Fresh starts come often in Girls, though they can appear as backsliding, and are, occasionally, simply relapses. Case in point: Hannah’s (Lena Dunham) decision to enroll in the University of Iowa’s estimable writing program, for which she was accepted at the end of last season. That’s exactly where she ends up early on in season four, leaving her forever-uncertain romance with Adam (Adam Driver) in a sort of open-relationship limbo. And as is so often the case with Girls, the change of scenery doesn’t alter or relieve Hannah’s uncertainties about adulthood, career, sex, love, and plain old existence. On the whole, it’s an anxious condition that Dunham has always seen in her generation, but continues to suggest is a distinctly human trait that one can either confront or ignore at one’s own peril.
The sense of regression can be felt in the opening sequence of the season premiere, “Iowa,” with Hannah’s parents (Becky Ann Baker and Peter Scolari) sending her off to Iowa with a goodbye dinner. Though the tone of the conversation is different, the scene is a near duplicate of the beginning of the series, where Hannah learned that she was being “cut off” from her parents’ funds. Conversely, the subject matter and thematic fixations of Dunham’s series have remained the same, to the point of verging on repetition, but the timbre of Girls has been refined over the last three seasons. What started as a refreshingly female-centric yet awkward comedy has grown into a strange and oddly mature study of how Hannah and her ilk come to terms with the labor that goes into art after years of fantasizing about the façades and lifestyles of bohemian artists.
That’s exactly what Hannah is yet again faced with as she quickly begins to alienate herself from her new classmates, a situation that climaxes with her dropping a payload of truth bombs at a party, all while resisting self-criticism. Even when she apologizes, it’s in a mode that prizes her gratifying sense of expression over genuine humility. Dunham’s belief that the desire to express one’s self honestly often comes at the expense of rampant self-obsession has rarely been as clear as it is in the first half of this season, and if this growing wisdom is lost in Hannah as the season begins, it certainly dawns on other characters. In fact, after getting arrested for a minor infraction with Jessa (Jemima Kirke) in “Female Author,” Adam renounces his entire bond with Hannah and company, a declaration that surprisingly sticks in more ways than one.
Dunham doesn’t simply see this as a matter of self-knowledge, however, as evidenced by the relationship between Ray (Alex Karpovsky) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet). Soshia admits to a potential employer that she’s just using the interview opportunity to practice for a more competitive position, only to then have her dream employer take apart her skillset at the hinges. It’s Ray’s company that helps her come to peace with her brazen disrespect of employment, an ongoing concern in the series, just as she gives him practical advice for his vehemence over New York traffic patterns. They share an intimate understanding of one another, one that didn’t die when they stopped dating, and one of the more consistent and admirable qualities of Girls is its messy, funny, and heartfelt depiction of relationships as fluid, transitioning between stages of camaraderie, love, lust, distrust, and hatred without warning.
Ray and Shosh’s relationship has become one of the show’s more unpredictably sweet bonds, but it’s an outlier. Marnie’s (Alison Williams) intertwined personal and professional relationship with Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), despite his having a girlfriend, is appealing to her as much, if not more, for its aesthetics as it is for any amount of romantic desire. It’s notable that when the duo meets with a team of record execs, it’s the concept of Desi and Marnie as a couple that immediately appeals to them. (It’s certainly no mistake that Williams’s character shares a name with Hitchcock’s most brutal and brittle tale of imposed control.) Late into “Sit-In,” Desi leaves his girlfriend for Marnie, but his weepy explanation of the events makes the particulars of the breakup, and exactly how he feels about it, shaky at best. Nevertheless, Marnie brandishes a wide smile, an unsettling signal that her fantasy has become a reality, no matter the cost. It’s a rotten sort of triumph, the kind the series so often depicts with potent starkness and sans standard-issue morals, like Shosh’s practice interview, Hannah’s screed against her classmates, and Jessa’s indignation over getting a ticket for public urination. These events help maintain created visages, dreamt up and spit-shined versions of the characters in Girls, but the series remains as moving and fascinating as it is due to its tendency to demolish these images, only to reconstruct them without the pretense that the next interpretation will be the “real” one.