Girls Is Back and Off to a Languid (False) Start

Three Atlantic staffers discuss "Iowa," the first episode of the HBO show's fourth season.


Joe Reid: I honestly thought Hannah would've been in Iowa by now. That's pretty much my main takeaway from the fourth season premiere of Girls, a show that's never been primarily about plot, sure, but one that also tends to move along more quickly than it did in this episode.

David, you made an excellent point in your latest Good Wife review (uh, SPOILERS if you're behind on The Good Wife—maybe jump to the next paragraph) that we all knew at the beginning of last episode that Cary wasn't going to prison, because if the Kings had planned to actually send him to prison, he'd have already been in prison. I was thinking about that as this episode of Girls unfolded, and I started to wonder if Hannah getting accepted into the Iowa Writers Workshop at the end of last season was ultimately going to end up getting snatched away from Hannah by the end of the half-hour. That didn't happen, and Hannah ends up en route to the Midwest at the closing credits, so my question then is what were we even doing with this episode?

So much of what gets accomplished here is either place-setting, loose-ends-tying, or reiterating beats we got at the end of season three. We already knew that Hannah accepting the Iowa Workshop was an act of ambivalence toward her relationship with Adam. I'm not sure watching the two of them avoid having a conversation about it, to the point of even avoiding a goodbye on the morning she leaves, tells us anything more than what we already knew.

In other storylines, Jessa's promising arc taking care of Louise Lasser is entirely boxed up within the span of one scene, though it was probably the best scene in the episode. Not so much Natasha Lyonne showing up to holler at Jessa in an insane accent about her "unconchable" behavior (and is it me, or do these barely-necessary guest turns by Orange Is the New Black alumna read like Lena Dunham desperately trying to assure us she likes the other TV shows we're watching?), but the scene where Jessa says her goodbyes was incredibly sweet and well-performed by Lasser and Jemima Kirke. Meanwhile, the less said about Shosh and her parents braying at each other over her NYU diploma the better. It was so sad to see Anthony Edwards and Ana Gasteyer sucked into the Shosh vortex.

Weirdly, the only story that actually progressed, albeit incrementally, was Marnie's. She and Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) are performing crappy coffee-shop gigs together, and also sleeping together on the sly, and it's all very Marnie, by which I mean it all still feels like Dunham is writing that character on a dare to see how many awful personality traits Allison Williams can exhibit onscreen until she makes herself the least likable actress in Hollywood.

But here I am going on and on. I can't be the only one who felt the extreme stagnation in this episode, am I?

Megan Garber: You weren't at all, Joe! Adam attempting to run through mud (in that depression medication commercial he was so awesomely and Adamly indignant to star in) seems like a pretty good analogy for the whole episode. I think the biggest action the episode saw—besides the Jessa-Beadie goodbye, which I agree was both unconchably abrupt and otherwise beautifully executed—was Marnie getting mocked by a pre-schooler. And then crying. Thus ruining "jazz brunch." Uggghhh.

But I ended up, weirdly, not minding the languorous pace of the episode. I liked the will-she-or-won't-she tension of Hannah's departure for Iowa: In a show so obsessed with benchmarks of adulthood and progress in general, it seemed fitting that this legitimately huge step forward in Hannah's life would be so long in the making. Would she end up in Iowa, or would she pull a Lauren-of-The Hills thing and decide at the last minute to give up her dream gig for Jason Adam? Would Hannah let this good thing happen to her, in the end? There are hints throughout the episode that she wouldn't, which would have been tragic … and which I thought made the last scene of the episode—Hannah alone in the back of her parents' car, like a little kid without the protection of a car seat, headed to her first day of school—all the more powerful.

Speaking of that, I really loved the impressionistic feel of the scenes in the episode. There were nice symmetries, both within the ep itself and within the arc of the show across its seasons: Hannah at yet another awkward dinner with her parents, this time being congratulated instead of—like the first scene of the first episode—punished. The way her girly outfit (though, okay, maybe the bow in her hair was a taaaad on the nose) contrasted with Iowa and her surprisingly well-planned departure for it. (And also, of course, with her brief sex scene with Adam.) Season 4's tagline is "nowhere to grow but up," which is wretched, but which also suggests that the upcoming episodes will keep offering some redemption for characters who have become, throughout the past three seasons, increasingly difficult to like. If so, we could probably read "Iowa" as a staccato string of scene-settings.

Speaking of that (and also of your Allison Williams point, Joe): CAN WE TALK ABOUT THAT "JAZZ BRUNCH"? Because I really don't know what that was supposed to be about. The layered ironies of Girls—to what extent is the show conscious of its treatments of issues like race and class, not to mention its characters' breezy narcissism?—have made it fascinating and frustrating to watch, in pretty much equal measure. And they've made me hope that season 4 would bring new wisdom and maturity not just for Hannah, the character, but also for Lena, the creator. But then, last night, Dunham hit us with 1). a brunch, which was 2). fancy and flower-strewn, and which featured 3). a white woman who offered to "scat," but who then actually 4). ended up singing a vaguely minstrel-like ballad and then 5). made jokes about that ballad being "jazz." I just… I don't... was that the show poking fun at its own criticisms and shortcomings? Was it the show extending a middle finger, or at least a dry mimosa, toward those criticisms? Am I just being pulled into Girls' vortex of self-satire? I'm baffled. David, help!

David Sims: Megan, you're speaking exactly to the biggest problem I have had with Girls pretty much since its first episode: its often ham-fisted efforts at self-satire. There's no way that "jazz brunch" wasn't intended as heightened mockery, and Marnie's increasing detachment from reality has turned her into the show's easiest target. My biggest problem with the last couple of seasons has been Girls' eagerness to lean into its ensemble's personality flaws, seemingly to demonstrate self-awareness. Yes, Hannah can be a bit of a narcissistic baby, Marnie is hilariously unaware of her many privileges, and Jessa is a toxic trainwreck it's hard to imagine being friends with. The positive impression I took away from "Iowa" was that, outside of Marnie and Desi's searingly unwatchable midday concert, the show's taking steps to reconfigure its characters as actual human beings, warts and all. It's a slow start, but Megan, it's that impressionistic quality of some of the scenes that had me encouraged.

In terms of plotting, this episode is an outright disaster, as you both noted. Jessa and Beadie's abrupt split was so well-acted (aside from Natasha Lyonne, whom I usually adore but who just kept killing the emotional momentum here), but it came out of nowhere and left just as quickly. Shosh's graduation scene was a hacky infodump, as well-cast as her parents are. Clementine's strained apology to Marnie felt like it was wedged in to underline how ill-advised Marnie's affair with Desi is, but really had me scratching my head about the timeline of the episode—how long has it been since the season three finale, where Hannah got accepted to Iowa? It's clearly been long enough for Adam to shoot a commercial, but Clementine was acting as if her confrontation with Marnie had come a week ago. Sidenote: Will someone please give Natalie Morales (who plays Clementine), one of the most talented young actresses alive, a real part for a change? I don't know how many times I've seen her wedged into a nothing role like this, and it's a real shame.

But as much as I too wanted Hannah to get the show on the road to Iowa, this ended up feeling like a necessary breather before the season's main plot kicked in. It almost could have functioned better as a capper to season three, which ended rather abruptly, but it was probably smart to kick off the season with a check in for the whole ensemble before concentrating on Hannah in Iowa. And while I've occasionally been baffled that a show called Girls spends so much time and energy on Hannah's relationship with Adam, I thought "Iowa" did a great job exploring the dynamics of their pending separation. Remember, this is a show about a generation—not an entire generation, but about the hyper-privileged, recent college graduates who dot Brooklyn wondering what to do with themselves. Going to grad school is a path frequently chosen, and that often forces a strange ultimatum upon relationships. As much as Hannah and Adam have settled into something, how can their relationship possibly survive her being gone for a year? At the very least, it'll be irrevocably altered, but as Dunham shows (she co-wrote this one with Judd Apatow), that's an impossible conversation to have. I really liked their quiet sex scene, Adam's verbal stumbling in his dinner toast, and that final shot of Hannah going off to school again.

Yes, Girls can take itself a bit seriously, but that's the plague of Dunham and her ilk, right? Going off to Iowa in her parents' car is such a surrender of freedom in one sense—she loses her apartment, her boyfriend, her (limited) financial mobility, all in the service of growing up. What I'm hoping for from this season, and from the arcs that seem to be spooling up for Marnie, Jessa, and Shosh, is that the same themes will be explored for the whole ensemble. And while "Iowa" felt a little stagnant, it also did more showing, and less telling, which is pretty much the opposite of last season's approach.