Sunday, March 24, 2013

Girls Concludes a Messy, Complicated Season With a Messy and Complicated Finale

It feels like everybody watches Girls for slightly different reasons.  Some watch it to get a laugh, finding the show to be a comedy about the misguided lives of 20-somethings living in New York.  Some watch it just for the nudity and raunchy sex, as if there aren't a million places on the internet where you can find that.  There are those that watch it for the well-observed character drama, and even those people can be split into subgroups.  Half of them might be able to relate to the struggles that the characters are going through, while others may watch from week to week wondering just when these spoiled, narrow-minded upper class people will just get a grip already.

Even though it took a few episodes to nail the tone down, season 1 of Girls managed to maintain a great balance of all its elements, which was probably why it was able to gain such a wide variety of acolytes.  One week you'd get an episode like "The Return," a meditative episode that delved into Hannah's life back at home, and then the very next week the show would drop something like "Welcome to Bushwick aka The Crackcident," which was 30 minutes of pure comedy.  Season 2 shifted the weights of its various tones and I wouldn't be surprised if it lost some fans in the process.  It was messy and complicated and by the end I was marveling at just how dark things became.  Surely, this wasn't the Girls that the people who tune in for the weekly sex scene bargained for.

Yet, for all its structural looseness, I can't help but be more enamored by this second season than I was by its first.  Part of this is because of how much deeper the show began to look inward and explore its characters this year.  If season 1 was about chronicling the relatively unchecked lives of 20-somethings with myopic worldviews, then season 2 was largely about those same characters being forced to examine themselves and their actions.  This season wasn't just about Hannah either, it gave the other 3 girls much meatier stories, and if the show lost some narrative tightness because of that, it gained back tenfold in thematic connectivity.  Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa interacted with each other much less than they did in season 1, which made the fact that they all were struggling to obtain some direction in their lives even more poignant.

It's ironic then that season 2's 4th episode, "It's a Shame About Ray," was the installment that kicked off the show's great creative stretch.  Perhaps the last episode to put everybody together, "It's a Shame About Ray," let all of the characters play off each other and slowly showed things come to a boil.  What followed was a string of great episodes that are notable for just how different they feel.  "One Man's Trash" and "Video Games" couldn't feel less alike, but they both are incredible half hours.  For a while, Girls ascended to an "art" status, where it just didn't feel like anything else being produced on television.  In that way, it reminded me of season 5 of Mad Men.  Now let's be clear, this season of Girls is nowhere near being as good as the most recent season of Mad Men, which belongs in the pantheon of all-time great seasons of television.  However, I often remarked how season 5 of Mad Men felt like Matt Weiner was just doing whatever he wanted and letting the story follow.  Nobody would confuse "Signal 30" with "Far Away Places," but they're each their own little masterpieces.  Lena Dunham also seemed less interested in the common conventions of television and instead told each story in whatever way she found to be interesting that week.  It resulted in sometimes frustrating, but often fascinating television.

Everything culminated in "On All Fours," the penultimate episode, which was one of the most uncomfortable viewing experiences I've ever had.  Taking cringe drama to a new level, "On All Fours" showed everyone at their lowest lows, a rock bottom that was at once inevitable in its occurrence and surprising in its depth.  With the way everything was building up, we were being primed for some kind of catharsis in the finale.  Well, what we got was...something.  For the first two-thirds of the episode, "Together" looked to be snaking down the same dark hole that the other nine episodes slowly were, only to end on a complete turnaround into sweeping romantic territory.  This caused much consternation with many people who were fans of the show.  They wanted to see Hannah and the gang wriggle off on dry land after drowning in the depths of their own despair for so long, but not in a way that felt out of the blue and unearned.

It was only in the second viewing that I was able to confirm what I already had a sneaking suspicion of when I watched the finale for the first time.  "Together" reveals alot of information through its clever editing, which constantly links these characters who've been so disparate all year by choosing how to cut scenes together.  Where the meaning of a scene may be a bit opaque in isolation, it becomes completely clear when paired with similar scenes featuring different characters.  We see it in the very beginning where three awkward sex scenes are shown one after another, indicating that nothing good will come of any of these pairings.  It's a neat little trick really, allowing for a wonderful build that feels like emotional dominoes crashing down.  The technique is employed again in a series of knockout scenes, Shoshanna's breakup with Ray and Hannah's voicemail message to Jessa, where simmering emotions finally explode.

What follows is where people begin to have problems, with Adam running across town to find Hannah and Charlie and Marnie choosing to be together.  If those moments felt off, like something out of a crowd-pleasing romantic comedy, it's only because they were supposed to.  Girls has always been about being aware of something in its characters that they don't see within themselves.  So when Charlie and Marnie think that they've finally worked things out between each other and Adam "rescues" Hannah from herself, with swelling strings scoring both scenes, we're supposed to not buy what we're seeing.  It's an unhappy happy ending of sorts, informed by everything we've seen before to indicate that things most likely won't end well.  The show has never been about finding that one person to save you and make you feel whole.  Instead, it's about having this small subset of people who are the only ones willing to put up with you and make you feel just a little less broken, and that idea was reinforced in the finale.  It's there in Shoshanna and Ray's relationship, it's there in Hannah's phone call to Jessa, it's everywhere.

A recurring element of this season has been people calling others out on their crap, demanding for them to get their act together.  Everyone wants the next person to pull themselves out of the ground, but nobody realizes that they're saying it while their own head is only just crowning above the soil.  "Together" brings the gang closer to a point of clarity, while also showing that there are miles to go before everything will be fully okay.

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