Review: ‘Girls’ – ‘It’s Back’

A review of tonight’s “Girls” coming up just as soon as I dress like a magician’s assistant…

“You are fine and good. You are fine and good. You are fine and good…” -Hannah

The last few episodes have been tighter in their focus, feeling (as I first said about “One Man’s Trash”) more like short stories set in the larger “Girls” universe – a Hannah interlude, an unexpected Adam/Ray team-up, a Jessa origin story – than parts of the larger narrative of season 2. “It’s Back,” on the other hand, is structured much more traditionally like an installment of a serialized cable show, checking in on almost all of the characters, plus an army of recognizable guest stars – the return of Becky Ann Baker and Peter Scolari as Hannah’s parents, plus Carol Kane as Adam’s new 12-step friend, Shiri Appleby as her daughter and Adam’s blind date, Bob Balaban as Hannah’s psychiatrist, plus Judy Collins as herself – as we catch up to what’s going on with everyone as we head into the season’s final weeks.

And while parts of the episode work brilliantly (particularly Hannah’s), others suffer from a lack of time – both in a 30-minute episode and a 10-episode season. “Girls” isn’t exactly a comedy, nor a drama, and while a half-hour is often enough to properly contain and service all the stories, here I wanted certain scenes and stories to have more breathing room. And while I’ve enjoyed the experimentation of recent weeks (or even something earlier like the cocaine episode, which didn’t feature a good chunk of the supporting cast), doing it that much in a season with only 10 episodes makes it tough to do ongoing character arcs.

So while we’ve spent a lot of time watching Marnie bottom out this season, and can therefore appreciate how pathetic she seems and feels when she goes to visit Charlie at his glamorous Chelsea offices, Shoshanna has been such a marginalized part of the season(*) that her sense of anxiety about the relationship with Ray doesn’t quite land. I believe that she would decide to make out with the doorman, but the show didn’t build up to it as well as it could have.

(*) Dunham and Konner have talked a lot about how Shoshanna was essentially a minor character who got more to do because they liked Zosia Mamet’s performance so much. Given that, you would expect her to be more prominent this season (which was made when they had a whole lot of evidence of what she could do) than last (when they were still discovering her and that character). Instead, it feels like there’s actually been less of her (though I haven’t busted out the ol’ stopwatch to check). She’s not in “One Man’s Trash” and “Video Games” at all, and makes only brief appearances in several others.  

Even some of the stories that did work felt like they could have used more time. The idea of Adam dating another woman – and doing traditional things like calling her up (and getting her answering machine on a landline) or having a blind date in a nice restaurant – to clear his head of the clutter that Hannah left behind was promising. But Adam’s date with Natalia was so charming and unexpectedly relaxed that I could have watched an entire episode that was just about Adam seeing what life is like with a less complicated woman than Hannah. (It would be the inverse of the Michigan episode from season 1.)

But the episode absolutely nailed Marnie’s low moment, which not only involves Charlie becoming everything she might have fantasized about, but was actually inspired by his desire to have as little to do with her as possible. The Marnie/Ray scene at Shoshanna’s apartment was a lot of fun, in part because Marnie is feeling pathetic enough that she might actually heed Ray’s advice, in part because it’s a rare moment when Ray’s advice is as good as he thinks it is. We’ll see where this story goes – beyond giving Allison Williams more chances to sing on the show (see below) – but Ray playing sherpa for her was terrific.

And though this was a share the wealth episode rather than a Hannah-centric one, the scenes with her and her parents were dynamite. There have been hints about Hannah’s OCD before – in the epic Hannah/Marnie fight near the end of season 1, Marnie mentions that in middle school, Hannah had to masturbate eight times a day to “stave off diseases of the body and mind,” and I believe we’ve seen her counting things on occasion this season – but this is a full-blown outbreak. It’s a problem she’s managed to push down for much of her adult life before recent stresses (the break-ups with Adam and Marnie, the ebook deal, Jessa’s departure, her epiphany at Patrick Wilson’s house, etc.) finally bring it back up to the surface.

As with the Michigan episode, this one casts a lot of what we know about Hannah’s relationship with her parents – and simply about Hannah – in a new light. It doesn’t suddenly absolve her of her more difficult character traits, but it helps put them in a clearer context. When, for instance, she bristles at the shrink’s reference to her “classical presentation” – because everything about Hannah Horvath has to be special, including (or especially) her pain and her flaws – it’s her trying to wrangle some degree of control over a situation where she feels completely powerless. The performances by Dunham, Baker and Scolari did a great job of showing how much this has weighed on the whole family, and that shot of Hannah in profile at the Judy Collins show, blinking and trying to keep it together, was among the most beautiful TV images of this young year.

This season has been all over the place in both narrative and structure – often in an incredibly interesting way, but one that means “It’s Back” has to function as the “Girls” equivalent of a piece-mover episode, doing a lot of work to set up stories for the end of the season. There’s a lot of promising material here for the final two episodes of the year, even if some individual parts of this one were more fully-realized than others.

Some other thoughts:

* Last week, Jessa said she needed some time to get her head straight, and has left for parts unknown – a character decision conveniently coming at a time when Jemima Kirke was into the later stages of her pregnancy. Not sure if we’ll see her again this season, or if she’ll fly back in for season 3 to annoy Marnie with tales of her latest adventure.

* Wouldn’t Hannah have a customized ringtone for her phone, if not something specific for Adam, rather than using one of the standard iPhone rings? Given what we know about her insistence on being special – as demonstrated, again, in the therapy scene – is this really an area where she’d skimp on a few bucks rather than picking a song that would make her feel extra awesome?

* If you want more of Allison Williams singing, here she is doing a lyrical version of the “Mad Men” theme, and she also pops up in the middle of this long “Why I Chose Yale” video. (Watch for 30-odd seconds past that point for a surprise celebrity cameo!)

* Admittedly, I’ve never worked in an office quite like the one Charlie now has, so anyone who has can correct me if I’m wrong, but that sequence played more like someone’s idea of what it must be like to work for a company that makes apps than what it actually is. Like, of course they have to interrupt work to be part of their neighbor’s lip-dub video.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at