Well, it was June; it is now January. We have re-elected Obama, and shaken off Sandy's dousing of the entire Northeast. Gay marriage advocates are increasingly winning; global-warming activists, not so much. India is rocked by an uproar about violence against women, a soccer team has followed their teammate off the pitch in protest after he's harassed by racist taunts, and 27 children and teachers have been massacred in a shooting in Newton, Connecticut. It's not an entirely differently world, but it's not exactly the same one either. And how does "Girls" choose to enter it?
Right away, there's a black person. A black man. On screen. Having sex with Hannah. “You wanted this,” he huffs to viewers. “You're finally getting this. It's about fucking time.” Yes, thank you, Lena. We did.
It's season two, and if Lena Dunham has taken her critics' comments on race, sex, and class somewhat to heart, the song remains the same. In the first few scenes, instead of Marnie flung around Hannah in her bedroom, it's new roommate Elijah, who has a boner. (“It's not for you.”) Trim Marnie has now been dumped not only by her boyfriend but, despite that great blue dress, her boss. Shoshanna faces her post-virgin life sporting a Katherine Hepburn–like frigidity belied by her frilled, Freudian fascinator; and Jessa, who is mostly absent from this episode, heads back from her honeymoon tanned, corn-rowed, and still not knowing her husband's address.
“Do you miss it?” Elijah asks Shoshana about her now-gone hymen. “It's not so much that I miss it....but that there's something miss-ing,” she explains.
Which, I think, is the great genius of the second season. Like sex, it simply moved us straight from our first-season’s virginity to being non-virgins, which is to say, Dunham does not tell us what happened — she merely places us in its wake. So, there's Shoshana, spreading incense around her room, asking it to reveal her “path” with Ray. Great. I know Ray was somehow a dick. Marnie is still hanging out in Hannah's apartment at her parties, even though I thought they were going to have to go through some big reconciliation. They didn't! And Elijah is making jokes about Adam's nutsack, which can't bode well for its relationship with Hannah.
Here I was, trying to gear myself up to be sure I was going to be interested in Hannah and Adam's ups and-downs, Jessa's marital comeuppance, Marnie's next boyfriend, and Shoshanna — what? Finally at the front in kickboxing? But in the brief time since we left Hannah on a Coney Island beach, eating Jessa's wedding cake, having seemingly alienated Adam beyond repair, the world has changed where we didn't expect it to and remained the same where we were sure it wouldn't. Hannah is stylin' in a new relationship with an adorable, be-hatted black guy, Adam in bed in a full-leg cast, pissing into a bedpan Marnie's holding. Look — he’s literally too crippled to leave their relationship. As the last season ended, not only Adam just gotten used to Hannah, we had just gotten used to Adam! Sorry.
Making your viewers catch up with your characters like friends they've haven't seen in a while (“You're dating who? Adam did what?”) is an excellent way of solving the problem of the second season. Usually half-hour shows are designed so that you can watch them in any order (with "Louie," I'm pretty sure I did), or in series-like arcs, such as "Roseanne's" takes on workplace sexism and alcoholism. But in "Girls," we don't even follow the cliffhanger. We have to make sure we’re on the same cliff.
And this is made more complicated by the fact that we're trying to catch up with our characters' lives even as they try to divine and write their own. Marnie's already gloomily adopted her role as a failure who's lost her job, her youth, and her boyfriend. At Hannah's party, Shoshanna, having clearly rehearsed for hours, says to Ray, “Hello,” and then, with deliberate Bette Davis–like froideur, “Good-bye.” Elijah muses about living off George's wealth, commenting, “Maybe I want to be Wendy Murdoch.” Then, after a short-lived attempt at post-party couch coitus, Marnie soothingly tells him, “You don't have to try to be someone you're not.” “Neither do you,” he snaps.
The guiltiest party, of course, is Hannah, who, in her vain attempt to have something to write about, has already tried to sleep with her boss “for the story.” (Adam's punishment for that betrayal last season is one of the more torchingly fucked-up demonstrations of true affection I've ever seen.) She wants to write about their generation, but her desire isn't to tell the story, it's to steer it — telling Adam how she thinks he should feel about her, telling her journal what Marnie should do about her boyfriend, and now, her new boyfriend into healthy territory by saying she won't go to his house in the middle of the night.
That's why "Girls" is the only show I find myself rewinding repeatedly to make sure I heard what the character said. It's not only that I don't want to miss the jokes (“I could fuck those petit-fours”) but because, as I did with this one, I really need to know what that new boyfriend just said to Hannah. Was it, “Why don't we tell him?” “Why don't you tell him?” “Why don't you tell me?” Every single one tells a different story.
And that's one of the great pleasures of “Girls” — its refusal to painstakingly detail every point in a narrative continuum. Last season, one minute, an outraged Adam was screaming, “Do you want me to be your boyfriend? Is that it? Do you want me to be your boyfriend?” The next, they were in the backseat of a cab, Hannah stunned by her sudden success. We don't need to know what she said. We only need to know that, that quickly, they've become an entirely different story, Adam's bike strapping them in like the metal bar of a roller-coaster ride.
You would have to be a spambot to not notice all exposed flesh this season, but now, Dunham’s camera is kinder. Last season, the nudity had a kind of deliberate ugliness, as if Dunham were emphasizing the various shades of humiliation in sexual exposure. Whether it was Marnie’s boyfriend unsuccessfully trying to arouse her, or Hannah sending Adam a would-be dirty text of herself grasping a breast, there was an air of despair to the proceedings. But this season, the unclothed bodies are positively Edenic in their innocence, from Hanna and her boyfriend having acrobatic sex to Elijah busily having a go at Marnie. (Whose hair is strategically placed over each breast in defiance of gravity.) Our first sexual shot of Hannah ever was her letting Adam have sex with her from behind in a formless dress. But as she pulls her clothes off this season, she is positively odalisque, with the placid sensuality of an impressionist nude.
And in this episode, the story is of all the characters stopping trying to steer. Elijah has tried to have sex with Marnie, and failed — he is gay. Shoshanna is not wearing her big-girl pants, but instead quite as gone on Ray as he is on her, which is why she is kissing him madly in the bedroom. The jury is out on Jessa, because we barely see her in this episode. But most important, Hannah stops letting Adam’s love do all the work, and does, in fact, instead go to her new boyfriend's house in the middle of the night. He is perfectly happy to see her. She does not take any pictures, or tell anyone what to feel. In fact, she turns her back to us for the first time. Fin.