Review: ‘Girls’ – ‘On All Fours’

A review of tonight’s “Girls” coming up just as soon as I have the face of an old-timey criminal…

Midway through “On All Fours,” Charlie tries to shrug off some obnoxious behavior by Ray by telling Shoshanna, “He’s Ray. You know? And that’s how he is.” Shoshanna repeats those words back to him in a tone that makes Charlie think he’s offended her, but the expression on her face in the exchange tells a different story. Shoshanna’s not offended; she’s dismayed to realize she’s dating a guy whose difficult behavior can be written off with those nine words.

“He’s Ray. You know? And that’s how he is.”

Charlie is telling her that he’s long since given up expecting better from his best friend – that Ray cannot change who he is and how he acts. Shoshanna has already been having doubts about this relationship – hence that time she “held the doorman’s hand,” a new euphemism that I expect to be turning into a meme any second now – but when it’s phrased in such blunt, fatalistic terms, it’s easy for doubt to become hopelessness. Shoshanna dated Ray because he was nice and she liked him, but she also clearly viewed him as a fixer-upper, and when we’ve seen them together this season, he hasn’t shown much interest in being fixed.

Or maybe, like Charlie, he’s accepted that he can’t be fixed.

And it’s that struggle by the women and men of “Girls” to overcome their base natures and worst impulses that’s driven much of this season, and that’s especially driving the action throughout “On All Fours.”

At that same party, Marnie tries to take a big leap forward by singing a rearrangement of Kanye’s “Stronger” to Charlie and all his new employees, and it goes over about as horribly as you might expect. Marnie’s voice sounds great (if maybe not at the level of Ray’s beloved Katy Perry), but she’s a total stranger to all but one of the people who work here, hijacking their celebration with a self-indulgent gimmick song.(*) It’s her attempt to do something different, but at its core, it’s Marnie again focusing only on what she wants without considering the feelings of anyone around her. And though the performance itself is an utter bomb, she gets positive reinforcement from it when Charlie – who himself can never resist his feelings for Marnie, no matter how much he wants to – has sex with her on his desk.

(*) Part of the problem is that with very rare exceptions, re-arranging rap songs in this way plays as parody, and Marnie was deadly serious in her take. 

Hannah, meanwhile, finds herself trapped in the vise grip of her OCD, unable to stop herself from shoving the Q-Tip down her ear. She desperately begs the oblivious ER doctor to clean out her other ear so she won’t feel compelled to do it herself later, and her mood only worsens when she finds out that Adam’s in a new relationship.(**) Alone, sad and at the mercy of her condition, we leave her alone, sitting on the edge of her bed, shaking her head evenly in each direction, pondering another Q-Tip because she really has no choice in the matter. As low as Marnie seems to have fallen in the party scene, she’s got nothing on this terrible place Hannah finds herself in.

(**) Like Charlie’s line to Shoshanna, the phrase “My girlfriend’s friend got engaged” packs an awful lot of information – that Adam is seeing someone else, that it’s serious enough for him to call her “my girlfriend” and accompany her to an engagement party, that the girlfriend is at a stage of life where her friends are having engagement parties – into only a few words.

And Adam’s brief, surprising collision with Hannah derails his own attempt to enjoy what it’s like to be in a more traditional, healthy relationship with Natalia. Here’s a beautiful woman who doesn’t play games – he even views her instructions in the bedroom as a positive compared to how things were with Hannah, explaining, “I like how clear you are with me” – and he’s doing pretty well as her boyfriend. But then he runs into Hannah outside the bar, and it all starts to fall apart. You can see that this big, scary dude is afraid of small, damaged Hannah – or, at least, of the way she makes him feel, and how hurt he was when things fell apart between them – so much that he falls off the wagon, then tries to scare Natalia away by taking a very rough, demeaning lead in the bedroom.

The extreme difficulty of personal change has been a very familiar theme on HBO series, going back to that show about the North Jersey waste management industry. Rarely have I seen that theme articulated as well, and painfully, as it is throughout “On All Fours.” It’s a very dark, sad episode of “Girls,” but it’s also among the handful of best episodes the show has done so far.

Some other thoughts:

* Hannah lies to her father that she has 12 to 15 friends who could take her to the hospital, but of course she has no one at the moment. Marnie and Shosh are at the party, and given where things stand between Hannah and Marnie, would she have called her, anyway? This is a case where Jemima Kirke’s absence is playing well for the story, because you know Hannah would have called Jessa. (Whether or not Jessa would have actually showed up for her, though, is a very fair question.)

* I loved the opening shot at Charlie’s party where the camera pans past a woman crying on the phone, presented without comment or explanation. There are a million stories in the naked city, and “Girls” is telling only four of them.

* The version of Daniel Johnston’s “Life in Vain” played over the closing credits is from an appearance on “Austin City Limits” a few years back with The Swell Season (and a children’s choir!).

* I’m sure Hannah’s new pages were disappointing to her editor David, but I’m trying to imagine his requests being translated into an Amazon book description: “A memoir rife with sexual failure, as seen by a pudgy face slick with semen and sadness!” Either way, this does not seem an ideal time for her to be changing the concept of her book (from memoir to novel) in mid-stream.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at