The Refreshing, Hopeful, Subtly Bleak Girls' Season Three Finale

Our roundtable discusses "Two Plane Flights," the 12th episode of the HBO show's third season.

This week's panelists: Chris HellerSpencer Kornhaber, and Ashley Fetters.

Kornhaber: The news that you may be moving halfway across the country for grad school is the sort of thing you’re supposed to tell your significant other, right away. But what if that significant other is about to undergo the most significant professional challenge of his life—opening night as a Broadway actor? Maybe you wait a couple hours.

Similarly, when’s the right time to tell your ex that you love him and want to get back together? Maybe not during intermission at a play. When’s the right time to fess up to your good friend that you slept with her ex? Maybe not right after that friend learns she won’t graduate college. And, uh, when’s the right time to decide you don’t want to commit suicide? Maybe not after you’ve cajoled your young assistant into giving you a lethal dose of pills.

This season finale found its typically Girls-ish moments of awkward, cover-your-eyes humor not so much from what people were saying, but when they were saying things. “Seriously, shut the fuck up,” Clementine, acting as viewer proxy, tells Marnie at one point. “Has anyone ever taught you when to speak?”

Believe it or not, this is a sign of progress for our heroes. Not long ago, entire seasons’ worth of tension were built on the girls lying to themselves and to others. Remember how toxic it was for Marnie to keep quiet to Hannah about having semi-slept with Elijah? Now, Marnie’s spouting brutal truths about herself as soon as Hannah walks into her apartment: “I know I use sex for emotional validation, because it's what I do.”

So, more and more, these characters recognize the monsters we see them as. More and more, they’re having tough, necessary, seemingly adult conversations. Does that mean they’re suddenly humane? No, but watching them try to be—watching Marnie try to comfort Shoshanna with a tale of her lazy days at Oberlin before knifing her with news of the Ray dalliance—is hilarious. Of course, characters who self-sabotage pointlessly and squabble pettily are hilarious too. Eventually, though, they get tiring. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see the season ending with a series of forthright, if ill-timed, conflicts about Real Stuff.

For example, Adam and Hannah face their biggest challenge yet, and it’s not from him being a weirdo or her being a narcissist. It’s from both of them wanting to throw themselves into fulfilling careers. We hadn’t known Hannah had applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but now her tirade at the GQ offices makes more sense: She had success on the writing-for-hire path, found it wanting, and still held out hope that there’s a way to write and be fulfilled. Her beam at the end of the episode signaled that even if her relationship with Adam may be nearing an end, even if she’s unemployed at the moment, her idealism and ambition can keep living. It’s one of the most encouraging victories the show’s ever offered.

Less encouraging: everything Shoshanna-related. Her destructive apartment rampage (the reason heavy music was invented) stems from more than just her “fucking cunt of a glaciology professor” flunking her. It’s from the reality-shaking realization that her plan to Have It All—promiscuity, stability, achievement—has failed, and maybe was always doomed. Shoshanna’s screen time this season has been pretty miniscule, but there’s something fitting about the fact that her plotline has been one of subtle, marginal simmering. We’ve seen her frustratedly trying to study as her friends distract her; we’ve seen her sit silently then explode in judgment. This is an intense person putting herself under intense pressure in an intense period—and all, it turns out, for nothing. (OK, for perhaps one more semester at NYU.) It’s hard to tell if her abject proposition to Ray was sincere, or whether it was just her trying to regain control of at least one aspect of her life.

Jessa, meanwhile, has relished being out of control all season. She goes to rehab and makes a joke out of it; she’s sober for a bit then backslides spectacularly. Whenever she’s not getting wasted, she complains of boredom. But hanging out with Bede, someone who appreciates her candor but who won’t indulge her junkie tendencies, offers something genuinely new. When her employer requests euthanasia, Jessa must confront all the topics she’s been getting too high to think about—mortality, aging, happiness, the real purpose of pharmaceuticals. Maybe with a mentor who’s decided to choose life, she’ll finally start taking her own existence seriously.

Marnie, though, appears ready to pick up the mantle as the show’s agent of chaos. Self awareness has just made her worse, it seems. Hannah and Elijah tell her it’s a bad idea to go after the non-bachelor smarmmaster Desi. She nevertheless giddily celebrates after she gets him to lunge at her. When she grins at the sight of Desi and Clementine fighting, I can’t help but feel like the real issue we’re dealing with in her plotline is a psychological one. At this point, I don’t know what’d it take for her to break her own cycle of misery.

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