The Girls Season-Premiere Gut Check: Do Happy Endings Last?

Four Atlantic staffers sound off on the Season Three premiere of Lena Dunham's HBO show.

HBO's Girls has been described as a lot of things—like "a sex comedy from the female POV," "a comedy about people who take themselves too seriously," "a ponderously unwatchable mess," and "a show about a generation of men and women and gays and straights and everything in between, all struggling to understand each other, and all just absolutely failing miserably." On Sunday night, Lena Dunham's HBO dramedy about twenty-something friends dealing with both timeless and trendy coming-of-age dilemmas returned for a third season. And if its funny but challenging first two episodes are any indication, the conversation about what Girls really is, or really means, will likely keep raging on.

Below, The Atlantic's team of millennial Girls-watchers—Education channel editor Eleanor Barkhorn, senior editor James Hamblin, social media editor Chris Heller, and Entertainment editor Ashley Fetters—reunites to respond to questions raised by the show's depictions of difficult women, run-ins with exes, and dubious cross-gender bonding.

Happily ever after, for how long?: When Season Two of Girls ended, we were skeptical of Hannah’s weirdly rom-commy “happily ever after” ending. But she still looks to be living it: She’s cohabitating with Adam; she’s writing (and doing it well, apparently); she’s getting along with her friends; she’s taking her meds. From what we know of Hannah, do we think this can last? Do we want it to?

ELEANOR: Well, the last season started this way, too, right? Hannah happily dating Donald Glover while basking in domestic bliss with her ex- (now out-of-the-closet) boyfriend. But even then, the seeds of disaster were being sown. Marnie and Elijah had almost-sex, a dalliance that ended up ruining Hannah and Marnie’s friendship, at least for a while. I predict a similar arc this season: happiness, followed by darkness, followed by happiness again.

I wonder, though, if there were signs of destruction lurking in this first episode that we won’t know about until later. Maybe the Adam-Marnie bonding moment? Could they end up having an affair, making Marnie a repeat offender with Hannah’s boyfriends?

ASHLEY: As a person, I want to root for Hannah to get her life together and find purpose. And as a TV watcher, oddly enough, I actually want to root for the same things. I think it’s inevitable that these characters’ lives will descend back into chaos and misery, because that’s what’s proven to be the bread and butter of Girls the last few years. But I’ll be honest: The nicer, more focused Hannah who still lacks self-awareness but cracks some funny lines here and there is somebody I’d actually enjoy watching more of on TV.

CHRIS: I’m with Ashley—and I don’t find it odd to want these characters to grow up. When the second season ended, I wrote that Girls needed to make a decision about its identity: Did Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner want the show to be a comedic drama, or a dramatic comedy? I think that choice ultimately comes down to Hannah, which is why I’m glad to see her in something approaching a healthy relationship with Adam. When she didn’t want to go hiking in the woods, she told him so. (Then she sat on the ground listening to This American Life. I loved that gag.) She’s back on good terms with her editor, and seems to be making progress on that notorious e-book. The underlying problems are still there—she’s still as solipsistic as they come—but it does feel like Hannah has matured. I suspect this season will challenge her maturity. It’ll be a one step forward, two steps back sort of thing.

One question, though: How much time has elapsed between the second-season finale and this premiere? It seems like a few months, but I’m not sure.

JIM: The answer is a month. That’s based on Ray’s conversation with Hannah about avoiding Shoshanna, and the heat of Natalia’s outrage. Dramatic comedy seems eminently more fitting than comedic drama to me.

And to Eleanor’s idea about Adam and Marnie: Never! That would never happen. Both Adam and Marnie are intense, labile, passionate, adventurous, Millennial-typical level promiscuous, attractive characters; but they would never sleep together.

Close encounters: Natalia and her friend bump into Adam with Hannah at the coffee shop, and take the opportunity to unleash a few choice words. Funny, or horrifying? Realistic? Too realistic?

ASHLEY: Funny and horrifying, certainly. This is the kind of scene that I think Girls excels at: It’s all too plausible, situationally, but with alternating dashes of over-the-top cruelty and absurdity mixed in. But it made me a little bit sad to see Natalia become such a caricature of “crazy ex-girlfriend.” She added a nice, much-needed bit of contrast in the show last year—her self-possession and clear-headedness was a refreshing antidote to the rest of what happens on Girls. I was rooting for her.

Another telling aspect of the coffee-shop encounter was how little aftermath there seemed to be between Adam and Hannah. Earlier in the series, this is the kind of thing that could have caused a blowup or some kind of ugly tiff between them, but they seem to take it as a united front, for the most part; Hannah brings it up in conversation later, then sees that Adam doesn’t want to talk about it and backs off. As Chris mentioned, the new, heightened functionality of their relationship gets highlighted in a few other places in the first two episodes, and this was a subtle and interesting way to introduce it.

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