Girls set itself apart from the rest of the premium cable dramedy pack early on with its willingness to try atypical storytelling approaches. From season one’s “The Return,” in which Hannah heads home to Michigan for Tad and Loreen’s pearl anniversary, to season four’s “Sit-In”, wherein Hannah sits shiva after finding out about Adam and Mimi-Rose, Girls has devoted itself to experiments with shrinking its space or narrowing its perspective. The most striking example, and the episode that most resembles the Marnie-centric “The Panic In Central Park,” is season two’s “One Man’s Trash,” featuring guest star Patrick Wilson as a handsome divorcé who hosts Hannah for an emotional, eventful weekend.

Lena Dunham wrote “Trash,” and Richard Shepard directed it, so it comes as no surprise that there are so many echoes of it in “Central Park.” Both episodes are lengthy duets between a man and a woman as they negotiate intimacy, and both are scenic detours for which success hinges on the audience’s investment in the featured character. “Trash” ranks among the best episodes of Girls, and the similarities are what makes “Central Park” such a daring and ultimately rewarding episode. It single-handedly revives my interest and investment in Marnie, a character I’d resigned myself to loathing somewhere in the back half of season two.

From perusing the comments for a few years now, I know Marnie is not without her share of vocal fans. But aside from a few stubborn holdouts, I think we can all agree that Marnie is the absolute worst. She’s recently gotten some aggressive competition from Jessa, whose selfishness is noteworthy in a show populated with selfish people. But the difference is that Jessa has that wild card, agent-of-chaos energy that makes her entertaining to watch, while Marnie’s self-serious schoolmarm vibe makes her an absolute buzzkill. When Marnie does cut loose—like her weird fling with Elijah, her other weird fling with Ray, or her affair with Desi—it only makes her less tolerable by emphasizing her hypocrisy.

“Central Park” is the best Marnie has been in years, and possibly ever. It begins with Marnie in bed with Desi, fuming silently as Desi strums his guitar aggressively in her direction. She’s so annoyed with Desi that his usual tools of emotional manipulation, like crying, insulting himself, and invoking his traumatic relationship with his mother, aren’t wearing her down. She leaves the apartment to get some space, and when she gets harassed by a group of men on the street, she’s shocked to find that one of them is her ex-boyfriend Charlie. Christopher Abbott hasn’t appeared on Girls in years, which is why his once close relationship with Ray seemingly dissolved overnight (allowing Ray to develop his own intense feelings for Marnie.) Abbott and Dunham reportedly disagreed on the direction his character would take, so Abbott abruptly left the show. The only explicit details about his absence in Marnie’s life come in the story she tells in “Beach House.”

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I don’t know whether Abbott is husky and furry of his own accord these days, he adopted this look for another show and Dunham rolled with it, or he did it at her request. But however it happened, Charlie’s drastic physical makeover is key to the episode’s success. Everyone who has been watching Girls from the beginning has a recollection of Charlie and Marnie’s relationship, and those people aren’t these people. Charlie’s evolution brings Marnie’s evolution into sharp relief, and she quickly realizes it too. Charlie, the too-nice doormat turned tech-world phenom is now a bearded coke dealer with a Hell’s Kitchen accent that appears to have sprung out of nowhere. She’s different too, mostly because she’s married, but also because she discovered a passion for music that she never tapped into while she dated Charlie, also a musician. A conversation between the two of them might not have been possible a while back, when Marnie’s nostrils were still filled with the scent of grilled pizza and betrayal. But that was then.

There’s no reason why this version of Marnie and Charlie can’t pop into a party together, so they duck into a boutique together and buy her a slinky red evening gown. Before Marnie knows what’s happening, she’s in the middle of a cocaine delivery, then being propositioned to spend the evening with a party-and-play tycoon and his 25-and-a-half-year-old pop tart. Surprisingly, Marnie avoids judgment and accepts the moment for what it is. Rather than objecting to the potentially harmful choices around her, as she so often does, Marnie goes with it. She becomes Magitta, a sex worker with a fear of heights and a pricing approach so rapacious as to rival the average cable-internet provider. She’s a bit more reluctant when Charlie wants to take out a rowboat in Central Park, but she goes along with that too and even kisses him, the consummation of the perfect reconciliatory moment between former lovers. They roll out of the rowboat and into the water, prompting the beautiful shot that lends the episode its title.

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It’s not the reaction that most people imagine when they hear the word “panic,” but this is the moment the title is describing. Whatever Marnie discovered or realized in the depths of the pond in Central Park is ultimately what gives her the resolve to tell Desi she doesn’t want to be married to him anymore. It’s a terrifically acted scene between Allison Williams and Ebon Moss-Bachrach, and Marnie’s realest moment on the show yet. Marnie doesn’t want to be married to Desi, she just wanted to hang onto the dream she had of being married to him back when he was the sexy, dangerous musician who was forbidden fruit. She doesn’t want to be with Charlie either—he’s in a weird place, and has apparently developed a heroin addiction. But Marnie’s not ready for a destination, she’s ready for a journey. And after watching this tough, tender, brave, bold version of her, I’ve never wanted to watch that journey more.

Stray observations

  • This is the type of episode I was expecting from “Japan,” and having seen this, I really, really wish Shosh had gotten her own episode before returning home.
  • I loved the scene in the boutique, Dunham’s willingness to let Marnie’s most irritating quality—her tendency to overshare—shine through. Irritating Marnie is still in there.
  • Does this mean we’ll never have to see Desi again? Yes?
  • The final moment, when Marnie climbs into bed with Hannah and Fran and Hannah acknowledges her presence and goes back to sleep, is one of my favorite things this show has done.
  • If only because of the heroin addiction, the episode reminded me of Don Draper’s visit downtown to see Midge in Mad Men’s “Blowing Smoke.”

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