If I'd known I'd have to sit through a Marnie-only capsule episode this Sunday, I would probably have begged my editor to let me take the week off. Marnie has long been this show's least interesting, most insipid character, made even less watchable thanks to that manchild she chose to marry. But "The Panic in Central Park" is a beautiful episode, hurling us through 28 cinematic minutes of shattered fantasies and what-ifs.

All is not well in Marnie/DesiLand, probably because Marnie has inexplicably decided to marry that oversized lovebead-wearing child. They get into a fight over something meaningless, Desi cries into his pillow and whines something dumb about suicide, and Marnie heads to Brooklyn for a walk, where she runs into a beautiful, much burlier bearded ghost from the past. IT'S CHARLIE. Or is that Shia LaBeouf? No, it's Charlie, CHARLIE IS HERE.

It's been a long time since we've seen Charlie, and things are... different. He left the start-up life and the app that was going to make him a millionaire, and now he's chilling with some dudes who seem a little harder than his old crew. He's got some new tattoos. He talks differently. He sells drugs. He invites Marnie to a party uptown and she attacks him for dumping her—and then he tells her that his dad killed himself around the time of their break-up, and that everything got fucked up from there.

So the duo heads uptown to the Plaza, Charlie in jeans and Marnie in a hot red dress he buys for her at a boutique (after he "mysteriously" disappears into a bathroom at a nearby cafe and emerges much happier. DRUGS ALERT DRUGS CHARLIE'S ON DRUGS). He is greeted under a fake name by some fancy rich dude and his fiancee, and Marnie plays along, introducing herself as Magita Perez. She's propositioned to join said old dude and hot Slavic fiancee for sexy time in their hotel room, and in an uncharacteristically badass move, she charges him mad bucks up-front for her supposed services before bouncing with Charlie.

In a stunningly shot sequence, they eat pasta, drink fancy wine, and dance at a decidedly non dance-y Italian restaurant. They walk through Central Park at night, where Marnie confesses that she wrote half of her album about Charlie. "You were my family," she tells him. "You know that." They borrow a boat and kiss on the lake before falling into the water, and Marnie is baptized anew, snuggling against Charlie's jean jacket on the train ride back to Brooklyn. They get mugged by a tiny, skinny white dude and Charlie laughs him off before pulling a knife on him, but the mugger's got a gun, and Marnie loses her bag and wedding rings.

Charlie takes Marnie back to his apartment, a crumbling spot with garbage bags over the windows. They cuddle in bed and Charlie ponders what would happen if they ran away together. "I'm serious. What if like the last few years were just a bad dream and we ran away," he pitches. "I got cash. I've got a bike. We can go wherever we wanted. We don't have to tell anybody if we didn't feel like it." Marnie thinks about it. "I don't need any of my stuff. I hate all of it," she says, and you know she means it. They sleep together, though the viewer just sees the two of them kissing for a moment before the screen fades to black.

Marnie takes a shower in the communal bathroom down the hall, and a chick in black underwear and a choker comes in and takes a minute to vent. "Why is everyone such a fucking disappointment?" she asks, unspooling a tale of a woman she was seeing who kicked her off her motorcycle on the side of the BQE. "I can't have one more fantasy busted open. I swear to God, I cannot take it."

It's obviously prophetic, and when Marnie returns to Charlie's room, she finds a needle in his pants pocket. "I'm diabetic," he gargles. He's not.

And so, bagless and now barefoot Marnie heads home. Desi is waiting for her on the steps to their apartment, pillow in hand. At first it seems like this will be a moment of reconciliation, since Charlie's shattered the fantasy, but it's not. "I'm sorry," Marnie says. "I don't want to be married to you." She didn't want to give up on "yet another dream," she tells him, but she knows this dream isn't it, and she needs to be alone to figure out what reality she wants to sink into. "I don't know what I'm doing here or anywhere else. But I don't want to be married to you."

Desi tells her being on her own won't work out so great. "Probably you're going to get murdered," he says. "That is how little of a sense of the world you have." Marnie doesn't care. She packs up a few things and heads to Hannah's, where she crawls into bed with her and Fran before rolling over on one side, alone.

There's a lot going on in this episode, and it's hard to tackle exactly what makes it so great. First and foremost, the GIRLS team gave us one of the most beautiful sex scenes the show's done to date. A lot of the sex on GIRLS is on full display—the show calls it "real" and some critics think it's gratuitous, but I think the up-close scenes give the viewer a good idea of how selfish and isolating sex can be sometimes. Up until this episode, my favorite sex scene was one between Hannah and Adam in Season 3, when Hannah knows Adam's drifting away from her and the sex is perfunctory and lonely. In this scene, though, the camera leaves Marnie and Charlie. There's no need for us to watch them because they're not performing for us—this scene is about two people being vulnerable to each other, and they get to be alone for that experience.

It's interesting, too, how important Charlie becomes in this episode, even though it feels like we haven't seen much of him and we'll probably never see him again. After all, he only made it through two seasons of the show, though Marnie dated him for five or so years. And aside from being a piece of eye candy, Charlie wasn't that memorable—he was too nice and too weak for Marnie, and even when he broke her heart before the start of Season 3, it was off-camera and forgettable.

But what happened to Charlie is heartbreaking. If Marnie's Desi-dream is shattered, Charlie's whole fucking life is shattered. His dad killed himself, his career imploded, he's self-destructing and sleeping in a shithole. And Marnie, who loved him once, can't ever have him back, because the Charlie she knew isn't even really there anymore.

Some notes:

  • "You're playing aggressive guitar at me."
  • Marnie's right, everyone is an asshole when they're 22! I addressed my own assholery at that age just last week.
  • Will they even let you into the Plaza in jeans?
  • It's easy to laugh at Marnie's "I didn't know people even got robbed anymore!" line, but considering what crime stats are these days, she's right that it really doesn't happen that often.
  • Sure, Charlie's garbage-bag shade method seems questionable, but I lived like this for three years, so GIRLS got something right!
  • Even when Desi's heart gets ripped out of his chest, you hate him.
  • It was pretty obvious Charlie was on...something...when he disappeared into a bathroom and came out all happy, so it's not exactly a big reveal when Marnie finds the needle. But actually the name of the episode should be the real giveaway—it (and the episode itself) is a take on The Panic in Needle Park, a 1971 Al Pacino film about two heroin addicts in love.
  • And as noted, the new Charlie seems to be stylistically inspired by this.

Next week: Adam has a play, Fran and Hannah argue, and Elijah hangs out with Sexy News Anchor's fancy friends.