In the penultimate episode of GIRLS last week, Shoshanna bravely spoke on behalf of thousands of GIRLS fans around the world when she ragged on her fellow girls for "how narcissistic and exhausting and ultimately boring" their group dynamic had become. One of the major problems with the show, especially in its later seasons, was that the four main characters were barely friends (only Hannah and Marnie spent any significant time together by season four). Whenever the show tried to cram several of their stories into one episode with little-to-no crossover, everything was spread out far too thin, though that did highlight how the show became one about friendships growing apart. (Still, if only they had better served the secondary characters, like Shoshanna, in that case.)
Looking back on earlier seasons of the show as it reaches its end, there were whole plot lines and narrative dead-ends I could barely remember. Hannah... worked for GQ for a second? Jessa... tried to help an artist commit suicide? Hannah... had an eBook deal? Shoshanna... slept with a doorman? Marnie... made a music video with Charlie? Mimi-Rose?!? Even season six spluttered at times when it artificially forced characters into big life changes through absurd plot points (if they wanted to force Hannah, Adam and Jessa to deal with their unresolved shit, why even include the movie B-plot when it was never brought up again... and Hannah's baby did the job all on its own?).
And yet, I loved the show more often than not. And this has only reinforced my belief that GIRLS was at its best when it told focused, mostly-contained short stories about damaged but sympathetic characters, episodes you could jump into and appreciate without necessarily knowing much of the backstories or ongoing storylines. The more focused the themes and limited the setting, the more attention played to the emotional beats and exquisitely-drawn details of the storytelling, the sharper the episode. Great episodes of GIRLS were always the ones you could immediately summarize like, "the episode where Hannah enjoys a long weekend with a handsome doctor," or "the one where Marnie hangs out with junkie Charlie."
To that end, Gothamist's biggest GIRLS fans have picked out their favorite episodes from each season of the show.
Season One:"Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a. The Crackcident"
This episode set the early bar for just how good—even great—GIRLS is when firing on all cylinders. After kicking off with a hat tip to Enter the Void, this episode brings Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna to a giant DIY warehouse party filled with hipsters, burners, twerkers, and crust punks. Ray's there too: he shames someone for bringing a baby to the party before chasing tirelessly after Shoshanna, who loses it after accidentally smoking crack. It's a borderline-Benny Hill slapstick routine that somehow actually works, and ends with Shosh giving an injured Ray a non-sexual groin massage while the two make awkward eye contact. Young love!
Welcome to Bushwick could stand on its gags alone, but it's the final minutes, when Hannah attempts to nag Adam about the secrecy of his alcoholism, that sets it apart. "You don't wanna know me," Adam shouts. "You wanna come over in the night and have me fuck the dog shit out of you, then you wanna leave and write about it in your diary." It's both great character growth and a carefully-executed self-critique of GIRLS itself up to that point. GIRLS today may be a cloying mess of half-heartedly recycled plot twists (a baby, a move from New York, trainwreck marriages), but back in 2012 the show was tight, sharp, funny, sad, and sometimes brilliant. (Scott Heins)
Season Two:"One Man's Trash"
When I think of the platonic ideal of a GIRLS episode, this is what comes to mind. It was a complete surprise when it aired and reset all my expectations about what kind of stories the show wanted to tell. None of the other regular characters appear (except for a brief Ray cameo at the start), the show got a big movie star (Patrick Wilson) to guest star, and it was arguably the most divisive episode of the entire run.
This was the episode that marked the line in the sand between GIRLS fans. Either you were the kind of person who couldn't get over the Patrick Wilson/Lena Dunham pairing (which seemed pretty deeply rooted in misogyny and sexism to me), or you were someone who marveled at the audaciousness of the bottle episode that almost unfolds like a fairy tale. How many other times did Hannah seem so vulnerable and strong at once? Was it all an extended fantasy of Hannah's? Was their connection genuine or just a projection due to both of them being deeply alone at the time?
It represented "everything people who hate GIRLS hate about GIRLS, and remains my single favorite GIRLS episode ever.
Season Three:"Beach House"
According to Lean Dunham, there have only been 12 scenes across the entire series in which the four titular girls were all in the same room together (She knows it’s 12, “Because I have OCD and I don’t care for the number 12.”). And at least half of those scenes occurred in bathrooms, and the other half at disastrous brunch gigs featuring Marnie and Desi!
But the absolute best showcase for the four girls spending some quality time together was this season three gem, in which the four spend the weekend at Marnie's mother's friend's beach house on Long Island (Elijah also makes a very welcome appearance, because every time Elijah shows up it's good). They get on each other's nerves pretty quickly, resulting in an epic blowout fight in which they expertly pick apart each other's vulnerabilities like vultures (Hannah's narcissism, Marnie's perfectionism, Jessa's drug addiction, Shosh always feeling left out). This was the type of episode that resonated deeply with anyone who had ever had a falling out with a close friend, the kind of emotional lashing that no one thinks they can return from—and yet, it all ends beautifully (and a little sadly) with the four doing a wordless dance routine, marking one of the last times they'd be in sync in any way.
I loved how the show handled the demise of Adam and Hannah's relationship throughout season three, but this final nail-in-the-coffin did me in. Whether or not you feel GIRLS is relatable (or want to admit it is), "Sit-In"—in which Hannah's friends comfort her after she finds he's left her for Mimi-Rose—managed to capture exactly what it feels like to lose someone who used to love you.
As I said in my recap right after the episode aired: what GIRLS conveys here is what GIRLS should be doing every week, but doesn't always. This is what it feels like to have someone tell you they don't love you anymore. This is what it feels like when your life and home and even your physical apartment—considering Adam relocated her stuff and cut down a wall—is like nothing you can recognize anymore. This is what your heart feels like at 25, or whatever age, and there's something simultaneously soothing and terrifying about watching it played out here, because it seems real, for once. (Rebecca Fishbein)
Season Five:Love Stories
After feeling extremely frustrated with the direction of the show (IOWA, MIMI-ROSE, FRAN, UGH) in season four, season five turned out to be my favorite of the entire series. There were at least seven episodes here that I think stand-up among the finest the show has done—that includes Shoshanna's fish-out-of-water adventures in "Japan," Marnie's memorable trainwreck of a wedding in "Wedding Day," the balletic juggling of Adam's play and Hannah's realization about his relationship with Jessa in "Hello Kitty," Hannah's goofy but sincere bonding with her mom in "Queen For Two Days," and best of all, the Marnie/Charlie showcase in "The Panic In Central Park."
While "The Panic In Central Park" is (rightfully) considered one of the best episodes of the entire series, I wanted to highlight my personal favorite from this wonderful season, "Love Stories" (which was directed by Old Man Ray himself, Alex Karpovsky). This episode hinges on Hannah's rivalry with Jenny Slate's successful writer Tally Schifrin, and the two women connecting after a perfect day of smoking pot and riding bikes.
One of the biggest problems with GIRLS criticism has always been the rush on the part of some to conflate Hannah—a purposefully flawed and frustrating fictional avatar who was still-forming—with Lena Dunham in real life. But we maybe do get a glimpse of the real Dunham in Tally, who has the self-aware showcase monologue in the episode that reveals much:
"I wake up every morning and I think, well, okay, what would Tally Schifrin do? Tally Schifrin is not even me now, she’s just like this thing that I’ve created. She’s a monster that I’ve made and that I have to feed. And she feeds on praise and controversy and it’s exhausting and boring at once."
Season Six:"American Bitch"
Aside from the uncomfortable OCD episodes that played out during season two, I've been a fan of pretty much every episode of GIRLS. The darkness, the humor, the awkward moments, the harsh glimpses at friendship, and love, and lust, and everything in between. Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner succeeded at creating a little universe firmly planted inside of a certain bubble over Brooklyn. And sometimes the High Line. But it's when things got real that the show impressed me most, and it couldn't have gotten more real than it did in "American Bitch," season six's capsule episode that appeared to momentarily kill off Hannah Horvath and replace her with Dunham herself.
As Emily Nussbaum pointed out in The New Yorker, the Hannah in "American Bitch" felt a lot "more like Lena Dunham" than our beloved fictional protagonist. And during the 25-minutes or so that she possesses the character, she shows us first hand what the complex and infuriating male-female power imbalance looks like through a (for the most part) two-person play, co-starring Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys). The dynamic that unfolds before us is one that Dunham, and all women, are quite familiar with, and the fumbling navigation of it is as messy as is portrayed.
It's an episode that's as beautiful as it is ugly, and thoughtful and insightful on top of that. It was GIRLS at its best, and it makes me anticipate what Dunham has in store for us next. (Jen Carlson)