Depending on your perspective, Lena Dunham either can’t win or she can’t lose. She can’t win, because whatever she does, she comes in for extreme scrutiny and criticism, and not just the standard vitriol reserved for most famous people, but the type that, this summer, got her labeled as a child molester for sharing a funny story in her memoir about her childish curiosity about vaginas. She can’t lose, because she’s Lena Dunham, an unduly privileged white woman whose every action creates a maelstrom of attention that ultimately only lends itself to the greater glory of Lena Dunham.
Like all partisan issues in America right now, when it comes to Dunham, sides have long since been picked and emotions run high. There is almost nothing to which both parties can agree, except, perhaps, that she inspires strong feelings. (Smugness about not caring about Lena Dunham counts as a strong feeling.) Things being as they are, it is incumbent upon me to state my biases: I am a registered Dunhamite and a habitual admirer of her and Jenni Konner’s television show, Girls, which returns for a particularly sharp fourth season this Sunday on HBO. As the new season begins, and we all head to our appointed and familiar battle stations, strapping on our dented and hard-used armor, readying our think-piece battering rams, I find myself—foolishly, I’m sure—optimistic that before it is done we will all agree on something else: that Lena Dunham is indefatigable. Love her, hate her, she won’t be stopped.
The new season of Girls begins in what I think of as the ideal Girls weather: warm with a chance of abhorrent antics. This stands in contrast to Seasons 2 and 3, in which the Girls weather was muggy with a 100 percent chance of an asshole hurricane. Since the show debuted, Dunham and Konner have been feistily responsive to critiques of the series. Season 1 began as a now almost unrecognizably earnest exploration of the messy lives of affluent post-collegiate women—and yet it was greeted, by some, with passionate and cacophonous distaste. The girls were unlikeable, spoiled, even racist. Rather than retreat, in Season 2 the characters became more emphatically all of these things. The series became more obviously satirical and biting, sending up its heroines’ increasingly outsized and repugnant behavior. Season 3, continuing the trend, began with Amy Schumer, as a kind of rabid audience stand-in, calling Hannah Horvath (Dunham) and Adam Sackler (Adam Driver) “feral animals,” and barely looked back.
The fourth season, judging from the five episodes I’ve seen, is the first to retrench, ever so slightly, on its characters’ monstrosity. For the first time in a while, the girls resemble irritating, self-obsessed, highly watchable human beings, rather than amped-up caricatures of same. As the season begins, Hannah is preparing to leave New York City to get her MFA at Iowa. She and her boyfriend Adam (Driver, a truly great actor, who continues to explore the evocative power of the grunt), intend to stay together, but have no concrete plan for how to do so. Jessa (Jemima Kirke), now in AA, is furious at Hannah for leaving, but in perfectly Jessa fashion, refuses to admit she cares about anything. Marnie (Allison Williams) is having a torrid affair with her musical soulmate Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who still has a girlfriend. Together, Marnie and Desi are inflicting pitch-perfect singer-songwriter schlock on SoHo-based brunchers. Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) has gotten enough credits to graduate from NYU and has ceased to sound like an uptalking alien, now sounding, more often than not, like an uptalking recent college graduate.
The show and Hannah then quickly relocate to Iowa, with its seemingly idyllic cornfields and huge apartments, where they are joined by the glorious Elijah (Andrew Rannells, the series’ most reliably funny player). Girls has always been more matter-of-fact about friendship than the strictures of television typically allow. On TV, a show about four buddies usually requires those buddies to spend time together. Girls has never had much truck with this. In Season 2, the girls didn’t all hang out for more than half the season. (Shosh and Jessa don’t seem like Marnie-loving people anyway.) With Hannah ensconced in Iowa, this disconnection is more pronounced than ever, though all the wide-open space seems to be good for the girls’ friendships, which are in more affectionate shape than usual. It is also good for Girls itself. The episodes look gorgeous, and they have a springy energy: Iowa may not be as wonderful as it first seems, but everyone needs to get out of claustrophobic New York City from time to time, preferably to dirty dance with some undergraduates in terrible clothes. (The costume designer of Girls this season has clearly had a blast not sparing Hannah any sartorial indignity.)
The Iowa episodes are assured, snappy, funny, and build to what is, back in New York, the most heartfelt installment since the series started—and all of this is almost beside the point, or at least beside the ecosystem of conversation that subsists on Girls and Dunham, which is going to feast on the new way that Dunham has found to be irrepressibly provocative: the MFA seminar.
At her first class at Iowa, Hannah’s work is ripped to shreds by her cohort, a group of students who, in their diversity, are already an implicit send-up of Girls’ storied white-washedness. Hannah’s piece is a lightly fictionalized account of a heavily tattooed girl (named “Anna”) and her borderline abusive sexual relationship with a man. It is very early Hannah-Adam. Her classmates hate it. “It’s about a really privileged girl deciding she’s going to let someone abuse her,” one female student recaps. Another is offended by the way it trivializes those suffering from real abuse. One man thinks it’s full of “stunted feminist ideas.” Another woman doesn’t know how to respond to it, since it is so obviously nonfiction. “I had the chance to speak with Hannah yesterday, and she is very much this character,” she says. Another agrees: “I had the same problem, and I never even met her.”
This is a rapid-fire volley of just some of the critiques that have been launched at Girls and Dunham since the show premiered: that Girls is the work of a clueless, privileged white girl full of half-baked ideas based only on Dunham’s personal experience, since, just look at Lena Dunham, obviously she is Hannah Horvath. But Girls is not just lampooning its haters: However ridiculous and judgmental Hannah’s MFA classmates may be, Hannah is even more so. First of all, her story really is bad. Before reading it aloud she smugly cautions that there are “triggering aspects of the piece, so I just want you to feel free to quietly leave the room, or express your emotional reaction in any way that feels safe,” completely certain her piece will be deeply felt. She is unprepared for any criticism, all of which she takes badly, more or less refusing to believe any of it. At a bar after class, she “realizes” that the woman who was offended by her story “must” have been the victim of abuse. “I knew aspects of the story would be triggering, but I didn’t imagine just how close to home it would hit,” Hannah says, hiding out in the gargantuan delusion that no one could dislike her piece unless they had been assaulted.
Obviously, by satirizing her critics, their criticism, and herself, simultaneously, Dunham is throwing chum in think-piece–infested waters. It will be enraging to those people who are already enraged by Girls, who won’t see the showdown between Hannah and her cohort as one in which everyone gets egg on their faces, but rather a clever way for Dunham to laugh off certain critiques. It’s true that however scathing the indictment of Hannah and her talent, Dunham, underneath all the jokes, does believe, fundamentally, in the power of women like Hannah—which is to say, all women—telling their stories, however banal they may be. And yet, the MFA scenes are to me a marvel: Even while doing all of this meta–heavy lifting, they are sardonic, bitter, closely observed, and funny. Making an MFA class—any MFA class!—work as a piece of entertainment is in and of itself a coup. Making an MFA class that is actually also a referendum on all things Girls work as a piece of entertainment is a triumph.
The indignities of MFA process don’t end for Hannah with the aforementioned incident, but continue on and on. She keeps making mistakes. She can’t write. Feeling pigeonholed, she pigeonholes her classmates. Iowa may be beautiful, but it’s lonely, full of bats and bike thieves. If previous seasons of Girls sought to separate Lena Dunham from her alter ego by turning Hannah Horvath into a little monster, this season Girls tries another tack. After a couple of weeks in a judgmental environment that is nonetheless not nearly as heated as the one surrounding Girls itself, Hannah starts to think that her tiny apartment and inconsistent friends back in New York City weren’t so bad after all. So she does something Lena Dunham never does: She quits.