When last I saw Hannah Horvath, she was killing me softly in her sleep.* It was the end of the first-season finale of Girls (HBO, Sundays at 9 p.m.), and our heroine had drifted off on a Coney Island-bound subway, passing out perchance to screen her own coming-of-age story. Hannah was a young writer in old New York. She was trying to be a personal essayist and trying to be a fully formed person. She was hapless and half-empty, eager to find her place in the world and desperate for esteem, self- and otherwise. You could call her adventures serio-comic if you were willing to let that hyphen do the tricky work of linking the gutting immediacy of screaming matches with freak instances of wry absurdist satire.
The project of Girls is to explore intimacy intimately, and so it often leads the audience to bed and through the dream states created by young love and other street drugs. The pilot introduced the idea that Hannah’s journey involves playing hide-and-seek with herself in the sheets, through sex-play power games with her guy and nutritive spooning with her best friend, and it ended with her pushed from the queen-sized womb of her parents’ hotel room, where she woke to a cut cord. Hannah is a fantastic sleeper—an 11-hour-a-night gal ever since she got mono at Oberlin, she says, in a pirouette of self-pity—and series creator Lena Dunham, playing her, choreographs many expressive mattress flops and weary headboard hang-outs.
All of which built toward the end of the first-season finale—one of those conclusions that is especially gratifying for seeming unpredictable before the fact and retrospectively inevitable. Hannah boarded the subway after an evening that had been exhausting and volatile but exhilarating even in its sadness and confusion. She had watched her best friend, Jessa, impetuously marry a probable jerk, and though she had seen her other best friend, Marnie, at the surprise ceremony, it was through the invisible partition of their recent estrangement. Hannah’s last conversation with her love interest, Adam (played by Adam Driver), ended with her unthinkingly hurting him and a passing driver randomly hurting him physically and then him deliberately hurting her—a little chain of vast carelessness.
She boarded the F—and then the sight of it elevating inexorably over what Hannah calls “grown-up Brooklyn” set us on track to understand that she had nodded off. We have all been there, metaphorically, in our 20s—personally out of service while the system rumbles on indifferent to our vulnerability. When she awoke at the end of line, her purse was gone. When she stepped onto the elevated platform and asked the homegirls in distance where she was, they told her “heaven.” Her drive to shape the mess of her life into a compelling narrative—to make her mistakes into essays—led her to walk to the beach, to the edge of the city and everything, where the melancholy sand glittered as in Stardust Memories. Hannah had in the immediate moment nothing but a piece of a cake from a wedding celebrating a marriage that was doomed to fail, and she ate it. Hannah licked icing from her fingers with certain satisfaction, digesting material. Dunham—completing the season’s pattern of delicious food scenes, satisfying for a moment her radical creative appetite—presented a portrait of the artist as the girl with the most cake.
Hannah’s adventures continue, at the start of the second season, at a confident pace. It feels as if Dunham has decided that, having gotten your attention, she wants to test it a bit. She has hurried to make waiting a theme, directing shadowed scenes of should-I-stay-or-go suspense and writing the phrase “blue balls” into anticlimactic nonsex scenes. The conflicts simmer in long scenes of recrimination and rejection. The fast nights of youthful indulgence crawl in a way that may make your skin wriggle as decisions made badly and quickly linger like unwanted guests. Tellingly, teasingly, Girls takes forever to reintroduce the electromagnet of actress Jemima Kirke, who plays Jessa. (But when it does, it’s with the symmetry that is a mark of its style, showing her in a taxi cab, just as we originally saw her, an international hobo dreaming of a stable home.) All of this happens (or doesn’t happen) with the action slack but the atmosphere tense. The early episodes of this season are in a minor key.
But we begin with a return to home, to Hannah’s apartment, where the camera slides up two legs, four legs, three arms—locating two people cuddling like puppies. Hannah used to cuddle with Marnie, before they fell out and/or grew apart and Marnie moved out and on. This is a new leg of Hannah’s race to succeed, belonging to her new roommate, Elijah (Andrew Rannells), who is her gay ex-boyfriend, and this patient examination of intimacy launches with his apology. “I’m sorry I have a boner,” he says. “It’s not for you.”
But whose bell does Hannah toll? Adam is still in the picture. She nurses his injuries; he licks his wounds and at the start of things is still giving her something emotionally, in his complicated way, which looks artfully or exploitive seductive, depending on the light. Simultaneously, she is romping around on the rebound, you might say, with a young Republican named Sandy (Donald Glover). Or you might not say rebound, because it might touch off one of the charged discussions that constitute the most interesting part of their relationship: a booty-call alliance between a white liberal and a black conservative.
There is a good bit at the end of the second-season opener—one of the show’s many dance scenes, really—where Hannah, having earned a small measure of self-assurance, goes to one of these guys’ apartments and colorfully announces her intent to get it on. She approaches his empty bed steadily, shedding layers on the way, strutting a striptease not for his eyes but for herself and reclining in a foxy posture that is not a pose.
And meanwhile Shoshanna bobbed her hair. I am loving the new haircut of the youngest and girliest Girls girl, a new look indicating instantly that she has become a real woman, in the you-know-what-I-mean sense. Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) lost her virginity to sarcastic Ray (Alex Karpovsky), as the wedding episode suggested she would.* Back then, they connected after she—distraught by cousin Jessa’s matrimonial leap into the arms of a venture capitalist tool—fumed, “Everyone’s a dumb whore.” Right now, it looks like that exclamation has implications for the questions Girls asks this season. Hannah’s quest for life experience and literary material leads her to conduct a bad-judgment hookup “for work”; Elijah likes the way that his rich older boyfriend pays for things and maybe sees a future for himself as a trophy (“Maybe I want to be Wendi Murdoch, maybe that’s the new me”); Jessa looks like woman kept her in own home.
And then there is the interesting case of Allison Williams’ Marnie Michaels who, laid off from her position as a gallery-assistant, takes a “pretty-person job” waiting tables in short-shorts.* In combination with Girls’ tightly organized loose chatter about money—Jessa lecturing on the Glass-Steagall Act with the assurance that comes only to the ignorant, Hannah coming on to supply-side Sandy by asking to see not his etchings but his Fountainhead—these conversions of flesh into treasure look like a theme coming into view.
Something about self-worth and commodity fetishism? Or how money never sleeps but moneymakers must? Maybe? I will be among the people thinking it over, just a bit obsessively, as the season goes on. When this show first appeared, I went quite off my head for it in these pages, struck by its emotional rawness and stunned by its artistic composure. When I read that Dunham had bought an apartment across from my shrink’s office, for a delusional moment the purchase struck me as wasteful: Hadn’t she already bugged the place? And when I see the second season of Girls playing its scene of post-collegiate train wreck in slow motion, I am eager to hurry up and wait.
Correction, Jan. 11, 2013: This review misspelled basically everyone’s name. It’s Hannah Horvath, not Hannah Hovrath; Marnie is played by Allison Williams, not Alison Williams; and Ray is played by Alex Karpovsky, not Zosia Mamet.