Critic's Notebook: Why 'Girls' Never Stopped Being Great

Girls S05E06 Still - Publicity -  H 2016
Mark Schafer/HBO

Girls S05E06 Still - Publicity -  H 2016

Let's get this out of the way upfront: Girls is not "back." Girls is not good "again." We're not experiencing a Girls-aissance. There's something liberating about being able to write a Girls think piece that doesn't use the word "problematic," but a narrative has been blowing up my Twitter feed suggesting that Girls has gone from forgettable and past its sell-by date to miraculous. That narrative confuses me.
As I said in my review at the start of this current fifth season, Girls is Girls, and it hasn't suddenly shifted form in some dramatic way in this current run of episodes. It's still a very good show capable of great episodes, and it happens that Sunday (March 27) night's "The Panic in Central Park" was one of those great episodes.
I've been told that some people don't like Allison Williams' Marnie, an opinion that goes along with a sense from some viewers that Girls doesn't understand how awful Marnie has generally been. This is, of course, ridiculous. Girls knows exactly who Marnie is, a perspective that has rarely been clearer than this spring's season premiere, "Wedding Day," in which Marnie made exactly the nightmare of her nuptials that you would have guessed or hoped.
Speaking of perspective, what has always made Marnie so glorious is that she has none, but she's convinced she does. She's always been convinced that she's capable of introspection and of laying her soul bare, and while it would be completely unfair to call Marnie an empty, beautiful vessel, she's a vessel whose contents have never matched the handwritten label.
"I know you might be wondering, like, 'How does someone fit that much action into such a short amount of time? '" Marnie told a store manager in Sunday's episode. The "that much action" she's referring to is having broken up with the newly returned Charlie (Christopher Abbott, channeling Shia LaBeouf at his most lost) two years before and, in the intervening time, managing to marry "like an entirely different man." "Yes, I am only 25 and a half years old. But somehow I've managed to live so much. I feel like I'm looking out the eyes of a woman at hands that have touched and been touched. Does that make any sense?" Marnie babbles. 
We mock Marnie because her silly little platitude makes sense if you're a journal-writing 13-year-old, or Jewel, but we have our own view of how little life Marnie has really lived. Yet, then, in After Hours style, Marnie proceeded to have the sort of night you can only have traversing New York City, complete with a fancy gala, a propositioning, a lucrative scam, a boisterous Italian meal, a romantically farcical dip/baptism in a Central Park lake, a mugging at gunpoint, a soul-and-body-baring conversation with an even more messed-up young woman, a realization about her past, an understanding of her present, and a dark, hopefully-not-foreshadowing of her future. Now, that's fitting a lot of action into a half hour.
There was once a time when the idea of an all-Marnie episode of Girls would have terrified even fans, but written by Lena Dunham and directed by frequent helmer Richard Shepard, "The Panic in Central Park" was a reminder of how well Girls has always done with self-contained episodes — though the phrase "self-contained episode" doesn't even mean just one thing with Girls. There have been the heat episodes in which characters have escaped Brooklyn and, exposed to the world at large, have come to new understandings, a category that could include "Wedding Day," "Flo" and "Beach House." But last season's tremendous "Sit-In" — in which Hannah holed up in her old room after returning from Iowa to New York and finding Adam with a new girlfriend — opted for containment over escape as a source for enlightenment. 
So "The Panic in Central Park" was contained in that it was only Marnie (before a last-second appearance by Hannah), but it made more use of New York City than usual, with Shepard beautifully staging each little experiential vignette. The episode featured Marnie at her most delusional and self-obsessed, whether believing the store clerk cared about her life story or amusingly protesting when Charlie went to give their mugger earrings he hadn't demanded. But we also saw a different, more resourceful Marnie. Approached by a sleazy suit who assumes she's a prostitute, and the perfect match for his 25-and-a-half-year-old Russian blonde, Marnie initially lowballs herself on a comical level before smartly adding on surcharges like a veteran con artist. (This feels like an intersection between how Marnie has perhaps always overvalued herself and how the show has perhaps always undervalued Marnie/Williams as only eye candy.) We don't think of Marnie's ability to read other people, and she has, at times, been devastatingly unable to read rooms, but maybe she's growing. 
Maybe Marnie indeed is changing, because when the young woman (played by the great Julia Garner from The Americans and Grandma) in the communal bathroom demands her towel back, the normally reserved Marnie disrobes and accepts the compliment about her body (while Williams retained her no-nudity clause). Maybe she's changing, because when she sees Charlie's drug paraphernalia and listens to his unconvincing diabetes lie, she knows better than to believe him, even if the rest of the evening had fairy-tale elements. Maybe she's changing, because rather than letting Desi's Desi-esque temper tantrum lure her to pity, it hardens her resolve. And when Desi, truly The Worst in all the ways people have mistakenly described Marnie as The Worst, threatens that she's going to end up murdered, he's the one who sobs, and she's the one who announces that she has "serious shit" to work on. (Visual footnote: Desi says Marnie will be murdered because of "how little of a sense of the world you have," which normally we'd agree with were it not for the night she had. But Marnie's barefoot walk of shame in her new damp red dress is interesting because it's a brief montage of city images — a couple of markets, a basketball court — in which she doesn't appear between Charlie's apartment and her home. She may have a new sense of the world, but is she wholly of the world yet?)
This episode probably won't "solve" Marnie any more than last week's episode, with the utterly haunting closing shot of Shosh walking alone in Tokyo "solved" Shoshanna. Nor are the frequently broken Adam and Jessa likely to be "solved" by their current fling. The characters on Girls have often seemed to be in stasis, even if we've wondered how four women could "fit that much action into such a short amount of time." They haven't been in stasis; they've just been growing in realistic stops and starts, not afterschool-special leaps and bounds.
Girls was great on Sunday night and has often been great this season — not in ways that have been different or new, but in ways that have been evolving and progressing. That won't change even if next week's episode is infuriating and it feels like the characters have taken a step back, because that's also the show that Girls is and always  has been.