If you’ve long since given up on Girls, you’re not alone. The current season and the one previous has seen viewership half of what it enjoyed in its first three years on HBO. This is understandable. The end of the third season was a frustrating mess and the fourth season’s one good episode—”Tad & Loreen & Avi & Shanaz”—mostly succeeds because its focus is on the minor characters.
Girls’ fifth season, however, deserves more attention than it’s getting. Though not particularly notable for much otherwise this time, Girls is overcoming what we’ll call the “Sex and the City pitfall” and in doing so, Dunham has allowed her four lead characters to be interesting again.
What do I mean by the Sex and the City pitfall? Sex and the City was a show about four women who were all friends with one person, not each other. All four women, Carrie herself included, saw Carrie as her best friend. In the ninety-six episode arc, so few plotlines ever found any of the women spending time with each other outside of Carrie that you could count them on two hands. Most scenes were Carrie with herself, Carrie with a plus one, or Carrie with all the other women.
Girls was not so dissimilar in its first seasons. Much of the show’s plot was focused on Hannah and a plus one, but that slowly evolved and, perhaps, was more intentional than we might have first suspected. Beyond the natural claustrophobia of being twenty-four, what is clear this season is how when Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna are allowed to be alone, we see things we couldn’t exactly see before, at least not in full. For instance, I have often contended the reason Marnie is even allowed on TV is because as long as we’re able to compare her to Hannah, we don’t realize how incredibly selfish, unkind, and manipulative she is. Now that Marnie is more often on her own, these qualities stand out gruesomely.
And while it has proved revealing for all the characters, time apart has been the most beneficial for Shoshanna, now living in Japan for work. Shoshanna is Girls’ most underestimated character, Dunham’s answer to the thought experiment of what it would be like to be a young woman who has never felt the need to question every feminist position, while at the same time wanting to hold to seemingly contradictory expectations in romantic relationships. These women exist, but they rarely get to exist on TV.
Shoshanna is both not sure what someone brings to a friend’s abortion and she believes firmly in the “rules” of dating.
What makes this work and makes Shoshanna so naturally funny—and she is the funniest character on the show—is her lack of guile. Shoshanna believes everything she says, and she earnestly wants to pay attention to the needs of those around her. This was often played for humor against the other three women, Shoshanna counted on for the bizarre interjection of pop culture, misplaced quote, or asinine observation. Shoshanna was never fully herself, but a sidekick, not unlike many of the women on Sex and the City. But Shoshanna’s move to Japan centered her for the first time in her own storyline free of dependence on the others.
Where Girls has misstepped before on sensitive subjects like race, Japan has proved to be the show’s repentance. Shoshanna embraces Japanese culture completely because it mirrors so much of her own sensibilities and strengths. It’s refreshing to see her thrive, speak some Japanese with her coworkers that goes beyond being able to only ask for what she needs or wants. She shows genuine interest in those around her and all the jokes are about Shoshanna being Shoshanna—not on the gimmick of an American in a radically different culture. Even when the show flirts with this line, like when Shoshanna and a cohort of work colleagues go to a brothel together, the humor is located specifically in Shoshanna’s general uncomfortableness in trying to impress a man she’s interested in, not in the oddity of the circumstances.
She is a long way from the young woman who opened her dormitory door to Jessa asking her which Sex and the City character she was. She’s more comfortable in her skin, in her choices, and it seems like Japan is the answer to the questions she’s been asking for four previous seasons about what she really wants. After losing her job in Japan, Shoshanna stays on because she believes she has found the place where she fits best. Sunday’s recent episode, the midpoint in this season, shows Shoshanna explaining her maturation to an American colleague who has come to visit her, fearing Shoshanna is in some kind of trouble and unable to return to America.
“You cannot rush a cherry blossom,” Shoshanna says earnestly.
“That’s beautiful,” her colleague observes.
Indeed, Japan seems to be not only the answer to many of her questions but the permission for Shoshanna to be herself. Until the moment that it isn’t. In tears, she confesses to her American colleague that she misses the States and her life there. But there is a clear contradiction: Shoshanna seems to know that in Japan she has become confident in herself and in what she likes, while at the same time being uncertain that it’s the place she is meant to stay. Wandering the streets alone at night afterward, the lingering question is whether or not Shoshanna can return to America and still be the person she came to love in Japan. Moreover, if returning to the states means she again becomes eclipsed by the loud characters of the women around her, is the return really worth it? At the opening of this season, Shoshanna was back in the States to be a bridesmaid in Marnie’s wedding, and we saw how the other three women so easily push her to the sidelines. More than one critic has speculated Shoshanna fled to Japan and has been lying to herself the entire time. I’m not convinced. I believe Shoshanna found in Japan an acceptance she longed for coupled with feeling like she had a voice that was listened to. She only wishes that the same would be true in America.
It’s fitting, I think, that the end of the episode has Shoshanna wandering the Japanese streets while a languid Aurora croons a cover of Bowie’s “Life on Mars.”
It’s a godawful small affair for the girl with the mousy hair, indeed.