Girls often focuses on the many ways people can be total assholes to each other, but it’s dedicated to redeeming its characters. Look at Adam and Ray: they’ve both gone from intensely unlikable to perhaps the two characters it’s easiest to feel sorry for. “Boys” picks up the ongoing concerns eschewed in last week’s divisive “One Man’s Trash” and shows how far those two characters have come, while also contrasting them with a third guy who might be past the point of rehabilitation.
Ray and Adam’s adventure to Staten Island comprises the first real quality time these characters have shared. You’d think they wouldn’t get along—Ray’s contempt of the people and places around him is pretty comprehensive, and despite Adam’s own issues with anger and depression, it seems counter to his aggressively passionate nature to suffer faux-intellectual, self-hating assholes for long. For a while though they open up and are honest with each other in the way that sometimes only strangers can be. I hope my opinion isn’t shaded too greatly by my own gender, but the first time I watched “Boys” I thought these scenes with Adam and Ray were among the very best this show has ever done.
The plot mechanics that bring them together are a little overwrought—Ray needs to retrieve his copy of Little Women that Hannah left at Adam’s, and while Ray is at Adam’s apartment he convinces Adam to return a dog he stole from a negligent owner—but their extended conversation about life and women is a funny, insightful and well-written look into the psyches of two confused and young(-ish) men. (Also the detour to Staten Island sets up some of Ray’s funniest and most venomous observations yet.) We learn that Ray’s never had a relationship longer than a few weeks (which should make him seem less like a predator in his relationship with Shoshanna, if anybody out there still feels that way) while an unusually incisive Adam compares dating Hannah to a rigged midway game with a prize he doesn’t really want anyway. He obviously still cares about Hannah, though, and the boys’ little team-up collapses when Adam thinks Ray speaks disrespectfully of her. It took a while to get there, but the dust-up was inevitable—there’s no way these two mercurial personalities could coexist for long.
When Ray tries to return the dog alone, he realizes its owners don’t really care about it and winds up verbally emasculated by a profanely hilarious and extremely mean teenage girl. For the second time in three weeks an episode of Girls ends with Ray crying, this time with an unwanted dog wearing a muzzle made of dirty socks while staring at Manhattan from across the water like the failed, rage-filled Staten Islanders he insulted earlier. At 33 Ray is the oldest of the core characters. He might be the only one with a steady and semi-responsible job, but he’s as emotionally adrift as any of the underemployed or irresponsible twentysomethings he hangs out with. He’s both arrogant and intensely self-loathing, a combo that regularly manifests itself as open hostility, and now that we’ve seen beyond that hateful exterior Ray has become perhaps the most sympathetic character on the show.
Hannah, in turn, might actually be the least sympathetic of the major characters. By justifying her worst behavior as research for her writing, she underscores both how intentional and selfish that behavior is. It’s working on a professional level—apparently her jazzhate.com essays convinced a publisher played by John Cameron Mitchell to publish her debut eBook—but it’s taken a toll on her friendships. Her relationship with Marnie now consists of unanswered texts, phone-calls filled with lies and pauses, and minimal face-to-faces that are as awkward as they are brief. At this point they’re basically just friends out of inertia and habit. This angle’s feeling a little flat after a few weeks. Everything we know about their friendship makes it feel more like a result of them being at the same place at the same time than any sort of deeper emotional or intellectual connection. They were friends in college because you need friends in college and they found each other before finding anybody else. Watching them grow apart isn’t particularly powerful or emotionally engaging, but it is probably the most realistic aspect of the show. Hannah almost seems like an unwitting parasite on the more stable and responsible Marnie, and now that Marnie’s life has gone a bit off track Hannah has discarded the host.
A number of factors have unsettled Marnie’s life, and her new lover Booth Jonathan is the most visible and obnoxious product of her recent confusion. Still, “Boys” even tries to garner some sympathy for this jerk. Along with Charlie’s new mustard artisan girlfriend, the vapid, casually cruel, and undeservedly confident Jonathan has been one of the show’s most overtly negative portrayals—he’s basically a one-note stereotype of the conceited artist who cares more about hype than art. He throws a party that’s nominally for his friend and fellow artist Strider (not the videogame ninja, but the Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig), but it’s really about Booth Jonathan and his awesome taste in expensive wine and how fun and cool his parties are. Marnie takes it as a sign of a strengthening relationship when Jonathan asks her to host his party, but when he later tries to negotiate a price for her services she learns she isn’t his girlfriend but, like the assistant he fired earlier in the episode, just a girl he sleeps with and uses to boost his ego. When Marnie lists off why she’s attracted to him, and mentions his artwork, he breaks down, crying about how nobody cares about him, only what being friends with a successful artist like him can mean for them. It feels at first like the show is trying to make us feel sorry for an otherwise unabashed lout, much like it did with Adam and Ray. But then Jonathan’s teary speech devolves into a petty, childish rant about how he hates all his friends and everything about his life. Unlike Adam and Ray, who became more mature and relatable to us after their own emotional breakdowns, Booth Jonathan’s breakdown reinforces every bad thought we’ve had about him. The fact that Marnie could give so much of herself and her time to this cad that basically views her as an accessory shows how unmoored she’s become this season. Marnie’s fall and the rest of “Boys” reiterates one of Girls’ most fundamental themes: nobody ever really knows what they want. As Roger Meyers Jr. said on The Simpsons, and as the name of this show seems to imply, that’s why we’re still kids.