Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this season of Girls is the number of lusciously shot sequences that follow characters through specific, strange places. For Shoshanna, it happened in Japan, and it was capped by the stunning closer of her walking through an empty Tokyo street, with Aurora’s cover of “Life on Mars” helping to give her foreignness a lonely and heroic arc. For Marnie, it was “The Panic in Central Park,” which similarly finds her in a city rendered alien. Shoshanna’s fetish room mirrors the black-tie fundraiser Marnie crashes, down to the costumes they both require; Shoshanna’s empty street is echoed in Marnie’s walking away from Charlie’s apartment, barefoot and raw.
Hannah just hasn’t gotten the same Sofia Coppola treatment. Creatively stifled and shackled to Fran the “secret dick,” Hannah has instead descended to as-yet-unexplored depths of bad behavior, culminating in flashing her boss and forcing a blow job on Ray.
In “Love Stories,” though, Hannah is freed from the strictures of a relationship that was patently terrible for her, quits her teaching job (and apologizes for the flashing incident), and, at last, gets a version of her own dreamlike, girl-meets-city sequence, accompanied by her old nemesis Tally Schifrin. Unable to think of a reason why not to join her — she is free, she says, until she has to go home to Michigan for Thanksgiving — Hannah joins Tally for the day, and they find themselves flying over a bridge on bikes, zipping past construction workers and playground kids to a cover of Vanity Fare’s “Hitchin’ a Ride.”
It’s not the same as Marnie’s night with Charlie, or Shoshanna’s experience in Japan. Though Hannah’s bike ride is cheerful and freewheeling — even as she’s too afraid to look at the view as they cross the bridge — it’s also short, and has none of the heft of the other characters’ parallel moments.
Instead, Hannah’s big revelatory moment is the quieter one she shares with Tally afterwards, as they talk about their careers and identities and anxieties. Hannah admits that she’s been measuring herself against Tally for years; while Tally has a successful writing career (including a book of poetry), Hannah has nothing to show for her life except to have “gained and lost a total of 33 pounds” and “not one but two strains of HPV.”
They are high, and Jenny Slate’s Tally is as much a caricature as anyone else on this show, and if her subsequent disclosure doesn’t make it onto a highlight reel of “Girls and the Problem of First-World Problems,” I don’t know what will. But it’s absolutely sincere, and it has a ring of confused, self-loathing truth. “I Google myself every day,” Tally tells Hannah. “Tally Schifrin” is no longer just a person; she’s a character. “She’s a monster,” Tally says. “She feeds on praise and controversy and it’s exhausting and boring all at once.”
Girls (and Hannah in particular) has gotten quite a bit of flack over the past five seasons for adhering too closely to Lena Dunham’s experience and viewpoint. It is both a feature and a pitfall of this series that its main character is so frequently conflated with its creator — every loathsome thing Hannah does is disgustedly (and gleefully) ascribed to Dunham’s own life and selfhood. It gives us a voyeuristic thrill to feel like we’re getting Dunham’s real, controversial self, but it can also encourage some viewers to see the show solely as Dunham’s roman à clef.
Perhaps more powerfully than anywhere else in the series to date, “Love Stories” presents a moment from a character other than Hannah who might usefully be read as a Dunham stand-in, with all the knotty issues that represents. Tally is the success story whose notoriety has divorced her from the real experiences she needs to sell her authorial brand. It’s very hard to not think of Dunham during Tally’s mournful confession.
Most pertinently to the episode, this confession lets Hannah see her own past several years in a different light — all her failures and mistakes are reframed as material for writing, just as she’s always wanted. She is, for the first time in a while, legitimately happy.
The success of this moment relies on its audience’s ability (or desire) to see it outside the context of Hannah’s other actions. She is, after all, still the person who forced her friend into a sexual encounter he did not want. She got an apology from the principal, whose indulgent, accepting stance is pretty hard to buy. She stole the bike that launched her on this little trip. She stole it from a business guy whose Ultra-Square Business-y Papers spill out of his leather satchel, which is supposed to render him below our sympathy, I suppose. But she stole it nonetheless.
While the episode plays with the idea of Hannah’s titular love story being between her and Tally (“Should we have sex?” “… Should we?”), the actual love story might just be the earliest blush of Hannah falling in love with herself. We’ve seen things like this before, and I’m a long way off from accepting this as the moment Hannah’s trajectory changes course. But it certainly comes at a suggestive narrative juncture, moving blocks into place right before the show’s final season.
That’s enough of Hannah’s love story, because we also need to look at Elijah, whose Pretty Woman bit with D’Emilia does not work out as he had hoped. It’s hard to say how fully Elijah actually feels the things he says to Dill in his pitch for serious-boyfriend status. In spite of his general delight at informing D’Emilia and others about his “well-known TV-personality” hookup, Andrew Rannells plays Elijah’s realization that Dill doesn’t want him with deep sadness. Both Dill and Fran go a long way toward demonstrating how terrible they would be as partners, but Dill’s final moments are hilarious, in spite of Elijah’s heartbreak. When Dill couldn’t even hug Elijah all the way because of his filming makeup, I snickered. When Dill said, “I’ll think of you every time I go to Brooklyn,” I full-out snorted.
In the land of Marnie and Desi, the love story is happily not between them. This is thanks in no small part to Tandice’s insistence that more than eight minutes with Marnie would constitute “re-immersion.” Instead, it’s a reunion between Marnie and Ray, which is the result of a dream Marnie insists on describing as a “love dream” rather than a “sex dream.” It doesn’t bode particularly well that Marnie is, yet again, proving incapable of being on her own, but at least Ray is happy.
I doubt there’s any love story that would be fully satisfying for Shoshanna — other than a flight back to Japan, that is — but her gleeful leap back into marketing to help save Ray’s coffee shop will have to do. Her Carmen Sandiego-esque hat-and-trench routine at Helvetica certainly suggests she’s enjoying herself, and it’s always entertaining to watch Girls poke fun at the culture it’s so often despised for depicting. The owner-barista duo are hard to parse — they’re not so different from a show like New Girl making fun of a hipster elementary school in L.A., but they also feel like Girls having a laugh at its own expense.
The last glimpse of “Love Stories” is Hannah and Tally coming down the stairs, high and giggling and riding the wave of their intimate confessional dance montage. They bump into Jessa and Adam, who are presumably delivering groceries for Laird and Sample, and cannot stop their peals of hysterical laughter. It is awful, of course, that sense of being the butt of a joke you didn’t even hear, but it also feels like a moment of relief for Hannah, finally. This whole situation is hysterically funny to her, rather than painfully, perpetually dire. Is this what it looks like when Hannah sees outside of herself?