In the pilot of Girls, when Hannah Horvath expressed desire to be “the voice of [her] generation, or at least the voice of a generation” the line embodied the 20-something’s comically directionless ambition, yet critics seemed to take the message at face value, crediting Lena Dunham with being that voice in the real world. This baggage bestowed upon the show made it an exhausting topic of conversation (at the very least for young women living in New York) in spite of two strong, funny seasons. This year, Lena Dunham said to Marc Maron in her recent appearance on WTF, “People expect me to either defend or explain my generation but, because I feel 75 inside myself, I’m not really the right candidate for the job.” Luckily this year, either the think-pieces have subsided or I have learned to maneuver around most of them, clearing room for a third season that feels a touch lighter albeit more weirdly personal. In this way, season three has eclipsed the show’s previous depiction of Brooklyn life unfortunately mistaken as speaking for a cultural movement by focusing on the characters’ unique, often slightly disturbed drives as they navigate creative careers, brushes with death, and the distance between friends.
Following a dark bout with her OCD last season, Hannah starts season three in a better place: hard at work on an e-book and living with her boyfriend Adam, her relative success inflated due to her being surrounded by less-fortunate friends. Jessa starts season three in rehab, Shoshanna and Ray are freshly broken up, Adam has trouble socializing with Hannah’s friends, and Marnie’s getting over heartbreak of her own. Later in the season, after her book deal goes south and Adam nails a Broadway audition, Hannah finds little creative value in her new advertorial writing job at GQ (a new setting this season populated by The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams and others) and grows jealous of Adam’s artistic success in theater.
Though it was fun to watch Hannah’s growing envy of Adam in the midst of her social circle’s encapsulated successes and failures, the season’s best episodes were those that either gathered all the girls in one place or neglected the secondary characters entirely to focus just on Hannah (interacting with family or other guest stars). In “Beach House,” written by Dunham, co-showrunner Jenni Konner and Judd Apatow, Marnie hosts all the girls at her family’s vacation home, where her rigid attempts at honest, enlightening dinner conversation are side-tracked by Hannah’s invitation to Elijah (Andrew Rannells) and his friends vacationing nearby. Having an entire episode with all the girls (and boys) trapped together had a great payoff, including a dance number and a seemingly-earthshattering argument. In “Dead Inside,” also written by Dunham and Apatow, Hannah stays separate from her friend group as she reacts to the death of her e-book editor with so little emotion it’s upsetting to even the two weirdos she’s chosen to hang with: Adam’s disturbed sister (Gabby Hoffman, who is delightfully strange in her multi-episode stint this season) and Hannah’s former junkie neighbor (Jon Glaser). In “Flo,” Hannah again leaves the city, this time without her friends, to visit her hospitalized grandmother (June Squibb), reconnect with the women in her family, and again experience a loved one’s death in a mostly selfish way.
Outside of these episodes, a highlight of this season was Marnie’s continued emotional unraveling. After shamelessly singing Kanye West to Charlie in front of all his startup colleagues last season, this one Marnie seeks to rid herself of embarrassment—for instance, taking down a thoroughly disconcerting Youtube cover she did while still with Charlie—while her unsettling hopefulness leads her to blindly pursue that which would embarrass a normal person further—bringing Hannah onstage at her birthday to perform a duet from Rent, while on vacation suggesting immediately after a silly dance that they keep rehearsing until the routine’s perfect, and again misunderstanding a relationship, this time with Adam’s friend her open-mic guitar accompanist. Allison Williams plays the awkward part masterfully.
Nothing seems to embarrass Marnie, except that she’s sleeping with Ray, which she keeps hidden in part so as to not hurt Shoshanna’s feelings. In previous seasons, Ray served as an older but clumsier foil to Shoshanna’s young, less experienced but uniquely expressive personality. There’s humor in Ray and Marnie just being around one another, a mismatched pair like Ray and Shoshanna before them. Yet though post-breakup Ray retains his status as the most likable character on the show while enjoying the moderate success of his cafe and apartment, Shoshanna’s fewer appearances this season seem dumbed down, even in spite of an excellent scene in “Beach House” where she calls out Hannah and Marnie for treating her as if she’s an idiot. In place of her characteristic turns of phrase, Shosh spends half the season vapidly seeking a new boyfriend in light of Ray’s disinterest in friendship and spends the second half passively reacting to the sobriety, relapse, and rehabilitation of her roommate Jessa, who for the second season in a row feels underused as well, with her rehab story starting interesting (like when she checks out of the facility and asks a nurse for her pot back) and petering out into a boring job and unfortunate but unmoving relapse.
Despite these shortcomings, the third season of Girls ended with an enjoyably tense finale that had everyone deciding to be honest but at precisely the wrong moment in time. Like watching Hannah selfishly deal with death or Marnie try to orchestrate a musical performance, these moments were painfully comic. After a darker second season ended on a storybook note as Adam came running to rescue Hannah, this season leaves a lot more up in the air, with some big cliffhangers to be resolved in season four. Hopefully it stays this weird, and everyone gets to play a part in it.
Jenny Nelson is a writer located in Brooklyn.