It has been a pretty adventurous second season for "Girls," and one has to look no further than the experimental, format-breaking mid-season episodes. The nearly standalone short film "One Man's Trash," the Staten Island-set "Boys" and Jessa one-off "Video Games" were all fascinating detours from the show's more traditional HBO comedy format, and often delivered bigger dramatic and emotional payoffs. But as the series wound down, the return to a more conventional approach has been less satisfying, and this weekend's finale is certainly a let down for anyone hoping that Lena Dunham might regularly be taking "Girls" into bolder waters structurally.
The biggest clue that "Together" swings on a decidedly more upbeat note is likely to due to the participation of Judd Apatow, who steps out from the producer's chair to log his second co-writing screenplay credit of the series, and first of this season. And his tendency toward sugary, status-quo-retaining finales even after some rather wrenching emotional turmoil (see "This Is 40") makes itself felt here. If the season opener "It's About Time" suggested role reversals for Hannah (Dunham) and Marnie (Allison Williams), and the following episodes carving new paths for Adam, Shoshanna, Ray, Charlie and Jessa, the finale resets the board and brings everyone more or less back to where they started, and isn't afraid to dip into cliché to do so.
For example, Charlie (Christopher Abbott) and Marnie have gone from a brief fuck at the office to regular sex, with Charlie resuming his position as the generous fool (while he gladly sticks his face between Marnie's legs, one wonders if she's over her aversion to blowjobs yet) and they are happily eating brunch. A brief argument over their status -- are they dating? is this just casual? -- leads to Marnie storming out, and Charlie following her (as always) with one last showdown on a sidewalk in which Marnie unloads her long, deep simmering feelings for him. Charlie says, "That's all I wanted to hear" (seriously, how many romcoms have used that?), admits still feeling the same way for Marnie, and they hug, once again the happy couple. (And oh yeah, Marnie emphasizes that it has nothing to do with his money, but the scene is so saccharine sweet it's hard to know if that's irony or sincerity. And at this point Marnie has become such an empty shell of a character, and Charlie such a soggy pushover, it's hard care too much either way.)
From cliché to plot contrivance, Ray (Alex Karpovsky) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) continue to be on the rocks, with the lack of ambition on Ray's part a continual sticking point for his younger girlfriend. So he mans up and decides to do something about it, heading to Grumpy's to confront the owner Herman (Colin Quinn) and tell him he's returning to finish his masters in Latin Studies. Instead, Herman has a (pretty convenient) surprise for him: he's opening a new two-floor Grumpy's in Brooklyn Heights, and if Ray wants to take charge as the manager of that location, it's all his. But alas, this isn't enough to comfort Shoshanna, who has grown weary of Ray's constant negativity toward everything, and by the episode's end, he has stormed out with his Andy Kaufman standee under his arm, while Shoshanna bounces back quickly, continuing to explore her unleashed sexuality, locking lips with a random dude at a club. While their breakup was inevitable, the arc Ray and Shoshanna have had over the season hasn't resulted in much growth -- Ray will likely be as cynical as ever, while Shoshanna is free to revel in superficiality, as ever adorable as she is.
And then there's Hannah. The character has always delicately toed the line of being absolutely flawed yet compelling, rough edges and all, but after last week's wheel spinning, butt splinter, Q-tip-in-the-ear antics and this week's continued focus on her OCD, the writing is becoming as selfish as Hannah's character. There is just not enough narrative meat on this bone, even with the threat to sue by Hannah's editor, played by John Cameron Mitchell, who continues to wait for pages from her novel. Already paid an advance, the whole deal is close to crumbling, and Hannah phones her Dad (the always excellent Peter Scolari) to see if he'll front her the money to pay back the publishers. He rightly calls her out on manipulating him (the conversation rather brilliantly taking place as he shops in the very manly hardware store) and refuses, telling her she'll have to figure it out herself.
Hannah continues to procrastinate, and thanks to her OCD, isolate herself out of fear and embarrassment. She hides when Marnie drops by unannounced to check on her, but allows reformed junkie neighbor Laird (Jon Glaser) to give her a haircut after she disastrously tries (again) to cut her own bangs (to emulate Carey Mulligan, ripped from a page of a magazine). He too calls her the most "self-involved, presumptuous person" he has ever met, and leaves her alone as well. With no one else to reach out to, she gives an call to Adam (Adam Driver), who is busy beating the shit out of everything in his apartment (presumably out of sexual frustration from routine intercourse with Natalia, though his exclamation "Fuck her!" could easily apply to Hannah). Rather conveniently, Adam now has an iPhone, and even more conveniently, Hannah has accidentally called him using Facetime and he can see that her OCD is back. So what's next?
How about Adam running shirtless outside, still on the phone with Hannah, headed to her apartment to be there in her time of crisis. Set to a swelling soundtrack aimed to push every emotional button, and complete with Adam breaking down the apartment door, in a show that rings with raw, emotional authenticity, rarely has "Girls" felt this artificial. The suggestion made here is that Hannah and Adam's individual eccentricities can only be understood by each other (the other suggestion is that sex with mentally stable people is boring). As Adam picks Hannah up in his arms, they kiss, in what has to be the least genuine moment this show has ever had. With Adam headed back to AA and tentatively striking out a new social path, and Hannah's career finally taking shape, both characters were headed in fascinating directions this season, but the finale reins that in, retreating from the ballsier strokes "Girls" has attempted this season.
Indeed, "Girls" seems to be fighting against itself as it heads an inevitable third season, which starts shooting this spring. One can only imagine that HBO -- who have been aggressively marketing the show at a level perhaps only matched by "Game Of Thrones" -- views "Girls" as a successor to "Sex And The City." Not only for a massive demographic that they lost once that show, and the movies, finally ended, but also something that could make the rare leap to network syndication (with edits, of course). It's a show that's already very much part of the TV pop cultural discourse for its depiction of young women in New York City, sexuality, modern relationships and more, but does Dunham really want to go that route?
Again, that central trio of boundary-pushing episodes -- while not always entirely successful but nonetheless wholly fascinating -- suggests a restless creativity that is already eager to stretch what this show and these characters are capable of. But "Together" is either an unwillingness to, or uncertainty of how to follow through with those atypical ideas, and the long fall back onto something safe, sterile and empty-calorie-comforting is quite jarring (particularly following an episode in which ejaculating on a woman's breasts was brought plainly and uncomfortably in front of the camera). The emotional and sexual honesty and confrontation -- both hilarious and stomach churning -- that marked the show as a standout, something distinct and singular in voice, is completely absent in the season two finale. It almost feels like something taken from another show entirely, and "Girls" and its characters have certainly been better and deserve better than this. [C]