Maybe, Finally, Girls Is Starting to Grow Up

Our roundtable discusses "Free Snacks," the sixth episode of the HBO show's third season.


This week's panelists: Ashley Fetters, Chris Heller, and Spencer Kornhaber

Kornhaber: When Hannah quit her brand-new job on tonight’s Girls, it was a sad moment—not for Hannah, but for viewers. Once again, it seemed, the show had introduced an interesting new situation (in this case, the GQ workplace) only to quickly end it on account of some main character’s stubbornness. (Previous examples include Donald Glover: Boyfriend and Jessa: Rehab Patient).

But wait! Seconds later, Hannah reconsiders. "I’m putting copper pipes on my house, I really can’t deal with this right now," replies Janice, the awesomely sphinx-like head of advertorial. "Wanna just email me and let me know if you still work here?"

This is a huge relief for a few reasons. One is that the GQ offices, with its pitch meetings and snack tables and rivalries, make for good TV. Anyone else crack up at “Neiman Marcus doesn’t sell a widow’s peak, but, worth considering”?

The other reason: By opting for new stability over her life’s status-quo chaos, Hannah might, maybe, be growing up.

What could growing up mean on Girls? “Free Snacks” centered around one answer: compromise. Hannah opts to stick with her “corporate advertising, working-for-the-man kind of writer” job, vowing to keep her artistic career going outside of the nine-to-five. Shoshanna wants to end her “wild months” of singledom so she summons a hot-but-idiotic undergrad to the library for negotiations about starting a relationship (“I’m down for whatever,” he shrugs). Marnie and Ray both find each other obnoxious, but maintain their “non-friendship” after a big fight because they have no one else to lunch with. Adam refuses to degrade himself by actually trying at auditions, until finally, he sullies his conscience and lands a gig.

As with most things on Girls, these developments trigger mixed feelings. But they’re a new sort of mixed feelings. For one episode, at least, we’re not laughing and cringing at train wrecks. We’re laughing and cringing at people making the difficult decision to settle.

The depiction of the magazine world, in particular, was great. (As an aside: Think-piece-bait points go to to Lena for working in native advertising, yet another bit of the zeitgeist that’s, ahem, controversial.) The notion of writers getting sidetracked from their true passion by stable, creative-ish day jobs—and by, per Buzzfeed’s most recent masterpiece, life—is one that a lot of people in the media industry can recognize. And the underlying tension that Hannah faces is one that people across industries can recognize.

Working in an office with people you like, getting perks, being praised for your accomplishments, pulling down an adult paycheck—for the first time, Girls seems to understand why folks in the real world stay in the real world. But it’s also unflinching about the tradeoffs. When Hannah tells Janice that she doesn’t want to wake up in 10 years having ditched the chance at a soul-satisfying writing career, her boss doesn’t offer comforting advice. She doesn’t say that you can be creative and do office work. She just says that lots of people would love to have Hannah’s job. “That’s it?” Hannah asks. “That’s it.”

By the end of the episode, when her ridiculously optimistic “three-hours-a-night” plan has failed within seconds, I’d felt more sympathy for Hannah than I’d felt in a long time. We’ve come to understand by now that her ambition isn’t empty—she’s self-centered, but she’s also talented. Her getting her life together would be nice to see; her giving up her dream would be tough to see. For what feels like the first time in a long time, there’s a conflict on Girls to really care about.

Importantly, that conflict that doesn’t feel confined to a time or place. For a while now, the show’s seemed less interested in commenting on a certain type of millennial and instead has been keying on bigger questions—responding to death, navigating difficult relationships, and now, facing real career challenges. So—programming note to readers—that’s why, for the time being, we’re moving away from our generational-gut-check format and instead will focus more on discussing this resonant, frustrating, original TV show as, well, a TV show.

Ashley, Chris, how’d this episode land for you?

Fetters: I love the way you put this: “Finally, there’s a conflict on Girls to really care about.” This episode felt to me, too, like a turning point for the show.

All season long, we’ve seen these characters hit some varyingly ridiculous low points and finally get chastened for how insufferable their behaviors have been. Hannah gets kicked out of a funeral. Jessa gets kicked out of rehab. Marnie gets stern talkings-to from her mom … and from Ray … and finds herself telling a cat that it’s her best friend. To me, these moments seemed like mounting evidence that these characters' flaws were just calcifying.

But this episode offered hope that maybe—maybe—there’s a rock-bottom-to-redemption arc here after all. When Hannah turned around and headed back into Janice’s office to un-quit her job, she did the best thing she could have done for the show and its audience: She surprised us. Hannah finally seemed to have that moment of clarity, in which she realized she has to balance her big dreams with her need to fulfill everyday responsibilities. This is the revelation I’ve been waiting for since the pilot episode of Girls, and I was starting to think it might never happen.

I loved, too, that the show handled it in a way that felt tender and bittersweet, not cruel or cathartic. When the other advertorial writers on her team nonchalantly revealed that they, too, were once promising “literary writers” who came to the necessary realization that ambition doesn’t pay the electric bill, the obvious takeaway was that Hannah sees how quickly a dream can die once it’s even partially abandoned. But there’s a subtler—and, I’d argue, more important—lesson here: This episode put Hannah face to face with people whose dreams didn’t come true, and she sees that they’re pretty much fine and functional and reasonably happy anyway.

Meanwhile, other characters seemed to gain some awareness, too. Adam, like Spencer mentioned, realized that effort isn’t so overrated, and Marnie finally seemed to understand that she’s responsible for her own alienation and is now just as lonely as Ray. Jessa expressed a faint desire to improve herself last week; maybe she’ll be the next to come around. (You’ll note that I have not expressed any such hope for Shoshanna, and that is because I personally hope Shoshanna never changes a hair on her perfect, wise, silly, donut-topped head.)

It’s worth noting, though, that this episode didn’t mark a total transformation. Some parts were very much classic Girls. Joe, Hannah’s insta-BFF at the office, for instance, seems like he’s primed to fall into that category Jim identified: the minor character we “initially think is going to be even-tempered and reasonable, then ends up exploding.” And, of course, there was awkward, graphic sex accompanied by random chatter (times two!)—a Girls staple from the beginning.

And another hallmark of Girls, lest we forget, is the maturity fakeout: the plot in which one character seems to finally be making moves toward getting it together, only to fall apart into a heap of self-absorption all over again. So despite this flurry of positive signals, it’s worth wondering: Are we safe in believing this is a permanent uptick in maturity for the girls (and guys) of Girls? Or should we brace ourselves instead for another round of disappointment? Chris, what do you think?

Heller: Sorry, Ashley: I don't think this is the turning point we've been waiting to see. Do you think Hannah will still work for GQ at the end of this season? Or even two episodes from now? Is there any reason to believe she's ready for a Serious Adult Job? As much as I'd like to believe that "Free Snacks" marks a fundamental pivot within the show—and as much as I'd like to see the ever-delightful Jessica Williams become a series regular—I just don't think she’s going to stick with this new job. Girls has pulled similar tricks before, as Spencer noted. It's two steps forward, one step back, over and over until ... what, exactly?

I'm beginning to think that's the show's real message about adulthood. A single revelation cannot generate maturity. No profound moment of clarity will transmogrify Hannah into a grownup. Her adulthood will develop from the collective sum of poor life choices: the selfish decisions, the drugs, the drunken fights, the book-deal-that-wasn't, and all of the rest. Last week, I complained that Girls hasn't changed much in three seasons. Even if Hannah quits her job, "Free Snacks" proved me wrong. The lasting changes are just tough to notice. They're obscured by mistakes.

We've seen glimmers of Hannah's budding maturity—her relationship with Adam comes to mind—but the GQ affair is unique. For the first time, Hannah must confront the contradictions between her dream and her life. After slaving over a book that can't be published, now she's getting praised for doing a job she resents. (Nobody ever became the voice of a generation by writing sponsored content about Kewl Dads.) So, why did she walk back into Janice's office? Lots of reasons. Hannah has never excelled like she did in that pitch meeting with the advertorial team. Her colleagues struggled with the same questions she does. Also, Janice is right: A lot of people would love to have her job. There's a steep drop from GQ to the steaming station at Café Grumpy.

We all seem to agree on this: "Free Snacks" is not your average episode of Girls. It forced Hannah to confront reality in a way she rarely does, pushing her away from the easy, regrettable choices we've come to expect her to make.  I don't think her gig at GQ will last—she's too smitten with writing to give up the dream—but I'm glad the show introduced the possibility of Hannah making a major, mature decision.