For the first two episodes of the season, Girls has pulled Hannah out of New York City and put her in some other context. In last week’s premiere, she was in Montauk staring into a bonfire, and now she’s off on a hellish weekend escape to Poughkeepsie with Marnie and Desi.
“Hostage Situation” is built around two parallel character trios. One of them is the trip to Poughkeepsie, where Marnie and Desi pretend to be on some sexy, secretive artsy getaway while Hannah tags along, rolling her eyes. In Brooklyn, meanwhile, Shoshanna drags Elijah to what seems like a work mixer, and Jessa crashes the party. For each trio, the power balance keeps shifting, and the third wheel changes repeatedly. Who’s stuck, and how? Where do the real loyalties lie? Do those loyalties have more to do with the person you want to be, or the person you actually are? And, of course, the eternal questions of Girls: What makes you “you?” Is it how you define yourself? Or is it the company you keep?
The Shoshanna story is the more broadly comedic of the two story lines, thanks to her eternal Shoshanna-ness, but also thanks to the event she forces Elijah to attend with her. Apparently, Shoshanna’s started a job as a low-level assistant at a branding agency (Silverhorn — “they do nothing and they achieve everything, and I am all about that”), and she’s using it as excuse to attend a women entrepreneurs’ mixer, where she introduces Elijah as her “executive assistant.”
Girls doesn’t always succeed when it goes for a direct, pointed parody of young New York, but the WeMun party does pretty well. It’s full of very polished, very shiny young women who chat with each other animatedly, it’s in a very chic event space, and everything about it is somewhere between mildly and intermediately awful. For instance, “WeMun” is a perfectly terrible name (Women Entrepreneurs Meet Up Now), the $2,000 a year membership fee is extortionate (but don’t blame them, it’s so hard to find attractive venues), and they won’t say whether trans women are allowed to participate. (“We don’t know, okay?” the two WeMun founders giggle.)
It is horrible, and the founder characters are obviously meant to be absurd. Rachel and Ziva and their Jamba Jeans brand, which literally cracked open the market on athletic denim, are exactly the sort of thing Girls sneers at and simultaneously admires. They’re bubbly and lacking in self-reflection, full of unconsidered success and unimaginable financial privilege. They can’t even tell you how crazy it is that they’re now moving into the T-shirt space. And yet, the episode is also surprisingly effective at humanizing them in a tiny, brief way. Shoshanna, they are quick to recall, ditched them six hours before their spring break trip to Aruba. She abandoned them because she thought Jessa would be a better, cooler, more sophisticated person to associate with. (Lest you feel too bad for Rachel and Ziva, they then point out how frustrating it was to have to split a hotel room two ways rather than three.)
Awful though they are, Rachel and Ziva do a decent job of representing a path Shoshanna did not take, and she’s intensely envious of their conspicuous success. As Elijah excuses himself to hook up with a cater-waiter, Jessa trails around like a ball and chain, making wry comments about pigs in blankets, constantly reminding Shoshanna of the route she chose over this one. Once they get outside, Jessa expects Shosh to see the absurdity in Rachel and Ziva, in Jamba Jeans, in the absurdity of the whole scene. All Shoshanna can see is the thing she could’ve been if she’d only stuck with a different group of friends in college. She could’ve been someone else entirely, a chipper third harmonizing voice in the Rachel-Ziva chorus. Instead, she’s stuck in a sad, underwhelming trio of Elijah and Jessa, who have dubious-to-absent life goals, who can only offer judgment, and who don’t even like her very much. That’s why Shoshanna’s final, furious yell that Jessa get out of her face feels like a real break. She cannot go back and become Rachel and Ziva’s third wheel, but she can finally let herself admit that she doesn’t want to become Jessa, either.
Meanwhile, in Marnie and Desi’s delusional secretive sex getaway in Poughkeepsie, there are two primary takeaways. First, Desi’s addicted to oxycontin, he has been for his entire relationship with Marnie, and this discovery seems to catapult Marnie into something that looks suspiciously like self-awareness. The scene that follows — Hannah and Marnie desperately trying to kick Desi out of the house, Desi appearing in doorways and smashing through windows like a villain from a slasher film — teeters somewhere between truly scary and darkly funny, and ends up somewhere muddled in the middle. There are a few moments where it is absolutely frightening, especially in a particularly low camera angle on the physical struggle between the three of them, or the shot of Desi’s face as he tries to snort crushed oxy pills off a floor covered in broken glass. But “Hostage Situation” won’t quite commit to the real threat. It doesn’t help that the sequence is intercut with Shoshanna’s WeMun mixer, nor does the episode’s funniest line lend a hand: Hannah tells Marnie that Desi looks like “someone in the Pacific Northwest knit a man.” As always, it’s pretty hard to take him seriously.
The second takeaway of the Marnie-Hannah-Desi trio is this: Hannah still seems to be on track. Even better than “on track,” she shows more thoughtfulness and resilience than she has at any other point in the series thus far. She’s working. Her essay about “the last sex cult in Staten Island” looks like it’s actually coming together. She’s fascinated by the story she hears from the gorgeous antique shop owner, full of modeling and migraines and Chris Noth, but she’s not so fascinated that she loses sight of what she’s actually there to deal with: Marnie, and her writing. (You may also recognize that shop owner as Joy Bryant, a.k.a. Jasmine from Parenthood, with what Hannah accurately describes as a very Teen Witch-y vibe.)
Even more important, as Hannah and Marnie hash out the aftermath of Desi’s oxy meltdown, Hannah manages to strike a tone that closes in on actually being helpful. “It can be pretty hard to have observations about other people when you’re only thinking about yourself,” she says. In season one, Hannah would’ve stopped there. Here, she continues, “… I would know.” For the first time in quite a while, these two seem to actually like one another, and Hannah situates her insistence that Marnie “actually look at [herself]” inside of her own admission that she doesn’t know “fucking anything” either. If Hannah is still performing success, if she’s still playing with her identity and persona to present herself as more put together, she’s at least figured out how to do it more effectively.
Although the back-and-forth edit of Marnie-Hannah-Desi’s rural horror flick with Shoshanna-Jessa-Elijah’s comedic mixer jumbles the tone of the episode in the middle, undercutting the intensity of Desi’s rage, the final crisscrossing mood works pretty well. Shoshanna’s funny, bubbly “please like me” bid to get back in with her former classmates ends with a calamitous showdown on the sidewalk. Jessa walks away, furious and wounded; Shoshanna, seriously adrift, realizes that she’s been on this path for even longer than she thought. Conversely, Hannah and Marnie’s literal nightmare turns into a glorious, Joni Mitchell–fueled reclamation, with them each renewing their dedication to one another and smiling as they pack up the shattered pieces of Desi. Joni belts out lyrics to “Free Man in Paris” — a song about what her life used to be and what it is now — and for each of the stories in this episode, we see a reckoning of past versus present. Hannah and Marnie are finally on the upswing, and Shoshanna at last faces her own decisions.
Both of the stories in “Hostage Situation” are defined by the company the characters keep. Shoshanna abruptly sees her life as an irreversible Sliding Doors scenario, with Jessa on one side and the Jamba Jeans girls on the other. Hannah, meanwhile, tries to wrest Marnie back from the version of herself who cannot break away from Desi. As ever, the question for these characters is how long these revelations will last, and how serious they are about pursuing their newfound self-awareness. But this is the final season, and time is running out for backsliding. Let’s at least hope this is the end of the road for Desi, an oxy-addicted knitwear of a man.