Girls Is Right: Friendships Are More Dramatic Than Romances

Our roundtable discusses "Beach House," the seventh episode of the HBO show's third season.


This week's panelists: Eleanor Barkhorn, Ashley Fetters, and Chris Heller

Barkhorn: Late last season, Girls revealed the first sentence of Hannah’s doomed e-book: “A friendship between college girls is grander and more dramatic than any romance.” This is probably my favorite line from Girls so far, because in my experience it’s true: Friendships among college friends are quite dramatic, and certainly harder to navigate than most romantic relationships.

This isn’t because young women are “crazy” or “mean” or any of the unkind things people say to explain why women sometimes have trouble getting along with one another. It’s because there are very few universally accepted rules governing friendships.

People complain about how romance is lawless these days, but there are still several markers of commitment (or lack thereof): the “defining the relationship” talk; making a status change on social media; moving in together; the breakup talk. With friendship, though, there are no first dates or official declarations of devotion to mark the beginning of a relationship. Similarly, there is no clear way to break up with a friend, except in extreme situations—most of the time these relationships just fade away. And in between, there are so many impossible-to-answer questions: How do I know someone is my friend? How much can I expect to see my friend now that she has a new boyfriend? How do I keep a friendship alive when I feel it slipping away? What do I do when I can tell that my friend cares more about our relationship than I do?

This week’s episode, “Beach House,” does a beautiful job of exploring these last two questions. Hannah, Jessa, and Shosh head out to the North Fork of Long Island (not to be confused with the Hamptons) for a weekend at Marnie’s mom’s friend’s lovely home. We soon find out that Marnie is looking forward to this time as a chance to heal the girls’ strained friendships; she wants them all to write their wishes on pieces of paper and then throw them in a fire so they come true. Hannah, however, has been dreading this weekend. She wants nothing to do with Marnie’s healing activities. We’ve seen this tension building all season. Marnie helps plan a big birthday party for Hannah. Marnie wants Hannah to come over and meet her new cat. Marnie calls Hannah to talk. But Hannah has her own life to focus on and keeps Marnie at a distance.

An expert at avoiding unpleasant emotions, Hannah finds a way to sabotage Marnie’s plans: When she runs into her ex-boyfriend Elijah and his friends, she eagerly invites them over. They all drink and swim and dance rather than “heal.”

But, inevitably, the girls do talk about their relationship, in a big drunken argument after dinner. They take turns pointing out one anothers’ worst qualities: Shosh is dumb, Hannah is self-involved, Marnie is “tortured by self-doubt and fear,” and Jessa is a walking aphorism. But then the conversation turns, masterfully, to expectations. The girls are frustrated because they don’t know what they can realistically expect from one another. Marnie says she’s disappointed in Hannah; Hannah tells her to lower her expectations; Marnie says her expectations can’t go any lower. This gets at what I was saying before about why young-adult friendships are so challenging: There are no rules. Hannah ends the scene by storming off to her room and declaring, “I really miss my boyfriend”—an acknowledgment of the fact that, yes, her relationship with Adam is far more stable than her female friendships right now.

The episode ends on a hopeful note, though. In the final scene, as the girls are waiting for their bus back to the city, they silently act out the dance they learned the night before. Fragile as their friendships are, there’s still something holding them together.

What do you guys think of the way Girls portrays female friendship, in this episode and in the series overall? Does it strike a chord with you as it does with me? And what’s next? Do you think this episode signals a turning point in their friendships, or was this just a one-off show, similar to other intense-weekend episodes we’ve seen, like the Patrick Wilson one last season?

Fetters: “There are very few universally accepted rules governing friendships.” All too true, Eleanor—and I would say best friends are affected by this most severely.

“Best friend,” maybe for women especially, is a singular role that carries with it a number of designated expectations, just like “boyfriend.” It even carries some of the same expectations, like providing emotional support and hanging out all the time. But while there’s a clearly defined, necessary conversation in which you opt into being someone’s boyfriend, you can simply discover one day that you’ve become someone’s best friend; there’s no mutual opting in. And a boyfriend has the power to cease being a boyfriend of his own accord, but best friends have no such luxury: There’s no handy script in place for downgrading to just “friends” or “acquaintances,” so, often, you don’t cease to be someone’s best friend until they decree as much.

That last part is what I think Girls is portraying so well. Marnie and Hannah, the central best-friendship of the show, are at a point where maybe their partnership has run its course, but there’s no established way to do the “polite friend breakup”—so Marnie’s trying to fix it, while Hannah’s just trying to duck out of it. This part, certainly, resonates with me. I’ve found myself in that position of awkwardly wanting to quit being friends but not become enemies in the process—just wanting to make the “slow fade” happen faster, then part ways and leave it at that.

Is it a turning point in their friendship? That’s tough to say—but it’s certainly a turning point in how I as a viewer understand the show’s portrayal of their friendship. One thing I can’t stop thinking about is how Hannah says “It’s not like the four of us have had any real fun together in the last, like what? Two years?” Looking at the timeline of the show, we met these four friends in the pilot episode somewhere between one and two years ago.

Which is to say, we’ve never seen this friendship was when it was good. In my never-ending quest to figure out what this show is, I started pondering a new possibility: Maybe Girls is the story of a friend group breaking up.

That said, I wonder if putting a “happy ending” on an episode like this assigns too much virtue to staying friends just for the sake of staying friends. Yes, maybe they really did have a great thing going two years ago. But two years is a long time to wait around for your friends to stop making you miserable. (Especially when they’re college friends, not lifelong friends.) It’s a lovely idea, this “you’re my best friend, we’ll stay together no matter how bad things get” kind of thing, and one that pop culture loves to celebrate. But even as a woman—and even as someone who strongly endorses supportive, patient, close female friendships—I say, for goodness sake, prune your friend tree rationally and often. Don’t let sentimental attachments keep you surrounded by people who stress you out.

Which brings me to my absolute favorite part of this episode, and maybe my favorite scene of Girls ever: Shoshanna providing the proverbial splash of cold water and telling her friends bluntly what makes them each so horrible. (Anyone else get goose bumps?) Shoshanna seems to be starting to realize just how unhappy these friendships are making her. I love that the show has addressed both sides of the “BFF4L” coin: On the one hand, female friendship can be a grand and magical and powerful thing; a life-affirming force. Hannah recognizes this in the foreword of her ebook. But on the other hand, some friends are toxic. Shoshanna’s the one who recognizes this.

A stray thought, on that note: I kind of hope Girls ends the way Mean Girls ended—with all the girls parting ways, making new friends, being at peace with one another from a distance, and finding that they’re better off that way.

Chris, thoughts? Eleanor and I seem to agree that this show portrays friendship among women in a way we’ve definitely experienced, but are its messages about friendship so specifically gendered? And, of course, did you love watching Shoshanna straight-talk everyone into place?

Heller: I'm afraid I don't have much to add, for two reasons: because you and Eleanor discussed the subject so eloquently and thoroughly; and because I know nothing about the grandness, the drama, or the romance of a friendship between college girls.

I do know a little bit about friendship, though. Women are largely responsible for telling Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shosh's story—and the female perspective is a profoundly important foundation of the show—and yet, I recognize so much of what they’re going through. It doesn't resonate as strongly as I suspect it does for either of you, but I still feel it. The foolish mistakes and hard-earned lessons are too relatable to ignore. Girls isn't just about girls. It's about the strange, maddening evolution of friendships between young people who change.

That's what I loved about this episode. And, like Ashley, I especially loved Shosh's heroic airing of grievances. We've puzzled over her a lot this season—why Shosh is a caricature, why Shosh is smoking, why Shosh is bizarrely indifferent about death—and now, it's clear what’s been going on. She's “so fucking sick” of her friends, and she wants a new life.

Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, who co-wrote "Beach House" with Judd Apatow, even throw some barbs at themselves during her rant. " You treat me like I’m a fucking cab driver!" is a sly subversion of the weird, ditzy, crack-smoking character they created. All season, Shosh has been quietly steaming on the sidelines. We noticed it weeks ago, and now, it's painfully obvious. She's different now. Will she stay with the girls, or disappear into college and the world of business? As much as I'd like to think that she'll stick around—especially because Zosia Mamet has salvaged the dismal parts of this season—I wouldn't be surprised if she disappears.

While it hasn't always made for great television, change has been the theme of the season. Each one of the girls has tiptoed toward a separate life. I adored the last shot of this episode—it's my favorite from the series, without a doubt—but I think Ashley is onto something. "Beach House" feels like a pivotal chapter in this show. If it is, can Girls be anything but a breakup story? Where can they go from here, besides apart?