The Girls Gut Check: 'No Drive, No Goals, Somehow Tons of Opinions'

Four Atlantic staffers sound off on the fifth episode of the third season of Lena Dunham's HBO show.


This week's Girls was all about invasion and aggression: Marnie, Jessa, Hannah, and Shoshanna all either found themselves cramping someone else's style or being uncomfortably encroached upon. Hannah got kicked out of David's funeral for bothering David's wife about finding her a publisher; Marnie dropped in on Ray at his apartment for a dose of his trademark blunt honesty (and got both honesty and kitchen-table sex); and for a tense moment, the apartment where Jessa has moved in with Shoshanna wasn't big enough for the both of them.

Below, The Atlantic's team of millennial Girls-watchers—Education editor Eleanor Barkhorn, Health editor James Hamblin, social media editor Chris Heller, and Entertainment editor Ashley Fetters—responds to questions raised by the show's depictions of siblings, boundaries, and the publishing industry.

“Only Child” found Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna all on quests to better themselves or get their lives back on track. Who’s got the best shot at succeeding?

JIM: Marnie is running stairs, Shoshanna is studying to get into business school, and Jessa is considering trying to get a job. Even if all that keeps up and leads to fitness and mental clarity and fiscal solvency, I can’t see any of them being happy. Is that what you mean by succeeding? If any of them started caring in some real and lasting way about something outside of themselves, in that way that’s necessary to be happy, it would feel strangely out of character. Could that ever happen and still be the same show? Are they just searching for that thing to care about, or is it outside of the capacity of these characters, and that’s why we love them?

ASHLEY: Yeah. I think we can reasonably assume at this point that nobody’s actually getting their shit together. But if I had to bet on one, I’d say Shoshanna. She actually has a concrete plan for how to get herself to the next stage and seems to be at least somewhat earnestly pursuing it. Marnie’s plan started out OK when she asked Ray to honestly tell her why she seems to be floundering socially, but their moment of clarity got muddled when they had confusing kitchen-table sex right after. And Jessa’s plan to redeem herself by working at a baby-apparel store and smoking water cigarettes is just pathetic.

ELEANOR: Yup, as education editor I of course have my money on Shoshanna. College degree + business school = success! As a human, though, I am still rooting for Marnie. Yes, she’s spoiled and vain, but she’s had more than her share of humiliations on this show. I’m ready to see her flourish.

CHRIS: I really don’t know. Marnie was the closest to having her life “on track” when this series began, but now she seems the farthest from any sort of adult progress. Jessa demanded a job “with a touch of innocence” in this episode, which sounds like the kind of thing a college student would say on a frivolous semester abroad. I guess I’ll go with Shoshanna, future Mistress of the Universe.

To take a stab at your questions, Jim, I don’t think Girls has pushed its characters toward empathy yet. The show is plodding through the nadir of young adulthood—and all of the self-centered, narcissistic, terrible impulses that go with it—so maybe it’s wrong to expect any signs of emotional improvement. (Still, I can’t stop looking.) The girls have gone through a lot since the pilot, but in so many ways, they seem profoundly unchanged. It’s frustrating.

In this episode, Caroline's presence caused problems between herself and Adam, then Caroline and Hannah, and finally Hannah and Adam. How realistic is the show’s portrayal of adult sibling relationships and their function in a larger social ecosystem?

ASHLEY: I thought the show nailed the contrast between the siblings Adam and Caroline and the only child Hannah. Adam and Caroline understand that no matter how much a sibling drives you crazy, you can never just cut them out of your life. Hannah, meanwhile, attempts to do just that when she kicks Caroline out of the apartment (and her and Adam’s lives). Also I loved that Adam insisted that they go rescue Caroline at the end; that felt very real. Like Adam and Caroline, my brother and I have certainly made each other miserable before (well, not as miserable)—but that I’ve-got-your-back-you’ve-got-mine, mutual sibling-distress radar thing really does kick in at the crucial moments.

It was nice, too, to see a main character show some unconditional loyalty to another character for once. It made me realize how quickly most of the loyalties expire and disintegrate between Girls characters, and how infrequently anyone on the show does anything at all admirable.

ELEANOR: Well, I’m not sure it’s fair to say that Adam is unconditionally loyal to Caroline. Remember that when she initially wanted to live with them, he refused. It was Hannah who let her stay with them in the first place. I saw this episode less as proof of Adam’s loyalty, and more as an illustration of how we sometimes need dramatic reminders that we actually love our family members. Adam had been hostile toward Caroline for several episodes—it took a bizarro Dr. Phil-style intervention from Hannah and Caroline’s later disappearance to make him realize that he does, in fact, want his sister around.

ASHLEY: That’s fair—maybe it’s more like bottom-line, when-it-counts-most loyalty that Adam shows to Caroline.

CHRIS: I’m with you on this one, Ashley. The strongest part of “Only Child” was Adam and Caroline’s prickly relationship. There’s a nastiness to siblings who fight, borne by all the lingering raw nerves of years spent together. My brother is a bit younger than I am, and I doubt that anyone in the world knows me—or knows how to rile me up—better than he does. I see an honest, exaggerated reflection of that in Adam and Caroline. No matter what she says to Adam, or what she inflicts on him, he still cares about her. Ah, family. They may not be there for you when you ask, but they’ll definitely convene a search party when you get kicked out by an in-law.

Like last week’s episode, “Only Child” seemed to have something to say regarding media and publishing. But what was it, exactly?

JIM: Publishers are excited about the salacious/angsty memoirs of privileged 25-year-olds. Or no, wait, it’s about how Hannah can’t think of anything to write about except herself, right? She could do fiction, or write about anything in the world except these sex stories to which she sold the rights, but she doesn’t consider it. Once I started seeing this as a show about self-obsession it’s all I can think about.

ASHLEY: I’m kinda having trouble working through the layers of satire, actually. Lena Dunham famously / infamously got a very lucrative book deal last year; plenty of people were cranky about it. Her book proposal was something like “an invitation to get lost in the mind of a girl who is lost in her own mind. It's basically literary lifecasting: Fully 13% of the proposal's pages are devoted to reproducing a diary Dunham kept of what she ate in 2010,” according to Gawker (a-ha).

It seems as though Hannah has actually written something that might fall into the category of “literary lifecasting,” too. So while Lena Dunham is getting paid to write an overshare-y tell-all in earnest, her show laughs at its lead character for doing the same thing?

ELEANOR: Yeah, this is a weakness in the show, I think: It’s not clear whether it empathizes with or is making fun of its characters. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to feel bad for Hannah or not. On paper, it’s a crappy situation: Her entire young life’s work is unavailable to her for three years. But her reaction to this loss—turning a funeral into a networking opportunity, yelling at her dad, throwing Caroline out of the house—robs me of much sympathy. Overall the joke seemed to be on Hannah’s selfishness, not on the publishing industry.

CHRIS: I liked the hyena laughter in the publisher’s office.

Plenty of characters butted heads over broaches of territory this week, and almost every exchange ended with an order to shut up, shut the fuck up, “go fuck yourself,” or get the fuck out. These aren’t the nicest ways to get someone to stop bothering you, but were any justifiable?

ELEANOR: The “shut up” leitmotif in this episode reminded me of the episode in Sex and the City when Aidan and Carrie move in together and Aidan’s constant chatter drives her berserk. She ends up screaming “shut up” at him repeatedly in the bathroom.

This scene—along with all the “shut ups” in Girls—is a reminder of how hard it is to live with people, especially when the people involved are, as Jim says, completely obsessed with themselves.

CHRIS: You’re right, Eleanor. This episode reminded me that I would never, ever want to live with any of these people. I’ll add this much: As far as I’m concerned, Jennifer Westfeldt is justified in doing whatever she damn well pleases—at her husband’s funeral, or anywhere else for that matter.

ASHLEY: Naturally, I thought Hannah getting kicked out of the funeral was awesome. I love it when Hannah gets what's coming to her, and bless you, David’s wife, for perfectly embodying the trajectory of how I feel about Hannah pretty much every week: incredulous, then appalled, then enraged.

I feel for Hannah and Adam in their Caroline situation, though, in the same way that I feel for Shoshanna as she deals with Jessa. I can't say I myself wouldn't be tempted to kick Caroline out of my apartment, and I would probably lose it after about three days with Jessa in my home.

But in both of those scenarios, a troubled person finds herself abruptly ejected from her prior living situation, so she crashes with a relative (who can’t refuse her, because that’s what relatives are for) and quickly overstays her welcome. It's a real-life dilemma I'm sure plenty of people can relate to. So what do you do? Well, at least thus far, Girls seems to be advocating that you put up with them and look after them—because maybe nobody else will.