Christopher Abbott and Allison Williams in HBO's "Girls."
Mark Schafer—HBO
By Daniel D'Addario
March 28, 2016

In its fifth season, Girls has become strangely recursive, manipulating its own characters into situations that feel like the province of a far more conventional show. Convention isn’t always bad, of course, but the pairing of Adam and Jessa shows us little except their ability to be moved around a chessboard. Other choices, like having everyone in Hannah’s life attend a wedding together, are just sitcom cliché. As I’ve written before, the hermetic world of Girls‘ fifth season is an odd look, as it’s a show whose characters, in their mid-20s, are realistically obsessed with reinvention and one that’s taken a loose approach to some of its overarching plotlines. It’s strange that the most meaningful new figure on the show in its fifth season is a love interest for Elijah, not least because the continued presence of Elijah himself is proof of the show’s willingness to continue exploring characters that don’t quite work.

Sunday night’s episode showed both the best way to play with the show’s established character dynamics and the limitations of doing so at the exclusion of new stories. The return of Charlie (played by Christopher Abbott, an actor who quit the show after its second season) was actually a welcome surprise, not least because of the randomness of his departure in our world and the world of the show. But the fact that he behaved nothing like Charlie made for a strange, uncanny viewing experience.

When he left the series after savagely breaking up with Marnie (Allison Williams), Charlie was an entrepreneur at his own start-up, one whose slight build and gentle mien made him seem like the most sensitive sort of manipulator. When Marnie ran into him this time, he had radically changed in every way, from his robust and tattooed frame to his new, vaguely outer-borough accent. His time with Marnie, who had been realizing that her short marriage needed to end, unfolded like a dream, one that only ended when Marnie realized that Charlie was addicted to heroin.

For the first time this season, this viewer feels real ambiguity, the sort that hasn’t been a part of the Girls viewing experience since Abbott was a regular. If Charlie was to be brought back after his incredibly conclusive farewell (the breakup happened offscreen and was recounted by Marnie, then and now, as scorched-earth), it ought to be to explore a new dynamic rather than just worry over an old fissure. And that’s exactly what happened: The Marnie-Charlie pairing was, for a short time, completely reinvented, and Williams in particular delivered her best performance of the series under the surreal circumstances.

But there’s surrealistic dream logic, and then there’s just nonsense. It’s certainly possible that a person can change as much as Charlie has in the three years he’s been offscreen, not least because we’re told he lost his job and his father killed himself. Why not? But there wasn’t even a glimmer of the Charlie that Marnie had dated in the past in this version; what, even, was the point of bringing back an actor to play a character who no longer exists? Sure, they weren’t relitigating the breakup in the way that, say, the Adam-Jessa pairing raises familiar and tired questions about sobriety and financial dependency. But the change, here, was so head-spinning that any artistic point felt almost secondary to the viewer’s sheer confusion. The plotline needed to take one thing off before it left the writers’ room.

Girls‘ best moments look a lot like Sunday night’s episode; odd, unresolved, hazy, like Hannah’s daylong date with a brownstone-dweller in the show’s second season, or like her waking up at the terminus of the F train at the end of the first season—or, more recently, her dealings with her father. They are ambiguous, and strangely lovely. Elements of Marnie and Charlie’s doomed liaison looked a lot like that, but the episode ended up slipping into Girls‘ far less successful gear, a sort of overdetermination whereby causes and effects present themselves blandly like items to be checked off a list. Charlie’s behavior changed because he is a heroin user, and, summarily, Marnie realized that she needed to wake up and end her marriage.

Maybe this passing up of potential paths toward real and transcendent meaning in favor of the safer storytelling choice is what growing up is all about. But it’s not hard to miss the Girls that would have introduced a new character rather than morphing Charlie to fit into the season’s schematic, or the one that would have explored what it means to really change, rather than using his presence to ratify Marnie’s decision to invest more energy into herself. Charlie’s changed a lot while we haven’t seen him, whereas viewers of Girls have experienced something a bit less outlandish: An evolution so slow it wasn’t noticeable, until it suddenly was.

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