It took me a while to truly appreciate Girls. Certainly it is flawed; its characters are too often merely narcissistic rather than emotionally compelling, and its issues with depictions of race have long been identified and yet have thus far not been rectified.
For the first few seasons I found the majority of its characters largely irritating. The manner in which they perceive the world and treat one another is, at times, rather heinous and I would regularly find myself questioning why I should care about these characters when they don’t even care about each other. Perhaps this is a flaw in Dunham’s writing, but it took me a while to recognise that really we’re not supposed to like Hannah and her friends. They are knowingly privileged and Hannah, in particular, is entirely self-involved. The character of Ray, the older, wiser coffee shop owner, often acts as a modifier, highlighting to both the characters and the audience the privileged problems of the ensemble cast.
Now in its fifth seasons, it has, for some viewers, become tired and repetitive. For some, the show was about the issues those straight out of college face; now, five seasons later, the cast are no longer fresh-faced college graduates, but adults. Their attitudes may still seem largely naïve and immature but they are objectively adults in the fact that they have jobs that they must maintain, long standing relationships, opportunities to fulfil ambitions, and in the case of Marnie, perhaps the most brattish of the characters, married. For me, this season has been the strongest thus far. Whilst Hannah remains perpetually selfish and immature her friends and acquaintances are growing up and drawing away from her. For Jessa, now in a relationship with Adam, it is clear that the unwritten rule of not dating a friend’s ex is no reason to prevent potential happiness, particularly when Hannah shows little to no interest in Jessa’s pursuit of becoming a therapist. Marnie’s ill-judged marriage represents a desire to become adult and settled, without any real sense of what those actions will cause or mean.
This week’s episode, ‘The Panic in Central Park’, was, for me, perhaps the best episode of Girls to date. Dunham has stated that the episode references the film The Panic in Needle Park, particularly in its themes of addiction and a troubled relationship, but for me, its sense of ennui was reminiscent of Lost in Translation, especially given the vistas of New York as Marnie begins to consider her sense of self.
The use of space
As the episode begins we see Marnie and her husband, the utterly ridiculous Desi, sat, crammed onto the bed in their apartment. Desi, identifying Marnie’s need for space without truly understanding what she meant, had in a previous episode taken it upon himself to begin to build a wall around the bed, thus sectioning off the hitherto open plan apartment. Marnie, in her newly assumed role of a wife, decided that her previous outburst was unfair to Desi, and that this was his attempt at trying to care for her. Thus, the half-built wall has remained, but rather than providing Marnie with physical and emotional space from Desi, it has simply served to push them cloyingly closer together.
We see Marine, sat cross-legged, defensively on the bed. Using her laptop and wearing headphones, it is clear that she is attempting to put up as many barriers between her and Desi as she can. Desi interprets this need as a ‘cruel’ action and loudly strums his guitar and singing whilst staring at her. The pair could not be sat any closer to one another and Desi is determined to not only encroach on Marnie’s space physically but aurally and visually too.
When Marnie leaves the apartment, walking around the city and spending the evening with Charlie, whom she has not seen for two years, space is suddenly more available to Marnie and she delights in it. She dances in a restaurant with Charlie, looking far freer than she has all season. Similarly, when she leaves Charlie after discovering that he is using, the camera work highlights the space that Marnie now has through the use of a number of long shots and establishing shots of the city around her. Notably, as Marnie walks back to her apartment there are several shots of the city in which Marnie does not appear, almost as if she is not yet present, she is not yet able to truly find her own space but will be able to soon.
Marnie, despite her belief in her sense of self, really has no idea who she is or what she wants to be. Throughout the series she has taken on various different roles and attempted to change herself in order to adhere to the demands of the role. Thus, in her torrid relationship with an artist she attempted to present herself as more sexually available by dressing in formfitting clothes, whilst at the beginning of her music career she began to dress in looser, stereotypically hippy clothing as befitting Marnie’s assumption of a true musician. Similarly, her wedding attire, featuring a 60s style dress and a floral crown, is another example of Marnie desperately assuming her role, so desperate is she to be easily identifiable as a type.
In ‘The Panic in Central Park’ Marnie has ample opportunity to again take on a number of roles, acting the hurt wife as she dejectedly stares at loved-up couples on the subway or as she angrily stomps down the street listening to an aptly selected soundtrack, later, she willingly takes on the role of a prostitute as Charlie’s contact wrongly assumes through both her association with Charlie and her attire (a dress selected by Charlie) that she is at his party to be bought. Later, Marnie toys with the idea of running away with Charlie and leaving all of her materialistic possessions behind. All of these roles are at odds with Marnie’s reality, but for Marnie they are more interesting, more worthwhile than simply being true to herself.
Interestingly, all of these assumed roles are suggested or forced upon Marnie by men. Her role as a wife is only made possible through her marriage to Desi, and his insistence of treating her in a particular way reduces her to the role of beleaguered partner. Similarly, the believe that she is a prostitute is made possible through the dress that she is wearing (skimpy, sequins) is given to her by Charlie, and through her perceived association with Charlie, thus this role is once again only made possible through a male counterpart. Later, when returning to Charlie’s apartment, Marnie seems to not notice the filth of his room, nor the poverty stricken conditions within which he exists, because at that moment she has decided to assume the role of a woman who does not care about materialistic possessions. Marnie’s attempts to act freer actually constrain her further as she is unable to act or react in a way in which she would usually.
At the end of the episode Marnie states to Desi that she no longer wishes to be married to him, nor does she wish to be involved with Charlie. She was able to pretend that Charlie was in a good place, as they fantasise about running away together, but the grim reality of his addiction enables Marnie to recognise that Charlie, like Desi, would merely be a constricting force. Neither Desi nor Charlie truly like or care for Marnie, as both either attempt to project a persona onto her, or intentionally hurt her. Charlie, before he left Marnie, told her bluntly and with clear intention to cause pain, exactly what he thought of her. Whilst Desi, now faced with a Marnie who has decided she no longer wants or needs him, informs Marnie that her knowledge of the world is such that she will end up being murdered. This choice of threat and hurt is interesting as it strikes me as being uniquely aggressively masculine, a reminder of the potential of male strength. Marnie has not been able to fulfil an idealised, ultra-feminine role and Desi reacts by reiterating her vulnerability as a woman in society.