By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist February 4, 2013 at 10:04AM
With the second season of "Girls" arriving less than a year after the first season wrapped, and with the third season slated to start production in March, we've been wondering if the quick turnaround has had a detrimental effect on the show. So far season two has been good, just not great. The first three episodes have hopscotched around a bit, setting up the characters again in the premiere, quickly dealing with an interracial relationship by the end of the second episode and last week, the show dipped toward novelty with cocaine-fueled hijinks. However, last night Dunham delivered an episode that harkens back to the heart and humor that made the first season so winning, in what is easily this season's best instalment so far.
The first notable thing about "It's A Shame About Ray" is that all four characters -- Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, Shoshanna -- get equal footing, and it's more than welcome. The setup is quite simple, but very effective: having gone through her "divorce" with Elijah after finding out he had sex with Marnie, Hannah has reclaimed the apartment once again, and invited her friends over for a homecooked meal of pad thai. Charlie and his girlfriend Audrey arrive first, but things immediately take a turn for the awkward when Marnie comes waltzing in...and seeing the situation, beelines for the bathroom. Hannah insists that Charlie and Audrey stay, because she invited Marnie as a gesture, but one she never thought she'd actually take her up on following Elijah-gate. And when Marnie returns saying she'll leave, Hannah insists that she stay too.
Arriving a little late are Ray and Shoshanna, who after a fumbling, hilarious attempt at an explanation by the latter, admit they had sex first before stopping by. It proves to be the doorway to a conversation about sex, with the still relatively green, recently deflowered Shoshanna revealing she doesn't know what a buttplug is. Hannah says she'll try anything sexually, while Marnie is a bit more reserved, and when the word "butthole" comes up -- it turns out that term itself makes her skin crawl. But after taking sly digs at each other all night, Audrey finally has a real weapon she can use, and after first repeating "butthole" over and over again, she open up the offensive and takes Marnie to task for seemingly crashing any event where Charlie will be, and moreover, for showing up at his house one night and asking to sleep in his bed. As things get heated, Marnie retreats to the roof of the building.
Meanwhile, Jessa and Thomas-John finally meet his parents (played by the excellent Griffin Dunne and Deborah Rush) after their whirlwind wedding, and it does not go well. It turns out that Jessa is far from the "ambitious women" Thomas-John used to date, and what she reveals about her past shocks his mother, while his father takes a shine to her. Detailing her worldwide travels, former heroin addiction, lack of secondary school education (she dropped out of Oberlin) and unemployment, Thomas-John's mother all but suggests Jessa has found someone to bankroll her slacker lifestyle. But his father is far more forgiving, and sees the spirit and adventure in her that makes her who she is. But through it all, Thomas-John is almost apologetic, rarely coming outright to Jessa's defense.
Back at Hannah's, the party continues to take a downward spiral. As much as he knows she shouldn't, Charlie goes after Marnie leaving Audrey on her own, in what is very much the wrong move. Looking out over Brooklyn, Marnie shares a feeling that everyone adrift in their '20s has dealt with. "I wish someone would tell me: This is how you should spend your days. This is how the rest of your life should look," she says. Charlie is sympathetic, telling Marnie that Audrey is insecure because she knows how much Marnie means to him. After he builds up Marnie's self-esteem by detailing her qualities, he goes in for a kiss (and a boob grab) which she reciprocates... only to back off and tell him she's dating Booth Jonathan. It's another blowback for Charlie and he tries to recover from the rejection and heads back to the party, only to find Audrey gone.
By this time, Jessa and Thomas-John have returned to their apartment in anger. He's mortified that she shared all the rough edges of her life with his parents, while she accuses him of using her to essentially be a tourist in a lifestyle he's never actually been part of. The argument is both intense and funny, but also heartbreaking, with their marriage falling apart in a tornado of a fight that includes a punch and a smashed humanitarian award. Calling his marriage to her "the worst mistake I've ever made," Thomas-John pays Jessa off to leave, their marriage ending, inevitably, as quickly as it began.
The last six minutes of "It's A Shame About Ray" feature two exquisite scenes that really show how great the writing on "Girls" for these characters can be. A conversation about Ray's living situation makes it clear that not only is he essentially homeless, but to the dawning realization of Shoshanna, that he's now living with her. Their courtship has moved quickly, and the young 21 year-old is not only shocked and upset, but she puts it plainly: "You're old than me, you should have your own place." As they wait for the subway, Ray breaks down, admitting: "I'm a huge fucking loser... you don't think I was counting down the days until you figured it out?" Telling Shoshanna that his pride kept him from telling her he basically lives in his car, he asks: "What makes me worth dating? What makes's me worth fucking anything?" Shoshanna replies: "That I'm falling in love with you."
On the page, it sounds cornball, but the entire scene speaks to just how good (and often underutilized) both Alex Karpovsky and Zosia Mamet are to make it feel geniunely moving and real. The entire sequence is extra raw for anyone who has dated someone a bit out of their league, or has simply grappled with moments of their life where their self worth was particularly low. What initially started as seemingly a quip-ready buddy character to Charlie, Karpovsky has transformed into a nuanced part, one aided by his unexpected relationship with Shosanna whom he loves as well. And for her part, Mamet continues to make her bubbly motor-mouthed role not only one of the funniest parts of the show, but like Karpovsky, a character that is equally compelling. We really hope the rest of the season gives us much more of these two. Their arc is proving to be the most facinating.
The episode closes with a broken-hearted and hurt Jessa coming over to Hannah's and joining her in the bathtub to have a good cry. And this is just a moment of great chemistry between two performers, at once both bristling with a lot of pain and also finding a great sweet spot of humor too. And when they clasp hands at the end, it signifies the kind of friendship everyone has (or wishes to have) in their lives, and it's just a simple, really well earned and heartwarming note to close the show on.
All told, "It's A Shame About Ray" finds Dunham and company at the height of their powers, juggling mulitple storylines with ease, never letting one drop, and delivering ably on all sides. And when it can also find room to slide in killer toss away lines like this -- "I think I just know how everyone feels, which is that I have three or four really great folk albums in me" -- it just doesn't get any better. [A]
Songs featured in this episode: Regina Spektor "Don't Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)"; Ben Webster "Frog And Mule";' Steel Train "Soldier In The Army"; Lisa Loeb "Stay"; Stan Getz "Diaper Pin"; Paul Quichette "Green Is Blue"; PJ Harvey "You Said Something"; Oasis "Wonderwall"