Will Season Four Of ‘Girls’ Finally Separate Hannah From Lena?
Here's what you can expect from the next 12 weeks of Dunham-related scrutiny.
In the trailer for Girls’ new season, Hannah finds herself in a small group session at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The teacher is reminding the group to “treat every piece as a work of fiction”, while her classmates (not unreasonably) point out that Hannah’s main character shares several telling characteristics with Hannah herself. The rest of the conversation, we might imagine, goes to the point of how they’re supposed to critique and discuss autobiographical “fiction” that’s so thinly veiled.
Is this starting to sound familiar?
Hannah’s work so far has been, as far as we know, almost exclusively personal essays about funny or trenchant experiences in her life. Oversharing — or as her prospective editor put it last season, “going where Mindy Kaling won’t” — can create instant intimacy and a sense of honesty that draws people in. But with the newest season of Girls setting its sights on Hannah’s craft, it seems to question whether that immediacy and rawness can translate to fiction, or if she’s just a one-trick pony.
One of the most notable characteristics of the critical and popular reaction to Girls has been an inability to separate Dunham — the writer, director, creator and lead actor in a show about people who seem very much like her — from Hannah (and to a lesser extent, the other characters). Dunham’s been very willing to address IRL criticisms of the show within the show, whether its accusations of unconscious racism or of everyone being dicks, and now it looks like she might be tackling the ‘Hannah = Lena (+ Hannah = Dick) ∴ Lena = Dick + Hack With No Imagination’ school of thought.
At the very least, it looks like the Iowa workshop itself will spend some time in tongue-in-cheek examination of the value of thinly-veiled autobiographical writing and personal essays. Perhaps Hannah will discover she has no talent for fiction, and pouring her heart out in places Mindy Kaling won’t go is all she’s got.
The arcs of characters other than Hannah are perhaps more interesting as they seem to become more unfocused with every season. Marnie’s not enjoying being Desi’s Other Woman, Shoshanna’s apparently finding out for the first time in her life that normal people find her weird and offputting, and Jessa is… getting arrested and slapping people?
It seems like Dunham hasn’t known what to do with Jessa since the ill-fated marriage story, and it’s a shame, because Jemima Kirke has a beautifully strange energy that works well in dark and dreamlike side plots. The arc she had with rehab and Jasper (Richard E. Grant) last season echoed the episode she spent not working things out with her dad (Ben Mendelssohn) the season before, and all of it seemed like such a rich vein to tap into — the Teflon hippie has heaps of issues, particularly with drugs, stasis, older men and responsibility! If we see another episode this season like ‘Birthday’, where Jessa literally doesn’t have anything to say, let alone to do, I might slap someone upside the head too.
The key clue in our sneak peak of season four might be Adam’s toast to Hannah: “Taking the next step in a series of random steps”. Last season in particular felt, as the kids say, pretty random. Storylines like Hannah’s book and Jessa’s job melted away without obvious resolution or moral, and odd plot points popped up at even weirder moments, like when Adam’s sister suddenly became junkie Laird’s kombucha-brewing earth-baby-mumma.
That being said, Girls aims for unvarnished slice-of-life storytelling, and life doesn’t have romantic narratives or revealing leitmotifs. One thing doesn’t logically lead to another. Almost uniquely among its peers in ‘prestige’ TV Land, Girls is unusually resistant to romance and idealism. Even shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men — where just about everyone is awful — tend to romanticise the awfulness in that ‘Universal ugliness of humanity’, ‘Isn’t Man just the worst?’ kind of way.
What Girls idealises, and what it’s generous about in its honesty, is failure, lack of self-awareness, and the sheer self-involvement of being 20-something (where you are the first and only person to have problems, ever). Dunham has said in the past that the show is illustrating, not condoning, the self-centred worldview of the privileged millennial. But it seems like that’s something she’s occasionally lost sight of in favour of creating more outrageous behaviour for her Deeply Flawed And Human characters to stumble into.
In that honesty, that commitment to a specific realism and thus relatability, Girls sometimes both alienates those who can’t relate, and risks turning into one of those ’21 GIFs Only 20-Somethings Trying To Become Who They Are Will Understand’ posts. (“I’m eating GRAPES. As a SNACK!” Hannah boasts in a highly GIFable awed smugness familiar to everyone who’s ever eaten a raw almond by choice in January).
If Dunham can keep it on track this season with the stories relatively focused, the characterisation relatively consistent, and the laughs relatively sympathetic it bodes well for the just-announced fifth season to follow. The tagline for season four, “Nowhere to grow but up”, sounds promising, but it’s very much dependent on them growing up at all.
Season four of Girls premieres Monday, January 12 on Showcase.