‘Girls’ Season 4 Goes to the Writing Workshop, Gets Meta About Criticism (and Sexism)

In the first episode of the fourth season of Girls, which premieres Sunday (January 11), Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath suggests that the last four years have been a wash. Where she’s headed, she assures her parents, is more promising, or at the very least it’s a path that requires sticking to a plan. You don’t half-ass your way through the most storied MFA program in the world, after all.

On the other hand, perhaps you do. As Season 4 finds Hannah heading off to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she stays true to who she’s always been: messy, unprepared, irritating, and smug. Without her full court of varying but equally dramatic counterparts, her faults find new foils to play off. Unsurprisingly, Hannah’s peers — a highly specific mix of MFA candidate clichés — dislike not only her work, but the things that make Hannah Horvath one of TV’s most polarizing characters. This process does more for Hannah’s lacking sense of self-awareness than her advertorial stint at GQ last season — something she was frustratingly good at in spite of her precious concerns about selling out.

Hannah’s ability to feel and even start to accept the criticism of her peers signals her push towards true adulthood, rather than the perception of leveling up that accompanies the end of undergrad and its subsequent urban migration. She starts acknowledging that her pipe dream may be more difficult than she ever imagined. She’s grown into the kind of person who tells her parents, “I wanna make the right decision,” and means it with immense sincerity. For once, Hannah feels less like a Ridiculous Human and more like someone you can root for, albeit because she’s fucking up so miserably and she knows it.

Amidst the low points, however, Hannah finds ways to defend herself against low-key sexism masked as criticism, which can accompany life as a young female creative. Specifically, it accompanies Dunham’s own life as a young female creative. In one episode, she points out this hypocrisy with stunning clarity by noting that her male peers’ “acceptable” examples of stories featuring blowjob scenes were all written by men. While these small wins are clearly not enough to shut down the entire industrial complex of Dunham (and Horvath) haters for good, neutral parties may find the whole thing wonderfully meta. But he interaction is removed enough from Dunham’s own working life that it will allow her escape the criticisms hurled at Hannah in her fiction writing class: the narrator too closely resembles its creator.

If all this growing up sounds exhausting, rest assured that the first half of Season 4 is as irreverently funny as Girls has ever been. Finally, Hannah has a reason to make “voice of a generation” comments like, “Your story is like a winkie-eyed emoji followed by a poop emoji.” The addition of new settings, characters that have no reason to enable Hannah, and big changes — not just for Hannah — finds Girls reinvigorated where it easily could have been at its most disconnected. Oftentimes when a lead makes an isolated location change, a comedy flounders without its built-in situational structure; flimsy excuses are made for the character to be in town. In a more introspective work like Girls, this distance invites characters to take a hard look at their lives, both then and now.

Hannah’s not the only character going through an intense period of change this season. Jessa is in AA (and tolerable for once), Marnie is justified in taking her music dreams seriously after label interest, and Shoshanna has almost caught up to her friends after a rough patch, as far as the Real World is concerned. Emotionally, Shosh is the one to beat. Her maturity in just a short period of time — starting with when she failed to graduate last season and spanning her job search this season — has done wonders for her neurotic dialogue. Adam, too, seems to have found his zen, but I suspect this will change if the show plans to keep Adam Driver as a regular (which is a no-brainer given his talent). In Hannah’s absence, he connects with Jessa in a way that expands his function on Girls, but as it stands, it just doesn’t feel like enough to sustain his presence. Something must change.

For a show that started as a character study masquerading as an ensemble dramedy, Girls has found a way to give its leading characters their own separate lives while dialing back some of their more cartoonish features. The struggle this season may very well be the fight to stay together, amidst distance and the search for self-actualization — bathtub cupcake optional this time.