Why Girls Is So Good When It Leaves New York City

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Lena Dunham in the season-six premiere of Girls. Photo: HBO

We think of Girls as a show about four young women who live in New York. More specifically, it’s a show about four young women of a very particular age and time, living in a very distinctive, often Brooklyn-framed New York. Girls is highly characterized by place, in moments both when that place feels remarkably, painstakingly accurate (Hannah and Tally bike-riding through the city, the extra-hipster coffee shop that opens across from Ray’s, the park benches, the art shows) and when it occasionally beggars belief, often in that “how are they affording this?” sense. The internet, of course, has been all over it – “The Girls Guide to NYC,” Lena Dunham’s guide to the city, “How New York Real Was Last Night’s Girls?,” a look at how Girls has “impacted real-life Brooklyn,” a Google map of the shooting locations, etc.

In fact, Girls sometimes feels so much about New York, you have to wonder if its persistent location specificity has been the source of some of its criticism – the Girls world is rich and detailed, but it can also feel chokingly insular. If that’s the way you read Girls, you will read that elitist insularity into the show regardless of its setting. But over the past five seasons, Girls has spent a surprising amount of time in places outside New York, and has used spaces outside the city for some of its best, most compelling storytelling. Where life in Brooklyn tends to be spirals of oblique complication for the Girls characters, the show becomes more direct when it leaves the city, in its storytelling and its visuals.

Tonight’s premiere episode is a perfect case in point. Hot off the success of some incredibly New Yorker accomplishments (personal triumph at The Moth inspires a NYT Modern Love column), Hannah decamps to Montauk on an assignment to write about wealthy women at a surf camp. The assignment itself seems poised to be just another part of the urbanite world Girls so often depicts – Hannah fumbling ineptly amidst a background of wealthy people searching for enlightenment is hardly a departure from series’ norms. Instead, she ditches the camp with her surf instructor, and they spend a day bumming around the beach, getting high, and having the kinds of broad, simple epiphanies about human nature that tend to accompany staring blankly out at the ocean. Okay sure – Hannah and Paul Louis (Riz Ahmed) are not in California or Spain. They’re in Montauk. But for the impact it has on Hannah, they may as well be half a world away. She is happier and more open. She sees different possibilities for herself.

It’s not that Hannah can be more self-reflective away from the city, or that she’s more able to experiment with new versions of herself. When she’s home or when she travels, Hannah’s self-narration and personal reinvention are constant, exhausting, frequently misguided processes. But outside of New York – outside is where she reaches crisis points, where she escapes, where she’s free to make choices and pull things to shreds and have new ideas. They’re not always good choices. At home visiting her parents in Michigan, at Iowa for grad school, again in Montauk for this writing trip, Hannah gets completely wasted at parties. She tends to sleep with strangers (this also happens when she goes upstate with Jessa and sleeps with Jessa’s cousin, and she nearly sleeps with a yoga instructor at her mother’s empowerment retreat). It’s not until Hannah and Fran try to leave the city for their abortive summer road trip that Hannah manages to break up with him, which is both a good choice and also involves some of the worst, most self-destructive behavior she’s displayed thus far. But she has to leave the city to make any of that happen, and to force herself to change.

The show even looks different outside of New York. Some of the promo art for this final season – with Hannah standing carefree on a dock, happily arm in arm with Paul Louis – looks like it belongs to a completely different show, one with more open spaces and fewer claustrophobic eardrum puncturing scenes. One of the most striking images from season five comes at the end of “Queen for Two Days,” as Shoshanna wanders slowly through an empty street in Tokyo, suddenly overwhelmed by her Sophia Coppola-esque alienation. The end of the beach house episode is similarly affecting: After their disastrous weekend attempting to bond, the four girls sit on a curb waiting for their ride home, hungover and bearing grudges. Silently, they slowly start going through the motions of a choreographed dance, twisting their arms and half-shimmying in synchrony, even as they refuse to make eye contact or crack a smile. It’s as if leaving New York frees Girls to be more open to these kinds of broad, direct images. Visually and narratively, the city is a great muddling force for the show, perpetually complicating and undercutting everything. Outside, everything is clearer, simpler, more candid.

It’s worth noting, too, that some of the most arresting episodes inside the city have been those that force the Girls characters to feel alien even though they’re at home. In season two, it’s when Hannah walks into Patrick Wilson’s brownstone, a space completely apart from her usual world. More recently, Marnie’s “Panic Through Central Park” episode hinges on Marnie running through the city with Charlie as though it’s totally new to her.

I’m not trying to argue that Girls isn’t actually a show about New York. Hannah and each of the shows’ main characters see New York as a magnetic pole, a mountain to be scaled, a center, an arena, a black hole – something inescapable and necessary and vital and destructive and also the only true, complete measure of success. But with each new season, it has become clearer that Girls tells stories about New York elliptically, in big repeating loops of departures and returns. After all, each of those trips away is also a story about coming back to the city, either by slinking back home in defeat or triumphantly returning to attack it from a new angle. How many stories over the past five seasons have been about Jessa coming back from rehab, or Marnie moving back to the city, or Hannah coming home from Iowa? How many images have there been of these young women in cars, in buses, in airports, or waiting for rides, just trying to get back?

It’s too early to say what the end of the final season of Girls will look like. But from its beginning, and from the legacy of the previous five seasons, it seems likely that the final legacy of the show will be as a series about a very particular vision of New York. It’s a place that’s confounding and exhausting and thrilling, and in the trailer for this last season, Hannah says animatedly that she can’t leave because she hasn’t “made [her] mark” on it yet. If past is prologue, though, maybe she has to leave. Because as much as anything else, Girls is a story about New York, and how the only way to tell that story is by breaking up with the city, and then making up, over and over again.

Girls Is So Good When It Leaves New York City