Girls: Season 2 review

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I’m still not entirely sure what to make of Girls‘ second season, which stretched both the characters and the format into uncharted territory. There were moments of brilliance and (literally) naked honesty, and others which left me feeling as disconnected with the characters as they became with each other.

Building the boys, separating the girls

Writer and star Lena Dunham certainly didn’t pull any punches with this ten-episode run. From a clinical dissection of Hannah’s weekend fling with a doctor to Adam’s orgasm to Marnie’s painful it’s-all-about-me-really karaoke version of Stronger, there’s as much realistic edginess laced throughout the narrative as there was in the show’s debut season.

The character dynamics have shifted significantly – some of it for the better, some not so much. Dunham and her writers have put worthwhile effort into fleshing out Adam, Ray and Charlie to make the boys of Girls more rounded individuals. But this – and the greater focus on Hannah herself – has come at the expense of Marnie, Shoshanna and Jessa. We haven’t seen all four together – indeed, there were several episodes where one or two of the leads were missing altogether.

Hannah’s downward spiral

Hannah‘s arc following her break-up with Adam meandered initially, as people are prone to do at the end of a long-term relationship. Random flings, a brief dalliance with cocaine and finally, out of the blue, being handed the keys to her personal kingdom with a commission to write her own e-book. But, true to the old maxim of being careful what you wish for, this triggers her downward decline as writer’s block, the pressure of an approaching deadline and her inability to focus cause her childhood OCD to resurface, resulting in inadvertent but ultimately uncontrollable self-harm with a Q-tip.

Hannah constantly refuses to recognise her own issues – a common state with OCD sufferers – forever projecting blame and responsibility onto others. As her ex-druggie neighbour Laird says:

You are the most self-involved, presumptuous person I have ever met.

The scene in the finale where Marnie happens upon Hannah’s laptop, revealing that she hasn’t even finished the first sentence of her book, is as heart-rending as it is predictable. (As is Marnie’s typically superficial attempt to show concern for her friend.)

That incomplete sentence also reveals, at least in part, the source of Hannah’s problems. She relies on other people – her friends, Adam, her parents – to provide an emotional crutch, and in the case of her three closest friends as a source of inspiration for her book. And yet she has spent the entire season pushing them away. When she needs her friends, they aren’t there for her. She has tried her parents’ patience to their limits.

Only Adam, whose relationship with Hannah was portrayed as destructive throughout the first season, responds decisively, running shirtless through the New York night to sweep her off her feet in a knowing nod to every rom-com ever made. (But, dude, have you not seen Pretty Woman? You don’t break down her front door – you have to climb the fire escape.)

This brings us full circle and sheds new light on the pair’s relationship. Rather than being demeaning, Hannah’s accommodation of Adam’s ‘needs’ provides her with an outlet for her fears, insecurities and feelings of inadequacy – and there’s a degree of reciprocity in taming Adam’s wilder side too. Without Adam and her friends for support, Hannah turns all those negative emotions in on herself, with distressing consequences.

Where does Hannah go from here? It’s a long road back, and perhaps she needs to acknowledge that Adam is actually one of the few people in her life she can rely on unconditionally.

The grower, the princess and the wanderer

What of the other girls? What journeys have they been on this season?

Having lost her virginity to Ray in last season’s finale, Shoshanna‘s arc has been one of growth and self-discovery, to the extent that she has now outgrown her boyfriend and needs to be free of his negativity. Their break-up is heart-breaking but feels like a natural progression for her character, although as we see in the closing montage she’s rebounding big-time and on the verge of shedding her endearing naivety and becoming something altogether less wholesome.

Marnie has fallen off her pedestal and hit the ground with a bump, having lost her job, Charlie and seemingly her direction in life. At first glance she had seemed the most sorted and grounded of the principal characters, but this season has revealed her to be a spoilt princess with the emotional intelligence of a five-year-old. Maybe she and Charlie really are meant to be together – her comment to him that “I want to watch you die” captured so much in just five words – but this feels like a one-sided relationship where one party gives and the other merely takes.

Jessa has been virtually absent for large swathes of the season, with her appearance in the finale reduced to a recorded voicemail message. Her marriage to Thomas-John was predictably short-lived, just another life experience to add to Jessa’s scrapbook as she travels endlessly through life in search of something around which she can define her existence. The most free-spirited of the girls also seems the most rudderless.

Overall, it’s been a fairly dark season, with both Hannah and Marnie suffering their own downfalls, Jessa in her own personal wilderness and Shoshanna at a crossroads. One of the strengths of Girls is Dunham’s willingness to show her characters in their worst moments. However, doing so is also a double-edged sword when there isn’t enough light to offset the shade, just as a lone star cannot illuminate a black sky.

And that, for me, is the problem is with Girls. For all its good points – and there are many – I just don’t care about Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna in the same way that I did about, say, Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Joey and Phoebe. I’m entertained by their trials and tribulations but I’m not fully engaged with them. If the underlying theme of this season was a growing sense of disconnection among the girls, the show has also managed to develop this with this particular viewer, at least.

Girls season two was in many ways a strong progression over its successful debut season – not least a cracking finale which pulled all the disparate threads (although not the characters themselves) together. In other ways, though, it has felt like a step backwards.

Rating: 7/10

Link: Season 2 preview

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