doesn’t help that Adam would rather wall himself inside a papier-mâché egg than have dinner with Hannah’s friends. Maybe it’s time for her to try a new form of entertaining.
Marnie’s Charlie Obsession: To be far, this isn’t entirely Girls — or Marnie’s — fault, since Christopher Abbott apparently quit the show in a huff. But it’s a drag watching her sulk again, especially since Girls has never quite explained why the girl who started the show with the most professional drive now can’t put it together again. Send her to an interview for an actual job! Give somebody on this show some realistic white-lady-from-a-reasonably-affluent-family success — and then mine dramatic tension from the way she lords it over everyone else.
Shoshanna’s Brain Transplant: Seriously, Shoshanna, who now believes that women shouldn’t be president because of their periods, is convinced that Jessa’s stay in rehab is just another jaunty adventure, and is absolutely sure that life after college will be glorious? Give us back the spiky, angry girl Ray fell crazily in love with.
Jessa’s Definition of Charity Work: You know what would be awesome? For any of Jessa’s interactions with women of color to have any consequences that are meaningful to her, at all.