Lena Dunham, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, and Allison Williams (Photo: HBO)

As many recent essays and oral histories have argued, Girls has had an outsize influence on television that it doesn’t get credit for, at least not as much as it once did. One pillar of the show’s legacy is its diligent efforts to blur the lines between comedy and drama. Lena Dunham revels in the gray area between the tragic and the comic, evinced by such early scenes as Hannah bombing a job interview because she simply couldn’t help making a weird joke about date rape. Despite Girls’ long history of experimenting with tone, there are few examples of the show hitting the sweet spot for an entire episode. Season five seemed like a return to form because suddenly it felt like the sliders on the Girls’ soundboard were finally at just the right levels. But it was more like the achievement of a balance the show had never quite achieved, and with “Hostage Situation,” Dunham shows off the confidence she’s built up just in time for Girls’ farewell season.

“Hostage Situation,” which Dunham wrote and directed, is one of the most purely funny episodes of Girls, but like that infamous job-interview scene, many of the laughs come during awkward, and even disturbing moments. The episode title refers to the A-story in this very traditional sitcom structure, in which Hannah joins Marnie and Desi on a secret romantic weekend away while Ray remains blissfully, tragically unaware that his girlfriend is cheating on him with her soon-to-be ex-husband. In the season premiere, it wasn’t clear if Marnie and Desi’s tearful dalliance was a one-time Fleetwood Mac moment or part of a larger pattern, but that question has been put to rest by another awkward sex scene, the kind only Girls can do. This episode opens with the former husband and wife at the peak of climax, but she gets to the finish line before he does, leaving her to self-flagellate over her infidelity while he flops against her like a suffocating sturgeon. Instead of a stab of music over the title card, there is only the rhythmic pounding and grunting of Desi’s the-struggle-is-real orgasm. Allison Williams’ facial expressions are enough to make me forgive Marnie for all the times she’s gotten on my nerves. (Okay, so maybe not all the times.)

In part because there’s no music, that scene seems to bleed directly into the next one, which finds Hannah and Elijah talking over the weekend she’s about to have while Elijah fires off bon mots at a furious pace. I’m a fan of any scene that fully unleashes Elijah’s id, and this scene is a great example of why. Andrew Rannells is a perfect vessel for Dunham’s bitchiest dialogue, exemplified by his disdainful pronunciation of “Poughkeepsie” and his perfect response to hearing Marnie and Desi are considering anal sex: “He’s not getting anything up Marnie’s ass.” Elijah asks Hannah why she can’t just stay in Brooklyn, which gives Hannah a chance to rationalize what she knows is a really dumb decision. Hannah doesn’t actually have to go to Poughkeepsie, thereby joining Marnie and Desi on their “psychosexual hamster wheel,” but she’s ultimately a drama queen who is naturally drawn to stories like that of Staten Island’s most durable sex cult. Of course she’s going to go, and that’s a blessing, because there are few stories Girls knows how to tell better than a road trip.

Meanwhile, Shoshanna enlists Elijah to accompany her to a professional women’s mixer organized by Zeva and Rachel, college friends she froze out in favor of hanging out with Jessa. Since then, Zeva and Rachel have cofounded two enterprises with equally stupid names. There’s Jamba Jeans, which seems like a cease-and-desist letter waiting to happen, and W.E.M.E.N., the networking group for which Shosh has coughed up a $2,000 annual membership fee. But after being strongly dissuaded from coming, Jessa crashes the event dressed up in Working Girl drag, which is kind of a dick move in itself. It’s as if Jessa, despite being desperate for non-Adam companionship, doesn’t feel like she can attend the event without commenting on it in some way. She trashes the event and shames Shosh for wanting to be a part of it, and Shosh’s reaction shows how much she’s grown. Shosh is definitely overplaying her hand when she blames Jessa for blocking her Jamba Jeans blessing—they’re getting into T-shirts now!—but she’s justified in being completely fed up with Jessa’s over-it-all bullshit. The “free-spirited attitude” that once looked so cool and interesting to a young and naïve Shosh now looks like a sad hipster who puts more into mocking life than most people do into living it.

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But Hannah makes an even more dramatic display of newfound maturity as her weekend with Marnie and Desi inevitably flies off the rails. Things are actually off to a pretty good start in Poughkeepsie, with Hannah managing to draft some of her sex-cult story and the other two wheels mostly keeping it together by Marnie-and-Desi standards. Hannah even gets a gift, a tea set from a witchy woman in an antiques shop who shares the unlikely tale of how a potentially deadly jolt of electricity convinced her to upend her faux-glamorous life in the Manhattan fashion scene and move to the country. It’s an odd little scene, but an effective one, and it shows off Dunham’s ability to craft dialogue that sounds really stylized but also, somehow, like actual people talking. But the tea set gets broken when a strung-out Desi tries to break back into the house after being ejected by Hannah and Marnie for his violent behavior. The shots of Hannah and Marnie forcing Desi out while he screams slurs at him are as unsettling as they are hysterical.

Not long ago, this would have ended much differently. After all, the tea set broke, and it was such a powerful symbol of the little surprises life can hand you when you commit to being present and experiencing life fully. Hannah never once mentions the tea set and is refreshingly nonjudgmental about the whole thing. There have been lots of moments between these two where Hannah has told Marnie she isn’t judging her and will back her choices no matter what, but each of those moments smacks of effort while this one doesn’t. Hannah is being sincere when she tells Marnie she’s done with that phase, and she’s ready to do what lifelong friends do, which is stick around even when the other person makes dumb choices. It seems as if Hannah has brought some of the carefree joy she found with Paul-Louis in Montauk back to Brooklyn, and even to Poughkeepsie, which means she’s learning which feedback to ignore and what to hold onto. These characters are definitely growing up, but in a subtle way that feels true to the show. Onward and upward.

Stray observations

  • Kudos to the person who came up with the idea to put Elijah in a “I Survived The 3rd Season of Ally McBeal” T-shirt (and nothing else.)
  • Rachel and Zeva seem pretty awful to me, so maybe Shosh dodged two bullets in favor of one big one.
  • Marnie and Hannah’s simultaneous “shut the fuck up” to Desi is #squadgoals.
  • Ebon Moss-Bachrach has gotten really, really great at playing this character.

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