“The Panic in Central Park” is reminiscent of season two’s “One Man’s Trash,” in that it follows one character throughout the day without checking in on the other girls. It functions better almost as a short vignette, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s a momentous episode in terms of Marnie’s growth as a character.
We open in the middle of a fight between Marnie and Desi (the catalyst involved scones), beginning with her accusing Desi of “aggressively playing” guitar at her and ultimately ending with Desi sobbing that he wants to kill himself (“You are far too narcissistic to kill yourself,” Marnie snaps). To blow off steam, Marnie goes for a walk and runs into … Charlie.
Yep, that Charlie: Marnie’s ex-boyfriend from college who became a tech bro with a successful app and then told Marnie that he never loved her, effectively crushing her to pieces. His appearance in this episode is a surprise and not just because, as it turns out, I had forgotten all about Charlie during the seasons since he last physically appeared onscreen. But it’s also a surprise because he looks, sounds, and acts different (he’s heavier, bearded, and sporting a new accent). He is more hardened now (it doesn’t help that we meet him as he’s hanging with a bunch of dudes who are catcalling Marnie while she walks down the street), more mysterious, and therefore more intriguing to Marnie. He’s clearly involved in some shady dealings, definitely has a drug problem, and reveals to Marnie that his dad had hung himself back when he broke her heart. There is no way this chance meeting is going to have a happy ending — Marnie’s fate is set once she realizes that Charlie still remembers small details about her, such as the names and occupations of her two uncles. When Charlie spontaneously invites her to a fancy party, she agrees to go.
The entirety of “The Panic in Central Park” has a surrealistic, dreamlike feeling. We see Marnie donning a stunning red dress (picked out by Charlie, who also pays for it by tossing a handful of presumably big bills onto the counter), attending a party where she is mistaken for a prostitute and manages to con a few hundred dollars out of the guy, and then a nice little montage as the former couple enjoys an Italian dinner, laughing like old times, even dancing together in the middle of the restaurant. Eventually, they end up in a stolen boat together, kissing right before it tips over. If not for a few moments that bring us back to earth (Marnie obnoxiously oversharing to the uncaring dress store employee was a nice and funny touch, and a return to the Marnie we all love to hate), I would’ve expected this to end with the “it was all a dream” trope.
But “The Panic in Central Park” bursts its own bubble and drops viewers back into reality after Marnie and Charlie have sex (and also after they get mugged). The scene with them together in bed is a little sweet, and surprisingly restrained for a Girls sex scene. It doesn’t take long for Marnie to realize that this isn’t the romantic fantasy she let herself get swept up in. Charlie’s apartment is tiny and gross, little more than a squatter’s pad, and she has to shower in the bathroom that’s shared by the whole floor. Clad in a towel, Marnie meets another tenant (The Americans’ Julia Garner) who has had a terrible night, and then retreats back to Charlie’s room, only to discover a heroin needle that Charlie lazily attributes to his diabetes. It’s a jolt back into the real world as she realizes she’s definitely not meant to be with Charlie, but she also isn’t meant to be with Desi, either. She walks home barefoot.
“Everyone is an asshole when they’re 22 years old,” Marnie says at one point, her voice heavy with the world-weary wisdom of a 25-and-a-half-year-old. It’s an important moment that both underlines Marnie’s false and naïve knowledge of the world, and that provides an accurate look into the mind of someone in their early- to mid-20s. In some ways, being in your 20s is just a second phase of being a teenager: You are convinced you are always right, you have a habit of romanticizing everything, and you tend to speak in grandiose statements about this lost period in your life. When you’re 25, being 25 feels impossibly old while looking back on 22 feels like it was three decades ago instead of three years. It’s false bravado masking general insecurity; have you ever seen someone in their mid-20s explain the intricacies and complications of life to someone in their early-20s? It’s positively laughable, but to them, it feels so important.
Marnie arrives back at her apartment with new clarity and a sense of enlightenment, explicitly but calmly telling Desi that she wants a divorce. He takes the news poorly, as expected, and informs Marnie that she knows nothing about the world and will probably get murdered. Marnie accepts her naïveté and shrugs off Desi’s comments. The final shot of the episode is wonderful: Marnie climbing into bed next to a sleeping Fran and Hannah, reminiscent of Marnie and Hannah’s early days as roommates. The look on Marnie’s face tells us that no, she doesn’t have herself together — and it’ll take a while to get there — but at least she’s willing to work.