It’s rare, but not unheard of, for a show to enjoy a creative resurgence as late in the game as Girls currently is. What is unique, however, is for a show to improve by boring into its weaknesses rather than building on its strengths.
Just a few minutes into “The Panic in Central Park” — a spin on the Didion-and-Dunne-penned, Al Pacino-starring ’70s heroin tragedy The Panic in Needle Park — it was clear that last night’s Girls episode, coming just past the halfway point of its fifth season, is destined to join the ranks of “Beach House” and “One Man’s Trash” as one of the series’ best standalone installments. Which makes perfect sense: Girls has always excelled at individual units of storytelling, delivering at least one indelible chapter per season even when the narrative threads connecting the episodes have been nonsensical or even nonexistent.
It’s a problem so fundamental to the show that those of us still watching, four and a half seasons in, have largely grown to accept it. The very premise of Girls no longer makes much sense; unlike Sex and the City, Girls hasn’t continued to follow a tightly connected group of best friends. Instead, it’s become a show about four vaguely related individuals with entirely valid reasons for disliking one another. On virtually any other show, the vacation-stress-induced blowout of “Beach House” would have been the series finale. Instead, two former best friends, their unreliable college acquaintance, and her baby cousin continued to socialize in increasingly awkward and unbelievable combinations.
Girls, of course, has other virtues that have kept us faithfully watching: Lena Dunham’s remarkably distinctive comic voice, for one, and the aforementioned standout episodes, which made up in poignance what they lacked in setup or, too frequently, follow-up. And in Season 5, Girls has even made progress on what previously seemed like its signature flaw: Tad’s abrupt, late-in-life coming out has developed into an opportunity for a show about chronically single 20-somethings to dive into the complexities of middle-aged marriage, and last season’s smart pairing of Jessa and Adam as charismatic, self-destructive addicts has evolved into a romance with a naturalism often missing from Girls’ romantic pairings.
The lone exception, it seemed, was Marnie. Hannah’s supposed best friend has been in a painful, almost cruel downward spiral for almost the entire series, beginning as the put-together — if slightly condescending — counterpart to Hannah’s unemployed writer before turning into an even bigger train-wreck than the protagonist. She humiliated herself by singing, poorly, at her ex-boyfriend’s tech party. She humiliated herself by becoming a patchouli douche’s other woman and, in the process, the ultimate “Girls likes sex!!!” meme. She humiliated herself at her own wedding, where her friends put up with her Bridezilla tendencies more out of pity than respect.
In my review of Girls’ fifth season, I rationalized Marnie’s arrested development; if everyone else on the show has moved forward, I thought, somebody has to be the comic relief. And for a while, the oblivious glee she took in marriage (not marriage to Desi, just marriage) and the way she pronounced “Ecuador” made her exactly that.
Then came “The Panic in Central Park,” an episode so obviously designed to rehabilitate a character in stasis, it’s the television equivalent of busting out the defibrillator. To return Marnie to something even vaguely resembling an actual person, we get 34 uninterrupted minutes with her, with only a single shot of Hannah standing in for the rest of the cast. Better yet, it’s a one-night-in-New-York episode, Girls’ very own After Hours updated for the 2016 Bushwick set, with all the dream logic that entails.
At the center of all this is the shocking reappearance of Charlie, the cloying nice guy Marnie dumped in Season 1, only to see him become the toast of the App Store. Newly and acutely aware of Desi’s flaws (“You’re way too narcissistic to kill yourself” is a burn for the ages), Marnie goes for a walk, only to encounter a dramatically transformed version of her ex. In the two years since she’s last seen him, he’s picked up an accent, a beard, a crew of blue-collar coworkers, and about 30 pounds of muscle. So she impulsively tags along to witness his newly shady life.
What follows is predictable, or at least predictable within this new reality where Charlie is a drug dealer who lives in a hovel with trash bags on the windows. They sell coke and scam hundreds of dollars out of a shady businessman at the Plaza. They hijack a boat in Central Park. They have sex. And then Marnie discovers Charlie’s a heroin addict. Brief fantasies of running away now punctured, she returns home to definitively break things off with Desi, complete with sudden realization that, given how their relationship started, “I have some shit I need to work out.”
“The Panic in Central Park” arrives with the total lack of preamble of most Girls highlights. Until now, there’s been no sense that Marnie is anything less than blindingly in love with Desi, or at least the idea of Desi, and there’s certainly been no indication in Charlie’s character that he’d bottom out in such dramatic fashion. Quite the opposite, in fact: Charlie’s dirty mattress and communal shower of a bachelor pad stands in direct contrast to the immaculate shrine to DIY Marnie witnessed way back in Season 1.
But unlike in previous leaps forward, Lena Dunham, who wrote the episode, takes pains to demonstrate that she’s perfectly aware of the story’s inconsistencies — and runs headfirst into them anyway. Charlie 3.0, in particular, is so exaggerated in his distance from any recognizable version of his character that it becomes a knowing in-joke; before she even brings up the awful things he’s said and done to her, Marnie asks what’s up with his new accent. And the heightened strangeness of New Charlie makes Marnie’s reacquaintance with the virtues of common sense seem all the more believable in comparison.
With “Panic,” Girls moves past one of its biggest blind spots by capitalizing on it, in a remarkable show of the self-awareness its central characters lack. The strangeness of Charlie and his exploits are the whole point, easing our suspension of disbelief where a less well-executed version of the character would have doubled the necessary leap of faith. The episode is a sign that Girls has reached maturity, even if Marnie herself hasn’t.