HBO announced recently that “Girls” will end next year, after its sixth season, which makes Season 5 (premiering this past Sunday night) a transitional period. The demands of closure, even on HBO, probably mean that the show’s four young heroines will find some form of resolution amid the continual dysfunction and comic disasters of their lives. Indeed, the tagline given to the fifth season – “Finally piecing it together” – seems to imply just that kind of movement.
So maybe the relationships the women find themselves in this season will last. Or maybe not – you can easily imagine the series ending with some or all of the quartet man-free, facing the future together. What we know is that through four of the season’s 10 episodes, all of the women are paired off, in unions old, new, tentative or possibly illusory.
Like the recent season of Amazon’s “Transparent,” “Girls” starts with a wedding. Marnie (Allison Williams) is finally marrying the barely tolerable man-child Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Hannah (Lena Dunham, the creator of “Girls”) is showing off her new, apparently normal boyfriend, her fellow schoolteacher Fran (Jake Lacy). Jessa (Jemima Kirke) is engaged in heavy flirting with Hannah’s ex, Adam (Adam Driver), and therefore wracked with guilt. Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), flying in from her new job in Tokyo, has a long-distance boyfriend in America and a crush on her Japanese boss.
True love never runs smooth on “Girls,” of course. Desi’s narcissism is a perennially blooming impediment to Marnie’s happiness, and Fran’s phone holds secrets that the relentlessly nosy Hannah soon uncovers. The only seemingly trouble-free relationship is the one that doesn’t involve any women: Elijah (Andrew Rannells) finds himself dating a television newsman played by Corey Stoll with his customary gimlet-eyed magnetism.
Overall, though, the friends’ travails are presented in a kinder and gentler manner than we’re used to, and the balance has shifted away from cringey awkwardness and toward something resembling warmth. The early episodes contain what would normally be a season’s worth of touching moments. Hannah fights tears as she reassures her recently out father, that she’ll always be there for him. When Adam misses a chance to get close to Jessa, Driver does a funny, lovely corkscrew fall to the floor.
There are even moments in the Elijah romance that border on glossy romantic-comedy sentimentality, but maybe that’s on purpose. Dunham, who wrote the premiere, has Hannah proclaim that the action is “like a really bad rom-com, that’s, like, too obvious and not funny.” You could read that as Dunham’s Tourette’s-like admission that the show is less angry this season, less in your face.
And it demonstrates once again that Dunham’s Hannah Horvath, love her or hate her, is an original comic creation, continually fighting for her right to define the world on her own terms. “I worked very, very hard to overcome the challenges of my nontraditional body type and accept myself for who I am,” she says, incensed by the pinup-style photos she finds on Fran’s phone. “I’m not going to be edged out of my own life by girls who don’t even have any interesting fat deposits on them.”
“Girls” airs at 10 p.m. Sundays on HBO.