Season 5 spoilers ahead…
There are certain expectations that come with a series about a group of narcissists mudding through their twenties. After fifty-two episodes of Girls, one can always expect much of the same from season to season; Hannah will be self-absorbed, Jessa will be cruel, Shosh will be brutally honest, and Marnie will successfully give viewers the worst kind of second-hand embarrassment.
The characters are so well defined by this point that Girls doesn’t surprise as it once did. Seeing Lena Dunham strip down or expose her body parts in inappropriate situations doesn’t have the same shock factor as it did back in the first season. It’s hardly a criticism, just a sign that the series is comfortable in itself. While the past two seasons have still been as sharply written, moving and irreverent, the series was beginning to feel stagnant, often informed by the characters themselves, whom appeared as aimless as they were four years ago. Season five teases a change for Hannah, Jessa, Shoshanna and Marnie, four young women that have finally begun to show signs of growing up, even if it is in fits and starts.
Each of the girls has had equally compelling arcs this season. Sadly, not every episode can be a ‘Bushwick’ or a ‘Beach House’, so again the core four mostly navigate their own storylines, sometimes only interacting briefly. After ending season four with Fran, Hannah’s compatibility with her boyfriend is heavily scrutinised. Fran is great for her on paper, grounded, reliable, a quintessential “good guy”. Marnie describes their relationship as the healthiest one Hannah has ever had, which Fran later throws in her face after she breaks up with him. Hannah might acknowledge this, but she also doesn’t give a shit because she’s a muted version of herself around him. The penultimate episode signifies a turning point for Hannah when she runs into Tally (the always incredible Jenny Slate), an old rival from college introduced back in the first season. Hannah virtually has no reason to compete with her, no longer writing, no longer in a relationship and near friendless. After a day of bonding and getting high Tally confesses that despite her continued success, she still feels like a hack – a speech Dunham admitted was a not-so-subtle depiction of her feelings toward her own career (Girls Season 5: Inside the Episode #9 HBO). It sparks a realisation for Hannah that she isn’t her truest, happiest self unless she’s writing. And what a relief it is to finally have her reunite with her real true love in the season finale.
Marnie’s storylines have always been intrinsically linked to the men in her life. Charlie, Booth Jonathan, Ray, Desi, the list goes on. So often does she draw her self-worth from relationships with men that’s it’s hardly a surprise to see her marry her smarmy man-child fiancé/musical partner in the premiere, even if he is literally the worst. It’s clear from the get-go that Marnie and Desi rushed into their marriage and Marnie finally has the courage to admit her mistake in the standout episode of the season, ‘The Panic in Central Park’. Girls has been known to do at least one experimental episode per year that follows the journey of one sole character, i.e. season two’s ‘One Man’s Trash’ or season one’s ‘The Return’. While some have been divisive among fans, this Marnie-centric episode is a thirty-minute masterpiece. Marnie has a run-in with ex-boyfriend Charlie, now a drug dealer with an apparent Hell’s Kitchen accent. The episode unfolds as a beautiful reunion for the former lovers and sees Marnie finally let loose again. Charlie suggests they run away together and it’s almost as appealing to the viewer as it is to Marnie. Dunham rips off our rose-tinted glasses when it’s revealed that Charlie has actually become a heroin addict, effectively altering our entire perception of Marnie and Charlie’s interactions leading up to the reveal. The episode concludes with a touching image of Marnie crawling into bed with Hannah and Fran while they sleep. Allison Williams relishes the spotlight and brings out a side of Marnie that we haven’t seen for years now. Lena Dunham cites this episode as the piece of writing she is most proud to have written for the series, and it’s easily a series high.
Meanwhile, Shosh is absolutely thriving in Tokyo at the beginning of the season, killing it at work and taking to Japanese culture like a fish to water. While we are only given two episodes with Shosh in Japan (I imagine it’s very expensive to film internationally), it’s a treat to see Shosh flourish and abandon her plans to return home to her boyfriend, then utterly heartbreaking to learn just how lonely she has become the next time we see her. Shosh experiences a real journey this year and finds some true independence, all the while retaining all the quirks that make her so lively and entertaining to watch. Shosh is also lucky enough to have two of the best musical moments of the season. Her choice to take a risk and stay in Japan closes out episode three to Borns’ “Past Lives” and her miserable, lonely walk through the streets of Tokyo to Aurora’s hauntingly beautiful cover of “Life on Mars”. A dozen think pieces could be written on the phenomenal music choices of Girls alone. Major props to the music department this season, particularly for the inspired decision to close out the season to Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”.
It’s been a tumultuous season for Jessa and Hannah’s friendship. A relationship between Jessa and Adam has been hinted at since the beginning of season four and this season sees the two finally act on their mutual attraction, knowing full well the damaging consequences it will have on Jessa’s tenuous friendship with Hannah. It was a little disconcerting to see Adam Driver share scenes almost exclusively with Jemima Kirke and it was difficult to root for the couple given all of their history with Hannah. It would be too easy to write Jessa off as a selfish, mean-spirited friend, particularly when she can act so harshly toward Hannah, but the final episode beautifully undoes what audiences think they know about Jessa. In spite of their initial, tender courtship, Jessa and Adam are angry, broken people and their brewing tension finally erupts in the most explosive, frightening argument Girls has ever produced. Pushing her to move on from her friendship with Hannah, Jessa explodes at Adam, “Hannah is my dearest friend, she will always come first. We may not be talking right now, and I hope to God that changes. So you saying that she’s not in our lives anymore doesn’t work for me.” She goes on to say she will never forgive Adam for making her steal her friend’s boyfriend. It’s the most passionate we have ever seen Jessa speak about a person and it only feels right that it should be about Hannah.
It wouldn’t be fair to ignore the guys of Girls either. Elijah emerged as a scene stealer way back in season two, and it’s difficult to imagine a time when he wasn’t such a prominent character. This season explored the vulnerable, sweeter side of Elijah, highlighted in his relationship with older TV personality Dill, who ultimately wanted “someone less aimless”. It’s become quite apparent that while he can be callous and shallow, Elijah feels just as deeply as anyone, and he’s searching for a person who can love with the same intensity as he can. It’s been wonderful to witness more hidden depths for a character that arguably entered the series as a caricature. Ray took more of a back seat this season, still offering his delightfully bleak insights into the world, but his war against the hipster coffee shop across the street was one of the lesser compelling arcs of the season. Still hung up on Marnie (for some reason), Ray’s feelings appear to be requited by season’s end when Marnie invites him on tour with her and Desi. Maybe it’s because their chemistry has always been lacking, but their hook-up was one of the few beats this season that fell flat.
Season five of Girls has easily been the most consistent, funny, emotionally wrought season Lena Dunham, Jenni Konner and Judd Apatow have produced in years, possibly ever. Not only is this an accomplishment in itself, but it offers hope that the sixth and final season of Girls will be a satisfying end for the series.