The Girls Gut Check: Is It Ever the Right Moment for a Rent Serenade?

Four Atlantic staffers sound off on the third episode of the third season of Lena Dunham's HBO show.
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This week's episode of Girls took us to Hannah's 25th birthday party—where her friends and even her tank-top-clad editor gathered to party alongside Hannah and her parents (and others) at a bar. Ray and Shoshanna had an awkwardly polite conversation; Adam and Hannah gave us a glimpse of what happiness might look like on this show (hint: it involves molars worn as jewelry); and Adam's sister Caroline showed up and crashed on Adam and Hannah's couch. 

Below, The Atlantic's team of millennial Girls-watchers—Education editor Eleanor Barkhorn, Health editor James Hamblin, social media editor Chris Heller, and Entertainment editor Ashley Fetters—responds to questions raised by the show's depictions of disappeared boyfriends, needy siblings, and birthday serenades nobody asked for.


So we met Caroline. What effect did she have on the show this week? Did we learn anything from this piece of Adam’s personal life popping up unexpectedly? 

ASHLEY: Boy, she was a surprise. But what’s cool (and savvy on the writers’ part) about having Caroline show up is that she makes the rest of the characters’ “crazy” behaviors seem relatively mild by comparison. Caroline is like the anti-Natalia—everyone looked totally off-balance next to the clear-headed Natalia, but Caroline serves as a reminder that the four main characters are at least stable enough to not be a physical danger to themselves (and maybe others). Last week we went back and forth on whether Jessa does or doesn’t “function in normal society,” but now we have a character who seems like she may have legitimate difficulties functioning in normal society.

(Worth noting, however: Neither of these foils are nearly as effective as Blerta, Hannah’s new roommate from Albania that Saturday Night Live concocted in September.)

ELEANOR: If I were Freud, I’d probably say that Caroline helps explain Adam’s bizarre behavior toward women. That a.) her instability may make him distrustful of women in general and b.) her instability could very well be a symptom of broader instability in their family, which may make it hard for him to have stable relationships. Of course that doesn’t excuse his past grossnesses… but I am glad that Caroline sheds some light on the mystery of Why Is Adam Such a Weirdo?

CHRIS: Oh, Caroline. What a nightmare of a person. I had trouble getting past a queasy sense of discomfort whenever she was on screen—the hunch that at any second, she would just unravel in a fit—but her introduction did reveal a few things about Adam’s relationship with Hannah. Adam didn’t yell or scream when Hannah offered to let Caroline stay at their place, even though he wanted Caroline to “fucking get lost.” And later, after a pantsless Caroline breaks a glass in her fist, Hannah doesn’t freak out or express guilt about not listening to Adam’s warnings. They way they treat each other, the way they give and take between themselves, it’s almost as if—dare I say it?—they’re in a committed, mature relationship.

I’d be totally cool with replacing Caroline with Blerta, though. Blerta for life.

ASHLEY: Sometimes I think I’d be cool replacing everyone with Blerta.

CHRIS: I just feel for her. Why did you have to stare at the mayor, Milot? Why?

JIM: (That is a reference to the Tina Fey sketch—for the readers who, like me, don’t have a perfect memory for SNL lines.) All I’d say about this character is she seems consistent with the Girls universe in which everyone is, to their core, bad. And I don’t know what that’s meant to say, if not to be just funny. It can’t be how Lena Dunham feels. Or how lots of people feel, or that everyone actually is bad. It can’t be that.


Charlie in absentia: Marnie's been talking a lot about her suddenly estranged ex. But in reality, Christopher Abbott, who played Charlie, announced his departure from Girls after the last season aired. How has the show handled his abrupt absence?

ELEANOR: It feels really forced and unnatural to me, I have to say, especially since they’ve made it clear that Charlie is still in New York. If Ray and Shosh run into each other, and Adam and Natalia run into each other, why haven’t Charlie and Marnie? The show works so hard to make Brooklyn feel like a small village that it feels bizarre to have a character just disappear like Charlie has. They should have had him move to San Francisco to be around other hip, rich app developers.

ASHLEY: It feels awkward to me, too. Last year, their storyline was largely about Marnie learning to appreciate Charlie after the fact, learning that she liked his steadying presence in her life more she realized at the time. So for him to have suddenly vanished after they’ve finally gotten back together seems like not just a yanked-away happy ending, but also violation of character: It only makes sense that Charlie has a tumor that’s making him crazy, like Marnie says, or he’s way more cruel than we realized.

JIM: I think the Abbott news was a publicity stunt so that the joyous reunion of Charlie and Marnie as evidence that love does exist comes as an even more total surprise. TV conspiracy theories are all around you. If you look for them.

CHRIS: No more Charlie! Come on, don’t act like this isn’t great. Charlie was terrible, Charlie made Marnie do dumb things, and now Charlie is a faint glimpse of a YouTube avatar. Girls hasn’t handled the departure in the cleanest way, but so what? People disappear after break-ups. Exes do cruel things. It’s not a terribly unrealistic turn—and plus, it gave us the wonderful gift of Marnie’s music video.  


What about Ray?: Ray Ploshansky was first introduced to the show as Charlie’s cranky sidekick. And yet Ray’s still very much a part of the show, even after Charlie’s departure (and even after having broken up with Shoshanna). What’s next for Ray? How does he fit into the picture now?

CHRIS: This can’t be the end of Ray and Shoshanna, right? Alex Karpovsky and Zosia Mamet are just too good together to waste, right? I don’t know how else Girls can keep Ray involved as a regular—unless everybody gets jobs at Cafe Grumpy, or something—so I’m guessing that they’ll hook up again.

Looking back on last season, it seems like “Boys” was a major turning point for Ray. It gave Karpovsky room to develop the character—and boy, has he turned out to be fantastic—while also hinting at the guarded compassion behind Ray’s sour misanthropy. I think “She Said OK” builds on that in some pretty significant ways, all of which lead to the scene where he tells Shoshanna he doesn’t want to see her anymore. (And she just says okay.) Just watch how Ray’s face and body language change as he talks to Shosh: He’s awkward, then cutesy, then desperate, and then upset. The episode frames Ray as a foil to the world of Girls, and for that reason alone, I expect to see a lot more of him this season.

ASHLEY: Maybe Ray and Shoshanna are one of those pairings where two people can’t manage to stay together, but can’t quite manage to stay apart, either—like they’re wired too differently to ever make it as a couple, but, as Ray implied, there’s so much still going on between them that it’s almost insulting to just be on sterile, friendly terms. I hope that’s what they turn out to be, actually. That type of pairing seems like it deserves a representation on Girls: The undefined non-relationship that neither blossoms into a romance (like Adam and Hannah’s) nor explodes in a fit of hurt feelings (like Booth and Marnie’s), but just keeps on, in parallel but closely drawn lines.

CHRIS: You are so, so right. It’s easy to think of Girls as a show defined by its appearance. (I think of the oft-complained-about “millennials in Brooklyn” thing.) What gets lost too often, though, is how deftly the show handles love, sex, and relationships. In three episodes, we’ve already stretched across a whole spectrum of romance: Hannah and Adam’s mature stability, Shoshanna and Ray’s will-they-won’t-they intimacy, and the aftermath of Marnie and Charlie’s break-up. Ray isn’t going anywhere because Girls is committed to showing the many different ways people get together.

ELEANOR: Man, that conversation at Hannah’s party was poignant. You’re so right about the Ray’s body language and facial expressions, Chris—he really expresses all the complicated feelings that come with running into an ex. (In a much more understated way than dear Natalia, of course.)

We haven’t talked about the final, brilliant detail, though: his parting dig on her cigarette. All during the scene up to that point, the cigarette kept distracting me. I was trying to remember past episodes, past seasons: Is Shosh a smoker? Ray’s “nice cigarette” comment answered my question. No, she’s not a smoker—or at least she wasn’t until she and Ray broke up. The comment highlights to the audience that Shoshanna may seem completely unfazed by her breakup, but she is affected by it, picking up a new, destructive habit. And it’s a reminder that Ray always wants the last word.

JIM: I can't stand people who always want the last word. Ha. Anyway, no, or just that she’s become this going out, hooking up, Manhattan college person and the cigarette is a part of that. Maybe that was her native state all along. It’s not necessarily a reaction to Ray, or to anything really. A girl who broke up with me once started smoking later and I saw a picture of her with a cigarette, and I was like “That’s because of me, I bet.” Ha, no I didn’t. Or did I? All I’m saying is don’t pretend like you know Shoshanna.


Bursting into unwanted song: We’ve seen Marnie sing a few times now on the show, often in painfully awkward situations. Is there a reason humiliation and singing seem to show up as a pair?

ASHLEY: Last season, we found out that Marnie’s dream in life is to be a singer in the same episode where she found out about Charlie’s runaway app-developer success. So maybe—maybe?—it’s tied somehow to feeling inferior and threatened by the fact that the guy who jilted her is renowned and successful and she’s floundering. Maybe her singing, as a way of claiming a little bit of glory for herself, surfaces in moments where she feels especially low about her life. (In this episode, for instance, Marnie tells Hannah how nice it was to plan her birthday party because it was a distraction from Charlie… then makes Hannah sing with her onstage, as though the reminder of Charlie triggered the need.)

ELEANOR: Yes, yes, yes, Ashley, I had the same reading. Singing in public is Marnie’s nervous tic. Which is unfortunate because I actually think she has a pretty voice, and it doesn’t seem out of the question that she could make a go of it as a singer. But when she only sings in low moments, she ends up making a fool of herself, both with her song selection (who sings Rent after the age of 15?) and her timing—your best friend’s birthday is not the moment to steal the spotlight for yourself.

JIM: I felt like Marnie’s style of dress/singing in the music video and song-selection errors on stages have been just part of illustrating her lack of sense of identity. She’s really talented; she just hasn't honed a sense of singing the right songs at the right times.

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