Lena Dunham is at her best when she is ripping open the unspoken tensions and glossed over un-intimacies between friends. Take the “you are the wound” fight at towards the end of Season One, which felt at the time like an amalgam of five different arguments I had between the ages of 18 and 26.
So too it was with last night’s episode, which took the “core four” on a girls’ (pun not intended) weekend trip to the North Fork, a vacation spot “for people who think the Hamptons are tacky and don’t want to be on a beach that’s near a J.Crew.”
We open to a montage of Marnie playing the “perfect” middle-class hostess, gliding through a light-filled beach house to the strains of classical music, filling her friends’ bedrooms with artfully drawn place cards and fresh flowers. The illusion is shattered immediately when the others arrive off the bus from New York. “How was the ride?” asks Marnie. “I need to fucking piss so badly, I’m going to shit myself,” Hannah replies.
It quickly becomes clear that Marnie’s plans for an intimate, Instagram-friendly bonding weekend are not shared by her friends. When Marnie tells Hannah she’s arranged for them to have adjoining rooms, Hannah is visibly disappointed. When Marnie grits her teeth in the cold, choppy sea, insisting that “it’s the best swimming conditions imaginable, I’m having the time of my life,” Jessa says she “can’t go in open water unless [she is] menstruating” and Hannah complains about the sharp pebbles on the beach. “I thought this would just be a nice opportunity for us to have fun together,” Marnie says when she joins them on the shore.
Later, when they go into town to buy groceries, Hannah runs into her ex-boyfriend Elijah, who is visiting with a couple of friends and his new boyfriend, played by Danny Strong of Jonathan-on-Buffy fame. Hannah invites the guys back to the house the girls are staying at, and what ensues is several hours of backstabbing, eavesdropping, debauchery, drunkenness and Broadway dancing sessions, in which everyone seems to be having fun except for Marnie. Unsurprisingly, it all culminates in a “you are the wound” level blow-out at the end of the episode, when everyone involved basically admits they hate each other.
This episode wasn’t fun to watch, per se. It was painful to observe four, and later eight, people who clearly don’t like each other very much constantly pick at, undermine, and passive aggressively throw barbs at one another. At the end of the episode, I wanted to curl up in a ball and just lay there for a while.
But it was also the best episode of Girls I’d seen in a long time, and probably my favourite since Season One.
As the way I’ve recounted this story probably reveals, my sympathies lie with Marnie in this instance. I’ve been in her shoes: organised something with a group of friends in the hope that we’ll have a SuperAmazingAwesomeTime together, only to find that everyone but me is having fun and I really don’t want to be there anymore. I’ve looked across the room at people I normally love and felt like they were strangers, wondering how we ever came to be friends in the first place. In short, I’ve felt the kind of “alone” that Marnie felt in last night’s episode, and I can attest that it sucks.
And as in the show, these feelings always seem to happen – or perhaps they just always feel more acute – on a trip away. Prolonged and enforced proximity, I suppose.
I’ve trawled a bit around the internet this morning, so I know that I’m not in the majority in regards to my sympathy for Marnie. “Marnie is the WORST,” one of my friends said on Facebook. “She is literally a psychotic perfectionist,” wrote someone on TelevisionWithoutPity. And certainly, there are things that Marnie could have done to make the weekend more enjoyable for herself and her friends. Let go for instance, and accept, however sadly, that what is fun for her is not the same thing as what is fun for the people she is friends with. And vice versa. Maybe it’s time for her to find some new friends.
But although I don’t usually relate to Marnie’s “pretty girl problems,” I certainly sympathised more with her failed attempts to create the “perfect weekend” than I did with any of the other girls. (If they all hate her so much, I wondered, why did they go on holiday with her in the first place?) And I’ve found her flailing this season the most interesting of the four storylines, although I also think Jessa and Shosh have a whole bunch of narrative potential that is not currently being tapped. It’s Hannah and Adam I’m sick of hearing from, really.
Like I said above, this episode left me feeling like I needed to have a long lie down. It was sad, and not just for the girls either: Elijah’s puppy dog sadness at the hands of his quasi-abusive boyfriend left me equally hurting. But it also felt a lot more real than the friends-as-platonic-soulmates peppiness that permeated, say, Sex & The City.
Because as anyone who has ever had a soulmate - platonic or otherwise - knows, part of getting that close to someone means giving them license to break your heart every now and again.
Related: I am Hannah Horvath. And you might be too.
Yet another way in which Gossip Girl is kind of like real life.
Elsewhere: Pretty Girl Privilege (LA Review of Books)