Grander and More Dramatic: HBO's Girls and Female Friendship
In the closing moments of Girls’ third episode, "All Adventurous Women Do,” Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) sits dejectedly in front of her laptop screen. She’s had it rough in the short time we’ve met her, to say the least. Naturally, she needs to compose a witty tweet about her current situation, when - a song starts to play. Not just any song - Robyn’s electronic anthem "Dancing On My Own." No sooner has Hannah busted out to the stylings of the Swedish pop diva has Marnie (Allison Williams) arrived home. The recently dejected Hannah cheerfully informs her best friend that her ex-boyfriend, who probably gave her HPV, is gay. The two girls dance, they hug it out. A previously bad day is all at once mended by a pop song and a friend.
Seventeen episodes later, in the show’s season two finale, Marnie reads the first sentence of Hannah’s ebook off the very same laptop - "a friendship between college girls is grander and more dramatic than any romance." She smiles sadly. It’s a neat summation of the rocky road of Marnie and Hannah’s friendship, a relationship addressed with a unique candour present from the pilot episode’s establishing shot - when we’re introduced to their friendship by way of the two girls peacefully spooning together in bed. The two girls share a bathtub and throw a welcome home party for their returning friend, even though one of them doesn’t like her all that much. And yet, the biggest strength of Dunham’s series is the constant state of flux of Hannah and Marnie’s friendship, and by extension their relationships with Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet).
The first season of Girls was one of discovery - Hannah coming to terms with her newfound financial independence, navigating her quasi-relationship with Adam (Adam Driver), while Marnie eventually cuts Charlie loose and recognises that her dream career might not be one that she wants. It was a season that saw Hannah and Marnie spooning together, comforting each other, and slamming doors shut in anger. They have their fair share of fights, but they’re the best of friends.
Season two was about backlash. Hannah brings Elijah (Andrew Rannells) back into her life as her roommate, only to cut him out once again after learning that he drunkenly slept with Marnie. It’s a rift in Hannah and Marnie’s friendship that permeates the entire season - but Elijah and Marnie’s barely there encounter never seemed like the complete cause. They are not the same close friends from the first season - the same establishing shot from the pilot episode is replicated with Hannah and her new roommate, showing that Hannah’s horizons are broadening beyond her post college confusion. It’s a season that saw both girls floundering, but emerging with various levels of triumph - Adam rescues Hannah in her darkest hour, and Marnie finally reunites with Charlie after a season of back and forth.
When we begin season three, however, things have taken a downward turn for Marnie. Charlie has dumped her unceremoniously, she’s without a job, and her friendship with Hannah hasn’t really mended itself since their last fight. Marnie calls Hannah to hang out, to come play with her new kitten, to see her new apartment.
Hannah, however, is going great, and largely avoiding contact with her best friend. Her relationship with Adam is going swimmingly, and she has a promising ebook deal. It’s a marker of Hannah’s narcissism that she doesn’t offer Marnie the same level of support that she once received, but we’ve all had a friendship where one person does most of the heavy lifting.
It’s an unspoken tenet of grand and romantic female friendships that things go unsaid for as long as possible. As to why, I’m not totally sure - but it means everyone can at least pretend that things are fine, even though they might be slowly crumbling around you. When you no longer have enough in common with the girl who ate the cupcake next to you in the bath, it’s often so hard to leave because the breakup is no one’s fault. Girls hold fast to their friendships, because letting them go usually means sad revelations about moving on. It upholds the relative day to day normalcy of your group of friends - nothing brings girls closer together than trash talking a common enemy, something we’ve seen on Girls many a time - but confrontation bides its time until things reach a tipping point.
So Hannah and Marnie’s long gestating tensions come to a head in season three’s sixth episode, "Beach House." Marnie rents a holiday house on Long Island for the four friends to prove to their internet acquaintances just how much fun they’re having. But while Marnie is thrilled at the prospect of a meticulously planned bonding weekend with her college friends, Hannah wants out.
Naturally, things come to a head in a big way. Shoshanna proclaims that she’s "fucking sick of all of you," while Hannah storms off shouting that she misses her boyfriend - which proves just how far we’ve come since Marnie avoided sleeping next to her boyfriend at the series’ beginning. In the heat of the argument, Hannah cries "it’s not like any of us have had any fun together in the last two years" - the ultimate suggestion that maybe that the girls have moved up and moved on from the golden age of their friendship.
But then, at "Beach House"’s end, Hannah and company sit quietly at the side of the road, waiting for a bus back to the city, and wordlessly mime their choreography from the night before in perfect sync. They might be sick of each other, but no one’s ready to move on just yet.
This tentative reconciliation that Lena Dunham offers up speaks to the lack of rules regarding when to call it quits on a friendship. While there’s definitive conversations to be had for the start and end of romantic relationships - something we’ve seen on all scales in Girls - there’s an ebb and flow to female friendships that very rarely reaches a sudden death. Hannah and Marnie can still be best friends in the middle of a fight, or relative acquaintances as a result of nothing in particular. Hannah’s exclamation that the friendship of Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna is two years past its expiration date invites a sad realisation - we’ve seen plenty of highs and lows in the Hannah and Marnie’s dramatic friendship, but we probably haven’t seen them at their best, and we probably won’t get the chance.
So as Girls moves forward to its fourth season, where can it go from here? Can it realistically be anything besides the narrative of the end of a friendship?
I don’t think so, but I think that could be the show’s greatest accomplishment. It speaks to notions of change, of evolution, of growing up. As Hannah Horvath would say, it would be a step towards Hannah and Marnie "living their truth." The grand and romantic friendship may have run its course, but you’ll always have fond memories of that friend, your bedroom, and that one song by Robyn.