I liked but did not love the first episode of Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls; in thirty minutes the show piqued my interest enough to guarantee my return without immediately announcing itself as essential Sunday night viewing. But potential can be a mighty force, and if I didn’t fall head over heels for Dunham’s opening statements, she really got me with her follow-up arguments. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a real, honest story well-told, and the subsequent installments of Girls fit that bill handily—no matter what bizarre hang-ups one may have regarding perceived nepotism and racial inequity.
If there’s one sure sign of Girls’ quality, it’s the distance that Dunham has put between the pilot and Hard Being Easy, which marks the season’s halfway point. The story hasn’t changed much—the show still exists to examine the lives of its four central characters and boasts no central overarching plot, instead unwinding narrative threads in the lives of each of its leading young ladies– but the characters have changed, and they’ve each taken (or are still on) individual journeys in their respective lives. With only five episodes under Girls’ belt, that sense of progression is impressive; we could still be hanging around a Hannah who refuses to take any personal responsibility, or a Shoshanna who essentially just exists to be the group’s naive, plucky sidekick.
But we’re at a point where everybody’s growing, though I grant that growth comes in fits and spurts. That’s okay, though– nobody changes overnight, and I don’t expect characters on a TV show to do so when they’re meant to represent something real. Hannah ebbs and flows greatly; she’s not the same spoiled person we met in the pilot, but that backbone she’s developed needs some strengthening yet. Signs point to her getting there, though, and I think her confrontation with her hands-on boss represents a high point for Hannah’s slow maturation into adulthood, even if the attempt is something of an awkward bungled misfire, and even if her relationship with Adam is still pretty bizarre. (I hope that I’m not the only one who wasn’t sure how to absorb his final scene with Hannah at the conclusion of Hard Being Easy. The guy has issues. Arguably, so does Hannah, though she clearly gains something good from being the sexually dominant one in that moment.)
I think, though, that if 1.5 indicates anything, it’s that relationship change is imminent for Hannah, and I say that not only based on the obvious (her relationship with Adam is gross, weird, and unhealthy) but also based on the fact that every other Girl experiences some kind of forward momentum in their relationships. The biggest example here is Marnie, by far my favorite character in the cast, but inevitability characterized Marnie’s break-up with Charlie (who you might recognize from his tiny role in last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene) from the beginning. We knew those two kids would end up separated. We just didn’t know when.
Ultimately, though, the demise of Marnie’s and Charlie’s relationship is interesting more for how it segues into discussions of the boys of Girls than for the actual drama of the event itself. Not that Christopher Abbott’s scenes with Allison Williams aren’t worth watching; they just represent the best starting point for conversations about gender relationships within the confines of the show. In part, this stems entirely from the fact that Charlie isn’t right for Marnie (or Marnie isn’t right for Charlie), something that Hannah mentions in the pilot; he’s smothering, too sensitive, too respectful, and while all that doesn’t sound so bad on paper it’s clearly not what Marnie needs in a man.
Which explains why her encounter with Booth Johnathan leads her to lock herself in the nearest bathroom and masturbate to completion in record time. I’m not convinced that Booth is the sex god he clearly thinks he is– a side effect of casting Jorma Taccone in the role*– but he pretty easily persuades Marnie, and while he’s something of a sleazebag (though an earnest one), he’s also an incredibly strong contrast to the much more delicate Charlie.
This is important because Girls concerns itself not only with the lives of these women, but what they’re looking for in their intimate relationships**. Hannah, if given the chance, would likely fall into the arms of a Charlie immediately before ever allowing herself to be taken in by another Adam. (And none of the girls want an Adam.) Marnie needs somebody with a confidence to match her own and who sees her for who she is and won’t tiptoe around her, which is why Booth’s forceful candor proves to be so potent a turn-on for her. Jessa needs to feel empowered and she does so through the employment of her sexuality, something that may read as negative on paper but which plays in a way that paints her as self-assured and strong. Shoshanna, meanwhile, just wants someone who won’t judge her virginity and abandon her; she wants to feel comfortable with her own sexuality, something she hasn’t explored much.
So as not to sound myopic, Girls isn’t invested only in depicting its characters in terms of their relationships with men; nobody here is defined only by their boyfriends or lovers. But those relationships comprise a large chunk of the show’s focus, and we learn a great deal about these lasses by watching them interact with the lads of their lives. In fact, bereft of Marnie’s moments with Charlie, she’d be close to saintly and– frankly– incredibly flat and boring. She’s terrible to the poor guy, but that’s okay because it makes her a full-fledged, robust, and interesting character. That Girls is so willing to let its characters be so flawed is brave and makes for compelling television; that we’re able to empathize and care about them points to the strength of its writing and direction.
Interestingly, Girls has me in a similar place now as I was after watching the pilot– I’m deeply curious to learn where the show goes from here. The difference is that now I’m fully invested, whereas before I just felt generally inquisitive from watching the show build its foundation. I won’t say that the show hasn’t made some missteps (Marnie’s reaction to Charlie’s song at the end of Hannah’s Diary really felt disingenuous), but Dunham’s talent for crafting imperfect and likable characters combined with her skills as a wordsmith make the show irresistible.
*Hey, I like Jorma. He’s just not the guy I expect to play “confident male sex symbol”.
**Which is why the show proves to be just as potent for male audience members as female; Girls lets men learn about themselves by learning about women.