"Big chances are never small stakes," Hannah's father told her in the season finale of Girls, after she'd broken the news that she'd been accepted into graduate school. That sentence could be tacked up on the wall of Girls' writers' room. Lena Dunham's series is part of a long tradition of comedy laboratories in which almost anything goes. Part of the fun for viewers (if you can call a show as emotionally sadomasochistic as Girls "fun") lies in trying to anticipate what sort of wild pitch they'll throw next. A stand-alone episode tracing the arc of a relationship in less than two days? A bottle episode set wholly or partly at a vacation home, or at somebody's parents' house? Sure, why not? The show's first two season finales were especially rich, reintroducing images and situations from earlier in the season in ways that made the past and present seem to nestle alongside each other, like imperfect rhymes. Alan Sepinwall listed a few notable mirrorings here, and Slant's Chuck Bowen went even deeper into musical analogy, describing the action as a set of five character duets.
It's too bad that "Two Plane Rides" was such a mess, and that its predecessor, "I Saw You," was a mess as well. We had every right to expect another lively, intricately crafted season-ender, but Girls stumbled near the finish line, then stumbled again. The show has had clunky moments leading up to this final stretch, but "I Saw You" and "Two Plane Rides" were the first two episodes in Girls history that I'd describe as half-assed. The material with Jessa and the rich artist Beadie (Louise Lasser) was embarrassingly underdeveloped, in ways that made her seem like the sort of old lady "shell" that Beadie self-consciously railed about seeing on television, to her lasting despair. The whole story line was a near disaster, making hash of Jessa's relapse into addiction, copping out of a euthanasia subplot that wasn't convincing in the first place, and generally failing to deal with the dozen or so "issues" that the characters had raised between them. Lasser, the groundbreaking star of the Girls ancestor Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, deserved better than what she got. Ditto Patti LuPone, a Broadway legend whose appearances in "Incidentals" and "I Saw You" amounted to two episodes' worth of smack-on-the-nose relationship counseling for Hannah. (What hero of Dunham's will be underserved next season? Will she bring in Mary Tyler Moore as a tattoo removal specialist?)
The misuse of these big-name guest stars was symptomatic of a larger problem on Girls: an inability to balance the different parts of the show's ensemble. The series introduced a divisive but compelling new character, Adam's sister Caroline, and did an unexpectedly fine job of integrating her into the existing ensemble, but then it seemed to lose interest in her, then forget about her, and when she showed up again in the finale to tell Hannah she'd shacked up with Laird and was carrying his baby (cue The Omen score), it was such a clunky, exposition-driven moment that they could've dubbed in the sound of gears grinding. Girls never figured out what to do with Ray this year, either. It kept giving him variations on the same two situations to play: getting over Shoshanna, and getting pulled into an expedient kinda-sorta-relationship with Marnie. I've been following Karpovsky's work as an actor and filmmaker for nearly a decade, and I can't remember him ever seeming distracted and unfocused before; there were moments this season where he seemed emotionally half-there, and if so, who can blame him?
Shoshanna was the emotional heart of the finale — her intermission confession to Ray was wrenching, her tearful "please" truly devastating — but she didn't have much to do before that point, except wilt before the emotional intensity of Hannah, Adam, Adam's sister Caroline, and whoever else happened to be in the room with her. Granted, Shosh has rarely stood in the spotlight before, but in season three she too often felt like an afterthought: a frazzled presence scribbled into scenes that didn't need her. (Exception: any scene which Shosh gets to tell somebody off. She may be just a little teapot, but when she boils over, it's glorious.)
Marnie, meanwhile, has gone from being merely unlikable to seeming unbalanced. I used to think of her as a modestly talented, conventionally attractive woman who fills the void in her personality with ambition and romantic yearning: in short, a deeply narcissistic user of other people; one who, unlike her pal Hannah, seems incapable of truly connecting with anyone else. She pursued Desi so reflexively and celebrated her backstage triumph so heedlessly (practically chortling about it within earshot of people who were sure to be alarmed or hurt by the knowledge) that it made me wonder if she were another Caroline in the making. As written, there seems to be something truly, deeply wrong with this woman. Hannah's a blinkered, selfish twit a lot of the time, too, but she's also a warm person who can respond to other people in ways that make it seem as though she regards them as something other than stepping stones or hurdles standing between her and whatever she wants.
Hannah and Adam's relationship was elegantly articulated, in ways that rang so true that I sometimes wanted to look away from the screen (more often than usual; Girls is cringe comedy, proudly so). The suggestion that career success rather than lifestyle details might drive them apart was Girls' truest twist. In popular art, love can conquer any obstacle; in life, sometimes it can't even overcome the bland impediments of Zip codes or the number of digits on a pay stub. At times, the Adam-Hannah relationship was so strong, so strange, so real-seeming, that when the show felt obligated to leave them and visit other characters it felt like a misallocation of resources. It also made it seem as though the show was stretching to fill up its allotted screen time. This should never be the case with a short-run cable program. When you watch network shows that air 22 or more episodes in a season, you don't expect every piece to fit perfectly and feel like part of a meticulous grand plan; the challenge of being interesting over half a year is part of the show, and when the writers and producers fail the test, you think, Oh, well, there's always next week. Girls doesn't have that kind of luxury. It aired just 11 episodes this year, but in contrast to seasons one and two — in which every episode, subplot and scene pulled its weight, whether you personally approved of the content or not — it sometimes felt longer, particularly during these final two weeks, in which it became increasingly clear that it didn't know what to do with anyone except Hannah and Adam.
And some of Hannah's actions in the second half of the season smacked of writers' room desperation as well. Her impulsive decision to quit her silly advertorial job made her seem not romantic or idealistic but merely stupid (any writer who quits an undemanding staff writing job with medical coverage purely for reasons of principle is a character who's been time-warped in from about 1996). And the revelation that she'd gotten into the University of Iowa's graduate creative writing program was just ludicrous. Girls wants us to believe that its heroine has the talent and drive to become a successful professional writer — perhaps even one as great as Hannah's own grandiose fantasies — but almost nothing onscreen makes us believe it. How real is the world Hannah's navigating? How real is Hannah's ambition? How real is her commitment to her craft? How real is her talent? These are all questions the show might consider answering at some point, for fear of seeming as though it's fudging them to give itself the freedom to patch holes in the story in any manner it wishes.
What happened? Just a few weeks ago I was bonding with a couple of fellow Girls watchers about how sharp the show has been this year, in both structure and characterization. Dunham and her co-writers are splitting the difference between indie art film obnoxiousness and satisfyingly soapy melodrama, going up to the edge of Fiction 101 obviousness and (usually) pulling back, and investing their regular characters with so many weird but true-seeming details that it's not possible to dismiss any of them as variations on sitcom types. They are types, of course: real-world types, subspecies of urban millennial homo sapiens who hadn't been identified, named, and catalogued until Girls came ambling along and put down its iPhone long enough to notice them. Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, Jessa, Adam, Ray, and the rest evoke a line from Pauline Kael's review of Miss Firecracker: They're so original, sometimes irritatingly so, that in close-ups they seem to be thinking thoughts no character on TV has ever thought before. I still feel that way about the characters, but I'm worried that the architecture of the show isn't sophisticated enough to support them.