Who would have thought that Girls‘ season 4 premiere would be titled “Iowa”?
Furthermore, who would have thought the spoiled, self-involved Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) would be moving there?
This episode, more than any other so far, crystallized how fragile promise and success can be in one’s twenties. The five-year plan Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) naively made season 1 is so far off track that we share her embarrassment in picking up her diploma from an NYU basement office with her divorced parents bickering around her. None of the four main characters’ trajectories or self presentation is the same as when this show started and for all the show’s criticisms, I think it has consistently shaped how quickly the lives of even ladies as homogenous as these can get destabilized.
“Iowa” brings about resolutions to last season’s cliffhangers, but as is often the case with resolutions, they also serves as new beginnings. Shoshanna’s unceremonious graduation from college was the result of a senior year of unabashed excess. The pilot episode’s virginal Shoshanna is long gone, seemingly along with her upbeat optimism. Now she responds to greetings with shrugs and hates Marnie (Allison Williams), yet her heartfelt apology to Ray (Alex Karpovsky) signals a maturity brought on by her forced grounding in the real world. Whether Shoshanna’s grounding is permanent or temporary is hard to tell, but her transformation rings true to the perhaps less talked about college experience of coming out far less sure of yourself than when you came in.
This episode, written by Dunham and Judd Apatow, thoughtfully calls out Hannah’s non-decision decision. As Hannah says, she applies to graduate school every year because it provides a certain structure sorely missing from her life as an aspiring New York City short story writer. As Jessa (Jemima Kirke) pointedly mentions, Hannah really is “pussyfooting out of the whole thing.” Not saying that the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop is worse than a GQ advertainment job, but her choice to attend graduate school comes across as a method of delaying making hard decisions for a year or two.
Sure Jessa could just be hurt Hannah brought her back to New York only to leave — and Hannah’s career will probably benefit — but it’s hard not to see it all as a veiled cop out. The inclusion of real decisions like this with very grey gradations of right and wrong are what make Girls worth watching. Sometimes being realistic and true to yourself are mutually exclusive.
While Hannah can be seen as both a winner and a loser in this scenario, Adam (Adam Driver) is clearly the loser. We get a glimpse of what lies just below the surface when Adam shows Hannah an artful commercial for Torpica, a depression medication, honing in on his blank face that recurs later on at Marnie’s ill-fated jazz brunch. His plan is to have no plan, which when planning a long distance relationship means trouble on the horizon. Hannah’s non-decision decision solves her professional problem, but exacerbates the disconnect between her and Adam that neither really understands how to address. The ambiguous nature of their relationship is uncomfortable and kind of sad, but fits with what we should expect from these two fickle folks at this point.
Marnie’s attempts at jump-starting a singing career have, on the other hand, been an unambiguous failure. Her path has been the most surprising in the past few seasons from being a repressed art gallery assistant to getting a rimjob by a hippie with a girlfriend named Clementine. Running out of her jazz brunch gig crying indicates her goal might not be achievable, but there is something to be said for her working through this dream and following it through until it fizzles or she somehow becomes famous.
Good old Elijah (Andrew Rannells) makes it clear to her that just because she has a couple songs about death doesn’t mean that anyone will respect her though. Girls has done a great job so far of illustrating in ways big and small how Marnie just doesn’t respect herself, so seeing how that manifests itself in others not respecting her fits like a puzzle piece.
Marnie seems to be approaching rock bottom, if she isn’t already there, but Jessa started the show at bottom and only now seems to be pulling herself out of it with the help of an awesome old lady. Jessa found Beadie (Louise Lasser), who responded to her outrageous behavior with firm kindness, and Jessa somehow rose to the occasion. Although Jessa tried to assist suicide in last season’s finale, we first see her this episode telling Beadie about her cat’s gall bladder issues and picking up groceries, something almost impossible to conceive of last year when she was robbing stores and snorting a lot of coke. If anything, Jessa seemed like she had negative potential when the show started but now seems to have finally found herself. Her not responding to Hannah’s messages was a choice she made because she was upset with Hannah, not an accident from being too careless and therein lies the chasm Jenna has bridged over the course of the show.
I think the first three seasons of Girls can be thought of as the first period, and the beginning of season four onwards will be the next period in these ladies’ lives. Whether that period is better in their perspectives than the first is thankfully unpredictable and certainly relative. The show has allowed each of these four characters the room to fail and succeed often at the same time without trying to insert some kind of artificial safety net. This episode had some good laughs, but the strength lies in the delicate storytelling that positioned all four girls slightly away from each other and towards a future none of us can see yet.