When you view the four women of Girls as heroes or role models or even metaphorical stand-ins for what all millennials are thinking and feeling in our current moment, the whole enterprise starts to crumble. That is not what they are. Not one of these characters is heroic. Too many people try to see them that way, or at least feel that the show wants us to, which leads to a lot of criticism, like, “God, these people are horrible! Am I supposed to care about these horrible people? Young people are monsters! Is watching destructive people destroy supposed to be fun? I’m not having any fun.”
But here’s the secret about Girls: It is not really supposed to be enjoyable. Yes, there are jokes and physical comedy (Hannah hoisting herself over the couch after dropping bombs on everyone in her writing seminar was pure slapstick), but it’s meant to feel dour and heavy, like a gray cloud of depressive paint has been dumped over the whole thing. It’s not a show about heroes. In fact, if anything, Dunham is making a strong case in the fourth season that this is a show about four villains and the havoc they cause in the lives of anyone who comes in contact with them.
These are very toxic girls. And while they are learning — and we can watch them grow (hopefully, potentially) from solipsistic drifters into empathetic doers — they still have a long way to go. After this episode, they all seem more lost than ever before. This was a particularly painful installment — but sometimes life has particularly painful weeks, months, even years in it, and for people in their 20s right now, that murk can feel interminable. Girls captures that trauma better than most shows on television, but it isn’t always pleasant. The glimmer of hope in the show is that we see them aching to make strides, and they all have tiny victories every episode, but it’s slow-going stuff. You have to strap yourself in for the long haul.
The person who had the best week was Shoshanna, who finds herself nailing her first job interview in the real world. She meets with a fellow cardigan enthusiast at Ann Taylor Loft, who offers her the gig as a junior accessories buyer right away, both of them talking in the extremely quick up-speak and seeming to bond for life. But Shosh, feeling like she should be “honest, even when it’s extremely difficult,” suddenly tells her interviewer that she’s not passionate about the job and was really only using the meeting as a trial run. Suddenly, the room turns cold, and we can tell that it’s going to be tough out there in the real world for a girl like Shoshanna. Not everyone wants that kind of brutal honesty, especially from a recent college graduate in the context of a formal interview, and it seems that Shosh will be in for a hard dose of reality in her job search. She doesn’t realize how tough the market is, or how tough of a sell she is out there. When she ends up out in the cold, she’ll probably regret not taking the cardigan gig.
Meanwhile, Marnie is having a short burst of career success, as the multicultural team of hipsters that works at a record label get “goosies” over the demo she made with Desi. But she, too, bombs a business meeting — no matter how down-to-earth an executive seems, they probably don’t want to grab a smoke outside in the middle of a listening session — completely jarred by Desi’s insistence to the label that they are not a couple despite the fact that he very visibly rubs her back the entire time. Marnie finally sticks up for herself after the meeting (Desi calling her “Bella” after his dismissal is rich, a kind of breaking point), and it’s exciting to see this bit of growth, of strength, from someone who is usually so riddled with weakness and insecurity. Ray is right about Desi; he’s a “Casanova who counts cards secretly while he has four queens up his sleeve,” someone who uses any easy excuse to get what he wants (see: calling Marnie’s desire to be monogamous “a very culturally specific statement”). He is a snake, a user, an emotional pirate. And in a way, so is Marnie (see: her leaping on top of Ray the moment he pays her a compliment). But she has stood her ground. The fear now is that her plan will work — she may get Desi, but what is she getting? A man so unattuned to her feelings that he doesn’t even realize she might feel like a mistress when he tells a room full of people about his girlfriend? It feels like a dangerous road, even if she is finally feeling empowered to walk down it.
Speaking of danger, Jessa continues to put the people around her in peril because of her nonchalance. She does it in small ways — dangling the amount of time she sees Adam in front of Hannah and then merely responding by showing her ass over Skype — and also in bigger ways, like, say, getting arrested with Adam for peeing in the street and requiring Ray to post $3,000 bail in the middle of the night. Ray is starting to look like the most adult person on this show, but Adam is coming close: He’s learning to set boundaries with people like Jessa, who still manages to be a “bad influence” even after four months of sobriety. She wants to bond with Adam over their shenanigans, but he’s even getting too old for it. “You’re sober and you’re still doing this shit. What are you trying to provoke?” There’s a hole in Jessa, and she’s trying to fill it with something (if that means making out with a random dude at AA and telling him to replace “God” in his mantras with “Jessa,” so be it), and she is insatiable. Of all the characters on the show, Jessa may be the most out of touch with reality — only a white girl who has grown up with years of economic privilege can make jokes about “the fuzz, popo, pigs” right outside a police station — but Adam’s refusal to play into her bullshit might be the impetus she needs to make a change. Admitting that she needs a friend, a real one strong enough to tell her when she is being an asshole, might be Jessa’s first step in her personality rehabilitation. Happy sober birthday.
And then, well, there’s Hannah. If we were not supposed to see Hannah as the true villain of the Girls universe before, then this episode shows her at her absolute darkest, at her egomaniacal worst. She is unable to write; instead she makes brownies from a mix, watches Teen Nick marathons, and continues feeling isolated as Elijah thrives in Iowa (his busy new life includes helping Didi didi put the finishing touches on her chapbook and then checking on Raffi). When the two attend a “poet’s party,” at which Elijah has taken up his new photography habit, having mastered the art of the selfie and having “seen the Bill Cunningham documentary one too many times,” Hannah finally admits that she may not want to be a writer after all. Elijah reminds her that no one loves their work, and that even Dakota Fanning might not want to be Dakota Fanning sometimes (to which Hannah responds, “being Dakota Fanning is amazing; you get so many free boots”). Hannah is blocked, stunted, and in her misery about not being able to complete the work she moved to Iowa to do, starts lashing out like a petty rat in a very bitter cage.
The scene where Hannah reads her classmates to filth was obviously fun to write; there are so many amazing zingers (“thinks he’s Updike, thinks it’s a revolution that he hates his parents”; “tragically hip gaysian, manic-pixie dream girl, pseudo–Weetzie Bat bullshit”; “bad mood Millie”; “Can I see your criminal record?”). But it is nothing short of excruciating to watch Hannah implode in front of her entire seminar, boiling over about female hysteria and radical honesty. On the one hand, yes, her classmates seem like pretentious douchebags (see D’August’s citing of male authors as the only good sex writers or the dressing-down of The Fault in Our Stars), or, at the very least, not Hannah’s type of people. But her inability to read the situation, and to find a way to express her anger with how she’s been treated in a way that doesn’t involve lashing out and nasty slurs, is going to be her downfall at Iowa, and perhaps in the world. Total honesty is one thing; tone-deaf-ness another. Only a Mennonite in a buggy wants to sit next to Hannah now.