Girls is not a very plot-heavy show. If you enjoy the show—as most of us do, it would seem—it’s almost always because of something other than the plot, which is fairly standard stuff about young women coming to New York to make their fortune. (Lena Dunham even said as much in an excellent podcast with Grantland’s Bill Simmons earlier this week. If you’re a fan of the show or a hater of the show, I recommend it. It will only add fuel to your arguments.) The show is more interesting for things like its character work or its point-of-view than its wildly original stories about life as a young person. It has plenty of insight into that world, but it’s not remarkably different from the sorts of things that, say, Edith Wharton was writing about, except Wharton’s female characters had far fewer options than Dunham’s do. This is a show about character, theme, and perspective, first and foremost. And maybe every once in a while, it does something cool with the plot, but it’s generally connected to those three things. (Think, for instance, of how season one gradually reveals that the show is just as critical of Hannah as many of its viewers are.)
However, even by these very loose standards, “Incidentals” is almost an entirely plotless episode of Girls, dedicated much more to setting things up for the season’s final four episodes than anything else. Some of the stuff that’s set up is interesting, but it’s also not the show’s most gripping or insightful half hour. It’s the kind of thing you watch in a binge of the show and forget almost entirely about because you’re waiting for the next big comic set piece or the next big meltdown. There’s nothing wrong with these sorts of episodes. They’re vital to making a TV show like this keep running. But outside of the fact that it’s a largely pleasant, breezy half-hour, dedicated to making us laugh and spending some time with the characters, I don’t have a lot to say about “Incidentals” I haven’t already said about the rest of the season. So let’s watch me try!
If I have a major criticism of the season, it would be that in the times when the show is setting a lot of stuff up to fall over later in the season, it has had a weird tendency to lean on devices that are, for lack of a better word, sitcommy. It’s able to get away with things like this because it has so many strong actors and guest stars, but on some level, a montage of Jessa trying to amuse herself at work while being cripplingly bored (a setup for her later plunge from the wagon) set to a pop song is always going to feel a little too easy. It’s a device, but one that doesn’t bother to even slightly disguise itself. The same goes for much of this episode, actually, even a scene I found as delightful as Hannah getting advice about the Broadway experience from Patti LuPone, advice obviously constructed to make her paranoid about what will happen to Adam now that he’s going to be up there on the stage. (The show is also probably using this as some degree of foreshadowing.) “Incidentals” just feels very constructed in a way the show often doesn’t, the story tugging a little bit harder at the characters than the other way around.
Fortunately, it also features ample amounts of funny moments to compensate. As TV comedies have learned since the format began, there’s nothing wrong with being sitcommy if you can back it up with some good jokes, and “Incidentals” has some of the funniest bits of the season, from that interview with LuPone to Adam accepting a ride from Desi because, yeah, Green Point is kind of a long walk from the Times Square area. I find the whole character of Desi a little frustrating, actually, until I consider the fact that the show might be trying to create sort of a male Marnie, a guy who coasts along on being handsome and having some degree of talent but doesn’t really do anything with it. I enjoyed a lot of his scenes—like how the others kept interrupting his story or his prior role on One Tree Hill—but then everything came down to the moment when he gave Marnie apparently sincere advice about sticking with her singing. The show’s point-of-view on Marnie’s singing is officially all over the place now, and I wish it would just pick whether she’s meant to be deluded to want to be a singer or hopeful and optimistic. Yeah, Marnie’s the butt of the joke a lot of the time on the show, but it would be good if she got some sort of victory. I just don’t believe for a second that it would come in the musical realm.
What is interesting to me is the idea of Adam being the first one to accomplish his dreams, as Elijah would have it. Hannah tries to say that they’ve all accomplished several versions of their dreams, but Adam hasn’t compromised. He got by however he could—mostly by doing very odd things and mooching off of people—but he’s made it to Broadway, almost accidentally. It’s here that I’m taken back to those fights he had with Caroline earlier in the season (and why haven’t we returned to his concern over her yet?): Adam’s someone who hasn’t really had a concrete goal all along. He keeps changing among a bunch of different potential versions of himself, and acting is just the one that stumbled forward almost to his surprise. The idea of Adam being the guy who succeeds out of this group of friends is intriguing precisely because his back-story seems almost guaranteed to eventually breed resentment among them. Even if Adam never fucks up, never cheats on Hannah, as Patti LuPone says he will, we know her well enough to know there’s going to be some jealousy that bubbles up over what he has and what she doesn’t. And that’s going to happen with all of these characters, I think.
In that sense, let’s read “Incidentals” as a kind of calm before the storm. It’s not as good as, say, “Beach House,” because calms are rarely as interesting as the storms. But it’s got a lot of stuff that happens that sets up a final act that will hopefully be slightly better foreshadowed and more cohesive than season two’s final act. Jessa falls off the wagon with the returning Jasper. Marnie and Ray break it off (for the moment, at least). Shoshanna is… graduating college, I guess. And Hannah and Adam are at once connected as tightly as they ever have been and moving in completely opposite directions. It’s possible that scene in the tub at the end was just a lovely foreshadowing of how strong this connection between the two has become. But I’ve seen enough TV to know what it looks like when we’re being set up for a very big fall.
- Richard E. Grant is such a great presence in anything he stars in, but he’s a particularly fun one here. I love the scene where he and Shoshanna talk about her future, and she drums away on her legs every time she pauses long enough to let him speak. Here’s another character who should feel like a device to get Jessa back to making terrible choices, but the strength of the performance keeps everything honest.
- That scene with Patti LuPone was really a hoot. I’m afraid I undersold it a bit, because of its clear plot device nature, but I really loved the way she functioned as so many things to Hannah in that moment. And I have been on dozens of celebrity interviews where the star might as well have been making shit up, so it was nice to see one where she actually was.
- The episode’s title comes from Hannah and company holing up in the Gramercy Park Hotel because she’s got to write an article on the 16 best things about it for her job. It’s interesting to see just how quickly Hannah has become used to the corporate culture at GQ, though she seems amazed by how big her first paycheck is. (I’ve been there, Hannah; the first one always seems huge, until you realize how much everybody else is making.)
- Elijah’s advice to Adam about how to be a star on Broadway mostly comes down to all of the places that he should go after the show and begging to get some connections. I think I get why Elijah hasn’t become the success he is in his head yet.
- I’m despondent about the end of Marnie and Ray, except I know they will be back together in a matter of weeks, because there is no force in the universe strong enough to defeat MARNIE AND RAY OTP.
- Marnie’s e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Perfect.
- Potentially interesting: Lena Dunham has directed one less episode of each season of Girls, going from five in season one to three this season (the first two and the finale). The other directors of the show have internalized her style to such a degree that this doesn’t matter, but I’m weirdly obsessed with these sorts of credits.