What happens when an enfant terrible grows up? The opening scene of “Iowa,” the season-four premiere of Girls, asks us to consider the maturity achieved by both Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) and the series itself over the course of the past three years. Invoking the very first scene of the series, the opening places Hannah and her parents (Becky Ann Baker and Peter Scolari) at the same table of the same restaurant where, in the pilot, the elder Horvaths announced they would be cutting their daughter off financially. As with any repetition, the opening of “Iowa” asks us to key in on the differences, which abound: Here the mood is celebratory, as Hannah’s parents toast their daughter’s admittance to the Iowa Writers Workshop. Likewise, whereas the pilot restricted the scene to Hannah and her parents, here the trio is eventually joined by Adam (Adam Driver), a reminder of the relative stability Hannah has achieved (albeit a stability that’s about to be tested by her move to Iowa).
The floundering 24-year-old presented in the pilot has seemingly grown into a confident young adult capable of leveraging her talents, impressing her parents, and maintaining a serious romantic relationship. But, as Adam signals us with his own salud, Hannah’s progression isn’t as neat as the contrast between the two scenes would imply; rather, her move is, in Adam’s words, “the next step in a series of random steps”—a buzzkill of a toast that ushers in the title screen, itself a reminder of the latent immaturity of the titular characters. Is this next step in Hannah’s life indicative of maturity or aimlessness?
Of course, “the next step in a series of random steps” is also an apt descriptor of serialized TV, and Girls in particular has a vexed relationship to narrative design. The implied trajectory of the series is one of growth, but the series has dramatized the development of its quartet of leads only in fits and starts. That was particularly the case during the first two seasons, which felt more improvised, content to follow characters down rabbit holes that weren’t necessarily indicative of a grand design. In its third season, the show mellowed out a bit, adhering more clearly to conventional story beats and character arcs—perhaps appropriately, given Hannah’s own increasing stability. As season four begins, the series seems primed to ask just how much these characters have grown, and the premiere, occupying Hannah’s last day in the city before her move, presents all four girls in situations designed to test their maturity. It’s a table-setting episode whose execution sometimes feels rote, but in articulating the characters’ changed circumstances, it sets up the season nicely.
We learn that Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), after falling a few credits shy of graduating at the end of last season, has successfully obtained her undergraduate degree and, with equal parts trepidation and resignation, is preparing to enter the “real world.” After a season where she was mostly sidelined, seeing Shosh attempt to navigate a post-college life holds a lot of promise, in part because it lends real stakes to her decisions. In the past, the character’s storylines have felt a bit weightless, both because Shoshanna herself is so broadly drawn, but also because her path in life was tethered to her progress through college. But watching the most inexperienced of the group occupy the same position as Hannah at the beginning of the series offers thrilling possibilities for her character and, one can hope, a larger showcase for Mamet.
Likewise, “Iowa” augurs well for Jessa (Jemima Kirke), who’s initially living with Beadie (Louise Lasser), her employer-cum-mother figure, whom she assisted with an aborted suicide attempt at the end of last season. Beadie has been a nurturer and an enabler in equal measure, but she’s soon out of the picture when her daughter (Natasha Lyonne) returns to take her into her own care and offer a rebuke to Jessa in the process. Abandonment has been the through line of Jessa’s life, and seeing that cycle continue initially seems like a tedious repetition, but it leads to the episode’s most unexpected scene, as Jessa channels the frustration at being abandoned toward Hannah, who is herself leaving the city after convincing her friend to return. Always the provocateur, Jessa traffics in passive-aggressive behavior, but when, amid one of her tirades, she reveals to Hannah she’s upset at her for leaving, it signals a genuine vulnerability the character has seldom expressed. We’ve seen Jessa abandoned before, but we’ve rarely seen her this exposed; watching her navigate a life without even her best friend to depend on has the potential to humanize her in ways the series has previously resisted.
If there’s a storyline in “Iowa” that simply doesn’t work, it’s Marnie’s (Allison Williams). The episode finds her pursuing an affair with Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), her songwriting partner, while deluding herself that it’s more than just a fling. Watching Marnie fail to grow would be just fine if the series found new ways to dramatize that stasis, but seeing her embarrassed yet again during a musical performance is a trip too many to that particular well. All of these drop-ins take place as Hannah is preparing to leave for graduate school, and if “Iowa” feels a bit inhibited, it’s perhaps because the change promised by the episode’s tease of a title has been deferred until next week. Of course, for a series that thematizes delayed development, it’s apt. So even if “Iowa” is a workhorse of an episode, it bodes well for what comes next—even if that next doesn’t exactly portend clear progress.
For more Girls recaps, click here.