Now That the Thinkpieces Have Abated, ‘Girls’ Quietly Makes Improvements

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At the end of Season 4, Girls seemed to promise the impossible: change.

Forty-two episodes into its run, and with a mere season left to go, Lena Dunham’s chronicle of Brooklyn aimlessness seems to have settled into a reliable pattern — or, less charitably, the same sort of rut that afflicts its characters. From its first episodes, Girls has always excelled at individual moments of humor that simultaneously channel and skewer the self-absorption of the demographic it was once unfairly expected to speak for. Since the days of “I may be the voice of my generation, or at least a voice of a generation,” that burden has mercifully been passed to the better-equipped likes of Broad City and Master of None, but Girls remains capable of isolated moments of brilliance. I’ll never eat duck again without hearing Zosia Mamet say it tastes like a used condom.

The flip side of this, however, has always been Girls’ inability to craft and carry out longer-term narratives, let alone substantive changes to its core dynamic of selfish people interacting with other selfish people ad infinitum. Last season, Hannah quickly ditched Iowa to continue her “will they, won’t they” with Adam; Marnie’s delusion reached a point at which her series-long breakdown began to read as sadism on the part of the writers’ room; Jessa continued to act more like a strategically placed emotional bomb than a person.

The finale, however, offered a glimpse of something else: a show where Hannah was in a relationship that, if not healthy, was at least with someone who wasn’t Adam; where Jessa had decided to quit her job as “pretty much nothing” and become a therapist; where Shoshanna had moved to a completely different country. (Marnie will, unfortunately, always be Marnie.) It was, in short, the most optimistic note Girls has ever gone out on, both for its own characters and for the potential of the series itself.

Better yet, Girls’ fifth season actually follows through on that potential.

The penultimate year of a show’s run is an odd time to make major upgrades. Apart from the drastic measures one expects from a story getting on in years — and yes, Shoshanna’s move to Tokyo could be interpreted as exactly that — Girls could easily finish out its run continuing to be what it’s always been: a collection of vignettes that work better in isolation than as part of a narrative whole. Those of us who’ve held out this long have simply accepted that Girls will blindside us with late-breaking, and often unconvincing, developments like Mr. Horvath’s sexuality, and ask us to accept that these people would continue to associate with one another despite having no convincing reason to do so.

Still, the first four episodes of Season 5 genuinely follow through on what last year’s finale promised. Hannah has stuck it out with Jake Lacy’s sensible Fran, someone who gently but firmly points out her insanity (not that she listens) rather than simply complementing it. Jessa is actually committing to the whole therapist thing, and her new love interest is actually an extension of the friendship with Adam she developed last year. Even Elijah ventures into newly mature territory, pursuing a relationship with an endearingly pompous local celebrity played by a game Corey Stoll.

This all adds up to a willingness to alter the status quo and sustain emotional arcs over time that was often missing from Girls’ initial run. It’s also symbolized by the premiere, which takes place entirely at an event that represents a transition from unattached youth to committed adulthood: a wedding. Granted, it’s Marnie’s wedding to confirmed douche and probable Burning Man attendee Desi, but two steps forward, one step back.

Emotional momentum aside, however, Girls maintains its grip on what’s made the show distinctive. Dunham’s sense of humor remains as singular and cerebral as ever, particularly when channeled through either Hannah herself, now teaching Goodbye Columbus to eighth graders, or flawless curmudgeon Ray, now relegated to a lightweight but entertaining subplot squaring off against a competing coffeeshop called, all too realistically, Helvetica. And the sex remains groundbreaking, not just for showing Dunham’s own body (though representations of “interesting fat deposits,” as her character puts it, are still far too rare) but for its ability to tell stories more complicated than that it happened — cut to black.

Like a good musical number, Dunham’s sex scenes advance the narrative rather than pause it. We see the kind of sex that couples have when they’re quietly fighting (Hannah and Fran), or when they’re awkwardly negotiating the transition from friendship to something else (Adam and Jessa; halfway through, he asks her, “Is this what bad sex is like?”). Even when it’s played for laughs, as in the case of Elijah and his new maybe-boyfriend, sex on Girls is more varied, informative, and true than virtually anything else on TV.

As the reader can probably tell, I’m still fond of Girls and what it can do, particularly now that it’s mostly out from under the Thinkpiece-Industrial Complex’s magnifying glass. And I find it genuinely impressive that even late in its run, and even as its creator is clearly poised to do other things, this series is finally making improvements it easily could have chugged on without. In four seasons, Girls’ fanbase has been whittled down to those of us who find its satire funny rather than grating and its inconsistency forgivable rather than a deal breaker. Season 5 feels like it’s rewarding our investment.

Girls Season 5 premieres this Sunday, February 21 at 10pm on HBO.