Girls Review: "All I Ever Wanted" Mixes the Sweet and the Bitter

(Episode 6.01)

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<i>Girls</i> Review: "All I Ever Wanted" Mixes the Sweet and the Bitter

Kathryn VanArendonk, writing for Vulture, defines Girls by its relationship to audiences and performers, which makes sense when you have a protagonist like Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham), who needs to be the center of attention, and a creator (also Dunham) whose public presence tells much the same story. While I agree that its characters are performing for themselves and others (in exaggerated versions of what we all do in our daily lives), my take on the series is a bit different.

Girls is interesting not for its relatable characters (what some theorists call “first level identification,” which typical Hollywood fare goes after with its moral, cat-saving heroes), nor for our judgment of those characters (what the same theorists call “second level identification,” which we get when we hate-watch something because we relate to others hate-watching it). Rather, Girls has a third level of identification, which it creates with its dedication to representing a particular slice of society in all its lived-in reprehensibility. We recognize (even if we’ve never been there) that this may not be everyone’s New York, but it’s certainly someone’s New York. Seeing how these lives play out in this alien yet realistic environment is as strange as watching a comedy of complicated people living on an Arctic base.

Girls’ sense of specificity is both exclusive and inclusive: While we may recognize our mistakes in those of its characters, the show’s heightened punishments and rewards for these mistakes push the boundaries of what we can believe. Whether it’s a record deal for Marnie (Allison Williams) or a book deal for Hannah, it’s just hard to imagine things going well for them. “All I Ever Wanted,” the first episode of the series’ final season, stretches this further by placing its characters in false utopias and watching them begin to itch inside their self-constructed constraints.

Hannah, as the opening montage suggests, has finally gotten back to writing. Thankfully, the struggle to show writing on screen (and Hannah’s own valuation of the writing process) means we spend little time on the shots of Hannah biting her lip and clicking on emails. Instead, the montage lingers on the pride her “Modern Love” article, inspired by Adam (Adam Driver) and Jessa’s (Jemima Kirke) romance, generates in the people around her. Her family, her friends and her subjects all read the paper in wonder. It’s a montage of character updates done only as Girls could: through their appreciation of Hannah’s professional life.

Hannah spins this new spotlight into an interview. At a coffee shop, she wears a yellow, double-rider motorcycle jacket as bright as her disposition, and receives an assignment from a magazine editor (Chelsea Peretti): to experience and write about the appropriation of surfer culture by wealthy old women who’ve moved on from yoga. Of course, Hannah takes the professional opportunity to mention her vagina because she’s on-brand as an over-sharing parody. This somehow fails to faze her editor—maybe Hannah’s finally found the outlet she’s been missing.

Before embarking on this quest, the episode stops in on the other characters. Oh, and mentions that Elijah (Andrew Rannells) will be renting out Hannah’s room for an orgy (which sounds vaguely like a fellow critic’s AirBnB horror story) while she’s away.

Ray (Alex Karpovsky) and Marnie have devolved into a relationship whose superficial cuteness (they call each other “baby” every sentence) belies its complexity. Ray’s been living in her new place for months and Marnie, still going through her divorce from Desi, has decided that now is the time for space. Her new therapist recommends it. Ray proposes Shosh (Zosia Mamet) as a housing solution, which baffles Marnie. How could you be around someone you dated and not sleep with them? This is the dorm-room conflict Marnie must address over and over again.

Ray’s removal takes him back to Adam’s place, where he technically lives. Adam and Jessa are still living in their nude sex dungeon, quarantining Ray’s furniture and clothing behind a sheet in the apartment’s corner, lest the lingering reek of maturity seep into the rest of the home. Their fantasy world has shut out adulthood, responsibility, and especially the need for clothes. It’s never a good sign when Adam goes shirtless too long (he was topless for most of the first season), and his wild-haired freedom has enabled Jessa to do the same.

The rest of the episode focuses on establishing the same sort of utopia for Hannah; of course, because it’s her, she fights it the entire time. The outdoors are bad, the sun is too bright, physical activity is hard: We’ve seen this self-aware millennial shtick from Hannah many times before. It’s not until she gets to know surfing instructor Paul-Louis (Riz Ahmed, in a bit of inspired casting) that her assignment becomes interesting. Ahmed, whose delivery is as far from “Matthew McConaughey Hell” (as Hannah calls it) as humanly imaginable, embodies a dorky, people-facing, put-on charm that anyone who’s ever been to corporate training or on a bus tour will recognize.

Hannah’s ego-driven libido kicks in and they start drinking, which allows for a dance scene to turn the professional exhibitionism of the opening montage into literal exhibitionism—a strip-club nightmare of neon drinks and floral prints. Ahmed gets to rap (yes, he performs in real life as Riz MC), not only drunkenly but in an American accent, which is both fun and impressive. The warm saturation of these shots, from the dancing to their awkward sex in a bunk bed at the aptly named Memory Motel, stands in stark rebuttal to Hannah’s surf training. Out there, the sky is bleak and she’s separated from her fellow students by both ability and enthusiasm. Inside, drinking, Hannah’s in her element.

This sequence, despite the similar levels of nudity, is much more understanding of Hannah’s choices than the cold judgment of Season Two’s “Bad Friend,” in which her cocaine adventure ends beneath the glaring halogens of a drugstore. But it’s primarily thanks to Ahmed that “All I Ever Wanted” reads as sweet and not simply painful. When Hannah gets defensive about her pubic hair, Paul-Louis reassures her both sexually and personally, deftly finding the hard-to-peg pitch of genuine, dimwitted, non-threatening care. The two even share a beachfront sex scene that exemplifies what the series does best, which is to undermine fantasies (of being a New Yorker, a professional writer, someone that has Baywatch sex) without turning into parody. Even their romantic mistakes (a licked eye or a sandy finger) are charming because of their recognizable imperfection.

Girls, and Dunham as a director, have finally learned how to show interesting differences in sex through how the series is filmed, rather than the animalistic positions in which its participants engage. Hannah’s on-the-nose speech about her friends (and the series itself) defining themselves by what they hate rather than what they enjoy addresses the series’ transparent negativity in an episode where most of its characters seem happier than ever. This captures a moment in which, thanks to the Internet echo chambers of curated Twitter feeds, specific subreddits and muted Facebook friends, people have defined themselves by what they want to avoid or fight against. That environment leaves even Paul-Louis’ brodacious rebellion—leaving his family in Detroit to be a world-traveling extreme sports instructor/enthusiast straight out of a GoGurt commercial—to suggest keen insight into the generational search for self-definition.

This search could lead them to taking potshots at Paul Krugman (as Ray and Shosh do when the former gives up on trying to stay with Adam and Jessa), sleeping with their pathetic husband (Please, Marnie why are you doing this?) or listening to their beach-bonfire neighbor cover “She’s So High” on his acoustic guitar. However the characters return to easy, unchallenging familiarity, their respective utopias are a symptom of their need for reassurance. Six seasons in and they’re still scared of doing it on their own.

Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.