The first scene of last night’s episode of Girls might be the closest the show has ever come to issuing a content warning. Shoshanna has returned from Japan, she's standing still in her giant kitty headphones on one of those moving walkways they have in airports — until she’s nearly knocked over by a passing family. Just one bump and she's off, berating the family, decrying America’s manners, and in general lamenting her choice to leave Japan.
When I first watched this episode, I was mildly annoyed with Shosh but still looking forward to the episode ahead. I should have known better. Pre-credits screaming on Girls is a red sky at dawn. Ahoy, mates. Thar be tantrums ahead.
Hannah, Jessa, Marnie, and Shoshanna all make appearances in this episode, and for all four characters it marks a return to an almost fetal level of immaturity. Hannah rolls around in the grass wearing kiddie pajamas. Jessa is jealous of the attention Adam gives to his sister’s baby. Marnie gets territorial over a man she doesn't want. Shoshanna tries to extend Fantasy Japan to New York. Second-guessing, backtracking, relapsing — we’re eight episodes into this season, and we’ve hit a peak of anti-progress.
This is not how TV shows are supposed to go, especially week-to-week TV shows, which we don’t have the benefit of being able to click through to next week at the end of one episode’s frustration. I don’t know if it’s become rare or if it’s always been rare for television to refuse the typical crescendo build of a season, where we watch characters rise and fall, first incrementally and then all at once, but Girls is content to watch its characters without developing them. It’s a creative commitment that is sometimes exciting, as it can break up the narratives we anticipate with a look at how those narratives actually play out in life. But when the Girls team leans hard on regression, when what we’re watching are behaviors that defy not just our sense of where the character was going but also our sense of how any human being with half a conscience would behave? That’s when Girls becomes an exercise in masochism, and this week I felt torn between both reactions. Given the time, I can find it in myself to be amazed by Girls’s determination to defy traditional narrative structure, even at the expense of audience satisfaction, but while watching I was fuming with the absolute knowledge that I would never under any circumstances behave like these people do, so what the fuck is the point of defiance anyway?
Most of this episode is spent with Hannah, who divests herself once and (seemingly) for all of Fran during what is supposed to be a summer caravan trip. Fran has been displaying major signs of dickishness for the past three or four episodes, so it’s hard to blame Hannah for dumping him. But retreating into a camping ground restroom and texting the breakup to your dude in the trailer outside is a move straight out of middle school, and Fran’s mad pursuit through the bathroom and into the woods isn’t much better. While it’s sometimes true that teachers take on the behaviors of their students, Hannah Horvath has never needed an eighth grade English class to start acting like a 13-year-old — how long it will take Fran to journey back to adult behavior is a mystery that will go unsolved.
But somehow Hannah manages to make her inelegant break with Fran a high point, as she spends the rest of the episode curled in the fetal position under a sign before Ray shows up; blowing Ray once they’re on the road; and then abandoning him to hitchhike back to New York once her failed attempt at sexual favors has resulted in the crash of Ray’s $50,000 coffee truck.
But if, during the rest of this season, Hannah was for the most part alone in her stubborn inability to grow, this episode was an adolescent free-for-all. Marnie’s “nama-fucking-ste” to Lisa Bonet, of all people, was about as far from qi as a gal can get, and Shoshanna’s plan to go on food stamps is maybe the first time one of these characters has stepped up from being an unnecessary burden on their friends and loved ones to being an unnecessary burden on the state.
And much as I love Jessa and Adam, their conflict in this episode felt like a crossroads. Picking up Hannah’s call with a baby in hand was itself a self-indulgence. Jessa knows better than anyone that Hannah is childish, but complaining about Hannah’s selfishness while Adam was tending to the infant his sister abandoned is also selfishness. By the time Jessa was whining about the maybe motherless baby’s vomit, even Adam hit his limit.
“You’re an adult. She’s a baby. Why do you need more help than a baby?”
For five seasons now, we’ve watched the characters on Girls live their lives exactly as they please, free from the responsibility of family and stable careers, and free, too, from the fallout of their decisions. There’s no marriage that can’t be annulled, no transcontinental flight that can’t be canceled, no car crash that can’t be left behind. But when a child enters your life, your actions are given immediate consequence. Adam stepped up immediately, but not everyone is prepared for the role of caretaker. Not Jessa but Caroline, at least in this episode, was unprepared first.
As an explanation for her desertion, Caroline leaves a note for Laird, writing that she is abandoning their family because in the time since giving birth she has developed feelings of resentment bordering on violence toward the baby. Her note gives every indication of being written in a state of postpartum depression. She describes being suicidal, and she concludes that what’s best for her family is her removal from it.
In an episode full of tantrums, Caroline has committed maybe the biggest abdication of adult responsibility there is, but her choice doesn’t grate the way Hannah’s comparatively insignificant texts from the bathroom do. There are circumstances that sometimes make it impossible to live up to the expectations of adult society, and sometimes people find out too late that they’re not suited to the life they’re living. But adults have the decency to feel some shame about it.