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.
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.
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.
ELEANOR: Agree. I was rooting for Natalia as a figure of sanity, and I was bummed to see her lose it in this episode. Maybe the message was, if Adam can have this effect on someone as with-it as Natalia, he must really be a monster? I did love the friend, though—that felt realistic. Or at least like a realistic fantasy, if that makes any sense. I know I’ve wanted to tell off some of the guys who’ve done my friends wrong.
JIM: The character we initially meet and think is going to be even-tempered and clear-headed and reasonable and then ends up exploding. That’s like, every minor character in this show ever. Usually guys.
CHRIS: In Natalia's defense, she didn’t start yelling at Adam until he pretended that he didn’t see her. (And after her friend ripped into him, too.) I’d be pretty upset if a person I dated blew me off in public like that—and I suspect plenty of other people feel similarly—so I don’t think it’s fair to frown on her outburst. It wasn’t a reasonable way to act, for sure, but it’s certainly not unrealistic.
That said, I liked Natalia a lot—she seemed to be one of the few forces of balance on Girls—so I hope this isn’t the last we see of her. It’d be an inconsistent sendoff for one of this show’s more likeable characters.
CHRIS: Let’s be frank: Jessa is mentally ill. Girls acknowledged mental illness last season—with a Q-tip, briefly and infamously—but Jessa is suffering through something that could be more harrowing than Hannah’s OCD. She is not healthy. She simply cannot function in normal society.
I don’t think Jessa is at a “low point” yet, though. She seems to be perilously close to having a nervous breakdown. I think it’s going to get a lot worse for her, very, very soon.
JIM: I withhold comment on Jessa’s mental health. Except to say I feel less strongly than Chris. I know and gravitate toward people like Jessa, and they are functioning in “normal society.”
CHRIS: Okay, that was an overstatement—but Jessa has serious problems. Let’s consider what she’s done since her heart-to-heart with Kathryn Hahn’s character in Season One: She married and divorced Thomas-John, tried (and failed) to reconnect with her jerk father, ditched Hannah in the middle of upstate New York, then got kicked out of rehab. Not all of it is her fault, of course, but this kind of erratic behavior would wage a significant toll on anyone’s psyche. I think Jessa is hurt, badly.
ASHLEY: This makes me want to revisit some earlier Girls, because I’m interested to see whether Jessa really has hit a new level of difficult behavior or if I’ve just stopped thinking it was cool. Last year, on that episode when Jessa and Thomas-John split up (read: violently imploded), I wrote that
Jessa doesn't seem to feel the need to make an effort to get along with other people ever. Her "can't-tell-me-nothing" attitude is refreshing and even charming sometimes on the show, but this is one moment where I, as a viewer, finally got exasperated with Jessa.
Was she always this insolent? I can’t say for sure, since I haven’t yet rewatched Girls episodes past. Maybe she’s always been unpleasant, but now she’s in the presence of people who aren’t letting her get away with it. But I do sense a progression here: First I quit thinking she was charming and got exasperated, and now, I’ve quit being exasperated and started feeling concerned.
ELEANOR: Jessa’s the character I’ve had the hardest time with throughout the show’s run. Unlike Jim, I tend to run away from people like her in real life. I really don’t like being around people who are unreliable, self-centered, and often mean—even if they are also fun and worldly and charismatic. The trade-off isn’t worth it for me. I appreciated that phone call between her and Hannah in the first episode, though. I completely understood Hannah’s initial anger at her, and also how quickly she shifted into helper mode. No one can stay angry at someone they care about for too long, especially when that person is in need.
ELEANOR: A reason for pessimism: Shoshanna seemed to slip into caricature in these episodes. She was all ditzy college-girl. We didn’t get to see any of her stealth wisdom or maturity. I hope that’s not a sign of a permanent shift in the way the show writes her character.
CHRIS: I’m not sure “caricature” is the right word, Eleanor. Sure, in these two episodes she’s acting like a vain college girl. (Who always wears big sunglasses, because duh.) Is that a result of lazy writing, though, or a reaction to what she experienced last season? Shoshanna’s coming out of a bad break-up with an older man, still hasn’t graduated college, and her cousin is in rehab. I think she’s acting immature because, frankly, she is still very immature. She’s facing a whole bunch of adult problems and doesn’t know what to do, so she’s retreated into her worst shallow, self-involved instincts. I hope this attitude doesn’t last too long, because I also like the Shosh of old—but for now, I think we should give Girls the benefit of the doubt.
JIM: I am optimistic for all of the characters and the rest of the season, but also glad I won’t have to watch more than one episode per week again. Just because it’s draining.
Guys, don’t worry about Shoshanna. I think she came off as a caricature just because she was a background character in these episodes. Expect to really delve deeply into the complexity of the Shosh.
ASHLEY: For what it's worth, Shoshanna certainly wouldn’t be the first 22-year-old, newly single college girl to put her secretly cool and interesting real self on hold and construct a persona she thinks works for her socially and romantically (however sad and misguided that may be). If I were Shoshanna’s real-life friend, I’d be bummed to see this happen to her, but I think it’s to the show’s credit that this transformation ultimately—in a weird, twisted way—feels real.
And maybe “ultimately—in a weird, twisted way—feels real” is a good encapsulation of what I envision for this year: More cringes, more uncomfortable laughter, more facepalms at how depressingly inevitable all these characters’ bad choices feel. But with a humbling dose of real-life familiarity.