Review: Why last night’s Marnie spotlight was ‘Girls’ at its best

A few thoughts on last night's Girls coming up just as soon as you pay the $100 gown rental fee…

It's funny to think that, when Girls started, Marnie seemed like the normal, relatable member of the group. Some of this was just her physical proximity to Hannah, and how emotionally big and difficult both Jessa and Shoshanna seemed at the time, but she definitely came across as much more sensible than the others at the beginning. And if she wasn't the sanest person on the show, then Charlie was.

Jump ahead four years, and where the other Girls – even Hannah – have found some level of maturity and fulfillment, Marnie has turned out to be the most annoying, narcissistic, oblivious member of the quartet, often to great comic effect, but in a way that seemingly rendered her useless as a dramatic character, because who could ever feel sympathy for Marnie?

Yet somehow, “The Panic in Central Park”(*) manages to build an entire episode around Marnie, with only Hannah appearing silently in the last scene, make it largely dramatic, and have it turn out to be one of the season's most interesting episodes, and an example of the very best type of Girls installment.

(*) The title is a riff on the '70s film The Panic in Needle Park, where Al Pacino plays a heroin addict.
Girls tends to be at its strongest when it focuses on only one or two regular characters. It's never been particularly good at trying to structure itself like a regular TV show, bouncing from subplot to subplot, so when it turns itself into a collection of short films – even a short film about a character who at best tends to prompt eye-rolling the second the audience glimpses her – its artistry is on fullest display. Lena Dunham's script, Richard Shepard's direction and, yes, Allison Williams' performance were all outstanding at not only giving us a vivid tour of New York – everywhere from the sketchy neighborhood where Marnie first reunites with Charlie to the fancy Plaza party where Charlie makes a drug deal and Marnie takes advantage of being mistaken for a prostitute – but demonstrating the many ways, both bad and good, that these two have changed since we last saw them together.

Christopher Abbott's abrupt departure from the show a few years back forced the creative team to alter the path they'd put Marnie on, but it's worked out well for her, and for the show. Desi has been an amusing (and similarly tone-deaf) foil for her, but also someone she can more convincingly grow beyond than the version of Charlie we last saw trying to get his app off the ground.  The scene where she breaks up with Desi was satisfying not only because she called him out on his drama queen self-pity – reminding him, for instance, that he had a girlfriend when they first started hooking up – but because she acknowledged her own role in this doomed marriage. Spending a dramatic, exciting, scary, wet(**) night with the Ghost of Marnie's Past – and getting scared straight by the site of the drug paraphernalia falling out of his pants – forced some real clarity out of her, and all the adventure cost her was her purse, her ring, her shoes, and whatever was left of her ill-gotten gains after she and Charlie enjoyed a huge Italian dinner together. All in all, she comes out ahead.

(**) Last week, both Girls and Vinyl featured covers of David Bowie's “Life on Mars.” Last night, both Girls and Vinyl had shots of a character underwater, beautifully lit, a mass of hair floating above them, as they tried to figure out where this strange adventure was going. Once is happenstance, twice coincidence, but if next week Shoshanna and the guy from the Nasty Bits deliver the same line of dialogue, then someone is hacking someone.

At the start of this season, I was worried that the aging of both the characters and Girls itself had taken away some of the show's early magic. But these last couple of episodes have been pretty wonderful: funny and strange and sad and just plain gorgeous to look at. If you had told me even a month ago that the show would do an episode entirely about Marnie, and that it would instantly become one of my favorites, I'd have laughed at you. But “Panic in Central Park” absolutely worked, regardless of whether Marnie's self-awareness sticks or not.

What did everybody else think? And how you feeling about Girls season 5 at this stage of things?