In the first scene we ever saw of Girls, Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath was sitting across from her parents (the great Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker) at a fancy Manhattan restaurant, shoveling pasta into her face as she promised them that her memoir (which was sure to make her “the voice of a generation”) was almost, pretty much, basically done. That dinner quickly turned sour when her parents broke the news that they were cutting off her financial support. “We can talk about it tomorrow,” Mama Horvath reassured her. “I don’t want to see you tomorrow,” Hannah snapped back, scowling down into her carbonara. “I will be busy … trying to become who I am.”
Two years and three seasons later, the season-four premiere opens on the exact same restaurant, at the exact same table, but the mood is far brighter. Hannah is now 25, financially independent, and on her way to the exclusive Iowa Writers’ Workshop to further hone her generational voice. Her father is beaming. “You were slow to grow, but oh, how beautiful is the blossom,” he says, raising his glass of Champagne. Of course, this is Girls and Hannah we’re talking about, so the buoyancy doesn’t last for long. In the middle of her father’s toast, Hannah interrupts to order an extra plate of French fries. “You don’t need any fries,” her mother grumbles. Then Hannah offers a solipsistic toast of her own: “I just want to say that even in the moments where, superficially, it seemed like you didn’t support me, and it seemed like you were criticizing my choices and doubting my talent, you were supporting me in your own way.” And we’re back.
In the eight months since Girls was last on the air, a lot has happened in the real world for Lena Dunham. Her memoir came out and became an instant best-seller. She was on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, made up to look like a Michelangelo sculpture. She toured across the country, reading with famous cool girls to sold-out rooms full of other cool girls. She then had to weather double bouts of insane criticism about her book (Yes, insane. I am not afraid to call myself a staunch pro-Dunhamist, and I believe that the witch hunters that have followed her around and tried to diminish her simply for being a young woman who chooses to mine her own experience for material are abhorrent and cruel), leading her to take to BuzzFeed to defend her own honor. If you didn’t know about Dunham before this year (perhaps you were cryogenically frozen, or being held against your will in an attic?), you certainly know about her now. Somehow, in the midst of all this madness, Dunham (and her co-pilot, Jenni Konner) has managed to write and direct a new season of Girls. And from the looks of this episode, at least, this one feels like it is going to be good.
When we ended season three, we left all four girls, but also the show in general, in a shaky spot. After a brilliant and kinetic debut season, the next two seasons got really dark, really fast (OCD unspooling, addiction and rehab, breakups, embarrassing singing at company parties). At the end of last season, everything was up in the air — Hannah had gotten into Iowa, Marnie was in love with an unavailable man, Shosh humiliated herself in front of Ray, Jessa aided in a suicide attempt, It was all high drama, but it also felt a bit like Girls had lost its way, careening a bit out of control. Perhaps this was a deliberate attempt to mimic millennial strife, that chaos that comes in those anarchic, early 20s years, but the show ended up feeling a bit muddy, rudderless. It felt a little too heavy for its half-hour slot, losing that jittery, high-wire energy that made season one such a phenomenon.
That all said, New Year, new season! And “Iowa” roars back as one of the strongest episodes the show has had yet — it is quick, dynamic, packed with jokes. Starting out season four in the same restaurant as season one is sending a message: We are yanking this thing back to form, returning to the roots of what made this show sharp. At its roots, Girls is a hyperrealistic drama, sure, but it’s also a biting satire about a group of friends who cannot evolve quickly enough, who will forever remain emotionally girls when they are supposed to be well into womanhood. This first episode back seems to have revived the show’s beating heart: These four are fuck-ups, but they are funny fuck-ups, Welcome back, Girls. We missed you. Now, let’s see where all our gals are at. Onward and inward!
Hannah’s decision in last year’s finale to leave New York for Iowa felt fairly abrupt (and, let’s face it, convenient), but this episode explores the ultimate impact of that choice: She is going to lose Adam.
Of course that isn’t apparent until the end of the episode, when he is so broken by her abandonment (Adam was never one to embrace sweeping change) that he cannot even say good-bye, pretending to be asleep as she slips out of the door and out of his life. But there are little clues early on that not all is well: At dinner with her parents, Adam’s toast to Hannah is rich with sarcasm: “Here’s to taking the next step in a series of random steps. How strange our journey is through life … we try to inject it with meaning, but all we have are days and months, marching on.” He is dressed like a Wild One–era Brando in a black leather jacket (his agent told him to dress like a biker for an audition, but she neglected to tell him that it was the “Tour de France kind”) and spouting off a Marlon-esque mouthful of existential angst, barely concealing his resentment at Hannah for skipping town.
Adam’s career is going well — he is in a national advertisement for the depression medication Torvica, trudging through mud in the rain with a cartoonish grimace of pain on his face — but, being sullen, mercurial, Adam, he can’t enjoy any of it. (“It’s fucking heinous,” he says after Hannah sees the commercial. “I can’t believe I fucking shaved for that shit.”) The cracks in Hannah and Adam’s foundation are most apparent when they discuss the “plan” for after she leaves, the plan being that there is no plan. She cannot say when she will come back to visit, and they both agree that he is terrible on the phone, a series of awkward grunts and pauses. “It’s all fluid, we’ll take it day by day,” he tells her when she worries that they won’t communicate after she goes. “No need to create some drama.”
Creating drama is what Hannah does best. But when it comes to Adam, she seems to be dodging confrontation as much as possible, causing the special kind of havoc that comes from avoiding pain rather than tackling it. “You know what is pussy?” Jessa says when she confronts Hannah in the bathroom of Marnie’s jazz brunch. “You don’t have the bravery to break up with Adam. If you want to be alone, be alone! No one’s going to be angry about that.” All Hannah can do is stand, mouth agape, and say, “You seem upset with me.” She has been nailed. And in not setting Adam free before she goes, she’s exhibiting that classic Horvath selfishness yet again.
Hannah and Adam work as a couple because they are both volatile, egomaniacal people; when they are together, their own weird, little universe is their sole obsession, and they work to protect it. It’s them in a narcissistic, codependent bubble, against the world. When they realize they are going to be separated, all the air goes out of their relationship. When they have sex on the last night, it’s quiet. Their hearts aren’t really in it. And as Adam stares out of the window of the apartment that used to be theirs, onto the rainy street, his grief is apparent. Hannah has driven away, and that’s that.
And in the car, on her way to a new state, Hannah is a child again. Her parents talk about her like she isn’t there — “I brought some Fig Newtons, Hannah loves those” — she might as well be off to college rather than grad school. She is alone in the backseat and in the world. It remains to be seen if she is moving on to better, greener pastures, or, as Jessa sniped, “pussing out on this whole this whole thing, this thing we are all trying to do, regardless of location, which is to make it work.” What’s clear is Hannah is moving on (and finally learning how to pack! She no longer just tosses her stuff in a corner and hopes it magically meets her at her destination). And for someone as stuck inside her own worldview as Hannah is, that may be all the progress we can expect for now.
Oh, Marnie. Marnie, Marnie, Marnie. So beautiful, so put-together, so totally fucking lost. Marnie has always been the cringiest character in the quartet, constantly striving for perfection and falling so far from it so often. This season is no different — we open on Marnie and Desi mid-cunnilingus (or is it a rim job?), his head deep between her butt cheeks as he goes to town on her while she is bent over her kitchen sink. Marnie’s face transmits pure bliss, but right away there is a dissonance — he says, “I loved that,” after he emerges from her ass crack; she says, “I love you, too.” OOF. And then there is the painful jazz/folk/bottomless-mimosa brunch, where we quickly find out that Marnie and Desi are screwing in secret; he is still with Clementine, and now Marnie can add “other woman” to her list of anti-accomplishments.
All this sneaking around has made Marnie particularly fragile; when a 9-year-old starts heckling her folk songs — which are as deliciously banal and shallow as you would hope they’d be, not to mention that lame rapping joke — she runs away in a huff, a trail of tears and feathery hair extensions. Her friends have shown up to listen (except Shosh, who ditches out after admitting that folk singing “reminds her of being carsick when I was little”), but her stage mother (Rita Wilson, who is perfect) is her only fan, cheesily mouthing the words to Marnie’s songs and snapping endless pictures with her iPhone in a “cool mom” case that looks like brass knuckles. And the whole time, Desi’s girlfriend, who Marnie lied to with a broad, cheshire-cat smile, is at a table, unawares. It’s all fairly pathetic.
Only Elijah, the catty voice of reason, gets through to Marnie after her meltdown: “You should’ve stopped giving a fuck when you got on that stage! What do Judy Garland and Lady Gaga have in common?” No, Marnie, it’s not that “they’re white.” It’s that they are “both bad bitches who don’t care what people think,” and she could stand to learn a little something from them. Her skin is so thin at the moment, it’s practically translucent.
Thank God for Elijah. Andrew Rannells is consistently one of the funniest players on the show, and his return this episode is a tour de force, with lines like, “I woke up in Harlem smelling like moussaka,” to calling the trio of mimosa-swilling Lisas brunching one table over with his ex-boyfriend Pal the “laziest bulimics you ever met.” I only wish he had delivered the line about Pal “killing himself for being so small and gay” to Pal’s face. Ugh, Pal. Go away, Pal. The next time I see you, you’d better be playing dead on an episode of SVU.
What Marnie lacks in self-awareness about her own situation, she makes up for in the last scene. She is the only friend to wave Hannah good-bye, popping in at 6 a.m. with lattes and some bossy advice about weight distribution in suitcases. When she cries as Hannah is leaving, something about the girls’ friendship, which has been so twisted and strained over the years, clicks back into place. Marnie has a good heart. Here’s hoping she learns how to protect it.
Mel and Mel
Shosh is a college graduate! No like, pomp or circumstance or whatever, but she is officially in the “real world, trying to get ’er done.” We finally meet Shoshanna’s combative, divorced parents, Mel and Mel Shapiro (“Both of my parents are named Mel. It’s like the worst thing that ever happened to me, and it’s like the first thing that ever happened to me”), played by Ana Gasteyer and Anthony Edwards. Even though Shosh graduates via administrative office and has no formal cap and gown, her parents find a way to fight about the big day, arguing loudly over where to mail the diploma. It’s now clear where she gets her neurotic upspeak from; everyone in that house must have had to learn to talk fast to get a word in edgewise.
We don’t get much of Shosh’s foray into the real world in this episode, but we do see her grow, if ever so slightly. She apologizes to Ray for manipulating him and drawing him into “a bad circle I had drawn for myself.” It takes a lot of bravery to admit wrongdoing, though right after she does it, Shosh bolts, yelling an awkward “later, gator.” This wouldn’t be Girls if the characters still didn’t have a little more work to do.
Perhaps the biggest growth we see in this episode is Jessa’s — in finding (and rescuing) Beadie, she has found what she so desperately needed: an anchor, a maternal figure. When we first see her, she is a barrel of responsibility; she took the cat to the vet, picked up enough pastrami at the Second Avenue Deli to feed all of Brighton Beach, and knows Beadie’s schedule down to lunchtime and appointments with the home attendant. This is all thrown into turmoil when Beadie’s daughter (the tough-talking Natasha Lyonne, whose inability to pronounce unconscionable is one of the ep’s funniest moments) returns to take her back to Connecticut, calling Jessa a “piece of shit” for aiding her mother’s potential suicide.
The withering speech that Lyonne delivers to Jessa about the downfall of her generation is one of those meta-Girls moments where we can see Dunham’s wheels spinning, incorporating the criticism of the show into the show itself. “I’m not that much older than you and all my friends have it together,” she says. “But every time I meet someone five or more years younger than me, they are a complete asshole.”
It’s not clear, however, who the asshole is, exactly. Jessa may have helped Beadie get her hands on fatal drugs, but she also really learned how to love and care for another person. “You really took care of me,” Beadie says, staring directly into what makes Jessa such a magnetic and infuriating person. “You are so full of contradictions: You’re so beautiful, and then you’re so ugly.”
When Jessa tells Beadie, “I tried,” it is a silent, sacred moment. Jessa has never really tried at anything. Selflessness looks good on her. Of course, her generosity only lasts for so long. “Tell me you love me more than her,” she says, asking Beadie to choose her over her daughter. And in the episode’s most heartbreaking moment, Beadie does.
See you next week, Girlsies. In the meantime, don’t quit your day jobs as the face of Eddie Bauer.