Catching Up With is a new recurring series to discuss important moments in shows we don’t recap weekly on Collider, but need to talk about.
The fifth episode of a sleepy Girls Season 4, “Close-Up,” (sleepy as far as headlines and think pieces go, anyway) proved one of Girls‘ most enduring truths: that the most interesting and compelling characters on the show are the boys. “Close-Up” was a perfect example of how ancillary the main four women — Hannah (Lena Dunham), Marnie (Allison Williams), Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), and Jessa (Jemima Kirke) — feel to the stories of Adam (Adam Driver), Ray (Alex Karpovsky), and even Elijah (Andrew Rannells).
It’s been interesting to watch Adam go from a completely weird and sexually-stunted man-boy in the first seasons, to him being one of the most layered characters on the series. The opening scene in “Close-Up” where he snuck out of bed to prepare a breakfast spread for Mimi-Rose (Gillian Jacobs) was a beautiful thing, and it was reminiscent of a time when Adam engaged in another relatively healthy relationship with Natalia in Season 2. But, that relationship fell apart once Adam’s deeper issues began to surface, and ended with rape (or something bordering very close to it).
Adam’s redemptive arc, if you can call it that, has seemingly all led up to that final conversation in “Close Up.” (That is, after the curious and casually aggressive way Mimi-Rose chose to bring up her abortion:”I can’t do X, because I had an abortion yesterday,” “I had an abortion yesterday, so I can’t do X”). His deeply-buried emotional fragility had burst forth earlier, but ultimately, he admits that his real confusion is over how she doesn’t need him. Adam returning to a relationship with Hannah in Season 3 was about Adam needing to take care of somebody — and Hannah, of course, needs more taking care of than anyone. But that was also a reversal to how Adam started the series off as being completely selfish and walled-off. So while his relationship with Hannah opened up a raw side of him emotionally, it feels like he’s evolved past that, now (which was apparent also in the way he called Jessa out for her destructive choices in “Female Author”). Hannah feels more like a bit player in Adam’s story than the other way around.
The same also feels true for Elijah, who, while not necessarily a deep character, serves many roles in relation to Hannah. He’s comic relief, sure, but he’s also a voice of reason (and a voice for the audience), calling her out on being selfish and insecure, and murmuring “so unstable …” after Hannah loses it over him eating her cereal. Elijah also puts Hannah’s failings in sharper relief; her time in Iowa was a bust from the start, but her inability to fit in was made so much more apparent after Elijah came to visit, and essentially ended up running the town (as he hilariously detailed over brunch in “Close-Up”). Though Elijah can get away with all of this because of his ultimate loyalty to Hannah, again, he feels more essential to Hannah’s presence than the other way around.
As for Ray, he’s been bandied about between Shoshanna and Marnie (and also had a stint as Hannah’s boss), but he has always stolen the spotlight away from the girls he’s paired with. Ray has gone from a full-time grump and curmudgeon to being a man of thoughtful countenance, as well as fully carrying his own story (like Adam) regarding his anger at the new stoplight by his apartment. Ray confronting the city counsel (which featured Marc Maron in a small cameo), with his amazing model of his street block, was already ten times more helpful and civic-minded than Hannah’s vague musings about teaching. Like Adam, we’ve seen Ray evolve from something of a strange but funny loser to a much more nuanced character, who is really striving, and has ambition. His relationship with Shoshanna may have gotten that ball rolling, but once again, Shosh feels like a stepping stone for Ray, rather than the other way around.
In one of the series’ best episodes, Season 2’s “Boys,” Adam and Ray wander around Staten Island together trying to return a stolen dog. Their conversations, revelations, and ultimate fallout were some of the most illuminating and nuanced statements the show has ever dared to make about the nature of friendship, relationships, and everything else.
Characters don’t have to grow and change for a show to be successful, especially when it comes to comedy. While there is humor to the Millennial jokes and references to the trappings of a young, privileged life selfishly lived, Girls is not strictly a comedy. Further, Ray and Adam’s emotional leaps just show how woefully stagnant Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shosh remain. Yet, as great as these male characters have been (and remain so in Season 4), there’s still a feeling of missed opportunity that the best thing about Girls are the boys.
Girls airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on HBO.