Girls, which premiered its fifth season on HBO last night, never hooks me more than in the moments when I find myself thinking, Oh, she’ll never go through with this, this is such an obvious mistake ... only to watch one of these hyper-aware, painfully self-conscious high achievers go right ahead and make whatever horrible choice I had immediately ruled out. This isn’t new, but more than any show besides perhaps Louie, Girls gets that self-awareness doesn’t make people any less prone to terrible decisions. All self-awareness promises is that you’ll make terrible decisions and not even get to enjoy them.
All this is to say: You guys, Marnie married Desi. She married him, and she married him while wearing a wreath of Coachella flowers on her head. Girl managed to make it down the aisle without clown makeup, but even that was a close call.
Girls is always uncomfortable, but witnessing the ordeal that it took to coax Marnie and Desi to the altar made for about as delightfully uncomfortable an episode as the show has ever had. The bride unsurprisingly was at peak Marnie levels on her big day, and basically every Marnie bit was all-time-great Marnie material -- from ordering Shoshanna to throw Fran out of her bridal prep party, to demanding her hair and makeup artist serve up a Ralph Lauren–meets–Joni Mitchell looks that honors her "cultural heritage as a white, Christian woman."
I’ve questioned in the past why it is I relate to Girls even when the characters are acting out not just the worst possible versions of themselves, but truly the worst of the human race. But this season premiere was the perfect illustration of what it is that makes Girls so queasily recognizable.
Marnie wants to get married because she has always seen herself as a woman who would be married -- if she’s gotta go through with it sometime with someone, it might as well be now with Desi. But when the time comes to embody her own self-image, Marnie's feelings remain hollow, even when the picture is outwardly perfect.
Marnie and Hannah are friends in part because they accept each other’s selfishness as a necessary byproduct of their drive to succeed, but Girls goes out of its way to preserve a sense of ambivalence around achievement that the characters themselves might not anticipate. This is a show about undeniably obnoxious strivers, but it’s also about the disconnect and disillusionment that occur as those strivers learn success doesn’t bring happiness along with it.
The focus on disillusionment might be part of what’s made the buildup for Jessa and Adam so fun to watch, even as it hews close to familiar Will They Or Won’t They? TV tropes. If Hannah and Marnie are neurotic optimists faced with fresh disillusionment, Jessa and Adam are the cynics who have already learned to live with that feeling. So now what?
I’ll be real: Even if Jessa and Adam weren’t exploring such solid thematic territory, this would still be about as good as I’ve ever felt about a couple on this show. I’m guiltily hot for Jessa and I’m guiltily hot for Adam, and I’m here for them being guiltily hot for each other. This is guilty-hot synergy, folks, and for once I feel like we're all on the same page.
It should be said that I’m also pretty pro- Fran and Hannah. I remain charmed by Jake Lacy’s ability to play a nice guy without playing Nice Guy. Props, too, for the subtle suggestion of Fran’s own neuroses (or at least discomfort) in moments like his interaction with Desi after Desi has forgotten his name. Girls often deals in the language of diagnostic psychology, and in those terms Fran might be the most obviously "neurotypical" character on the show, but at its best Girls has a habit of looking for the ways in which every person deviates from the norm. It's nice to see Fran treated with the same emotional complexity as the characters who have been around since the first season.
This season premiere was preceded by the announcement that Girls will wrap next year after its sixth season, and as Dunham’s attention has been divided between writing books and producing films and editing newsletters, it would make sense that the intensity of her creative focus on the show has been divided, too. For some artists, that would be a cause for concern, but as it turns out, when it comes to Girls, a little relaxation goes a long way.
There’s no sense of closure on the horizon so far in the show’s fifth season, but what’s nice about Girls as it’s gotten long in the TV tooth is that it seems more settled than ever into being about these particular girls, and not "Girls" as a monolith. While you could say that there are women out there like Marnie or Jessa or Hannah -- or even Shosh, in her quieter moments -- these characters have been going above and far, far beyond their archetypes for long enough that now when you see Marnie go ballistic at her wedding, you can sit back and enjoy the cringy-ness without wondering if Dunham is trying to make a point about All Girls Like Marnie.
After four seasons of contention and debate, backlash and growth, it’s a relief to realize that sometimes "a Marnie" is just Marnie. If Girls is about to lead its characters down an exploration of tempered expectations, at least there’s no better teacher than experience.