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HBO’s Girls delves into an existential crisis with a gorgeous standalone episode

Girls is at its best when episodes act like short films. “The Panic in Central Park” is one of its best to date.

Girls
Charlie (Christopher Abbott) and Marnie (Alison Williams) are in love, or something like it.
HBO

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for March 27 through April 2 is "The Panic in Central Park," the sixth episode of the fifth season of HBO's Girls.

Girls — Lena Dunham's HBO … drama? Comedy? Something in between, probably — was once inextricably linked to the wildly conflicted discussions it inspired. Every new episode seemed to spawn dozens of articles about privilege, sexism, nepotism, and sometimes even some sexual position that Dunham or a fellow cast member simulated onscreen, raising the hackles of mortified commenters all across this great wide internet.

But when the series premiered its fifth season in February, the din that typically surrounds it dulled to a distant murmur. Storylines that would have been discussed at length on every pop culture website even just a few years ago — from Andrew Rannells and Corey Stoll hooking up to Dunham's character having sex with a woman — didn't inspire the type of uproar they might once have.

But whether or not Girls expected this more muted reaction, the show's fifth season is also one of its best. At this point, Girls knows its characters inside and out. Dunham's Hannah is as neurotic and self-obsessed as ever, but also trying desperately to keep her family together in the wake of her father coming out at 60 years old. Zosia Mamet's obsessive, flighty Shoshanna ran away to Japan, where she immersed herself in the culture while taking it entirely for granted. Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Adam (Adam Driver), once self-destructive magnets for trouble, have embraced sobriety, and each other.

Really, the only character who's spinning off into total confusion is Marnie (Allison Williams). After getting married in the season premiere to her volatile songwriting partner, she almost disappeared from the show entirely — until March 27, when she enjoyed a stellar episode all to herself.

After insisting for years that she's the most put-together of her peers, Marnie has accepted she's falling apart

Marnie tries to block everything else out. It doesn't quite work out that way.
HBO

Marnie Michaels is one of the more confusing characters on Girls. When the series began, she was introduced as Hannah's no-boundaries roommate, but also a type-A aspiring gallery owner. The two rarely seemed to get along, no matter how much the show tried to sell them as fierce friends, and when they finally had a blowup fight that led Marnie to move out, it was a relief.

In the seasons since, Marnie has essentially become Girls' disapproving aunt who thinks she's much more fun than she is. She does embarrassing karaoke numbers to prove her worth and speaks condescendingly to her supposed closest friends; her default expression is a derisive sneer. She has no patience for people who can't get their lives together. If she can do it, so can anyone — or so she thought.

In the current season, both she and Girls have stopped pretending that Marnie is any less fucked up than her friends. As she prepared to get married in a flowy dress and flower crown she hoped would read as free-spirited, Marnie stared down a concerned Hannah and begged her to at least pretend that getting married to Desi was a good decision.

Fast forward to "The Panic in Central Park." Marnie's self-loathing husband, Desi, has renovated their airy studio into a claustrophobic nightmare, and after he plays some "aggressive guitar" at her, she crawls clear out of her skin and leaves the apartment to get some air. She traipses around the city in her sweatpants and headphones, aimlessly hating everything — and then runs into Charlie (Christopher Abbott), the college boyfriend who broke her heart.

From there, the episode swan dives into a self-contained story about a single, unlikely night. Charlie, now sporting a beard and an almost manic mumble, whisks Marnie away from her misery. He buys her a plunging, sparkling red gown. He takes her by the hand and guides her to an impossibly fancy hotel for some unknown business, where she manipulates a sleaze who mistakes her for a prostitute into handing over hundreds of dollars — and then she and Charlie promptly run away into the night.

For a while, everything seems just grand. Marnie and Charlie go to dinner and indulge in whatever they want, whether it's several glasses of expensive wine or a spontaneous dance in the middle of the restaurant. They slink through Central Park, drift off in a rowboat, give into the tension and kiss so hard they fall head over heels into the filthy water.

And for a second, everything seems perfect, in that romantic-comedy fairy-tale ending sort of way.

But nothing perfect can stay that way for long. And so Marnie and Charlie's sparkling night gives way to a harsh, cold morning. She briefly let herself believe that she might have a shot at the happy life she's been pretending she's already living back in that studio with Desi.

But then the light streams in through Charlie's broken windows and lands on a needle, discarded on his floor.

Just like a dream, none of it was real.

As written by Dunham, "The Panic in Central Park" — a deliberate nod to the 1971 movie The Panic in Needle Park tells the story of Marnie finally waking up. She trudges home, dejected and barefoot, and breaks up with her husband. She comes to terms with having no fucking idea what she's doing, crawls into bed with Hannah, and curls up into a ball.

During this single episode — which really only spans a single night — Marnie grows more as a person and a character than she did in any of Girls' past seasons.

"The Panic in Central Park" is one of Girls' best episodes — and it's no coincidence that it tells a standalone story

Having an existential crisis underwater in Central Park, like you do.
HBO

When you look back at Girls as a series, its best episodes tell self-contained stories like "The Panic in Central Park." While most television episodes span at least a couple days, the Girls standouts are almost always standalone chapters. If you lifted them out of the series without context, they can stand more or less on their own.

In the first season, "Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a. The Crackcident" followed the cast through an insufferably cool warehouse party, sparking the kind of revelations that always feel like life or death at 3 am. Midway through the third season, the girls spent the weekend at Marnie's mother's beach house, sparking the kind of revelations that always feel like life or death when you're on vacation and everyone is a little too drunk.

The closest Girls predecessor to "The Panic in Central Park" is "One Man's Trash," a second season episode in which Hannah spent a weekend playing house with a handsome and lonely doctor (Patrick Wilson). They had sex, they played ping pong, they hung out.

That was the entire episode. It was also one of the show's most divisive. Some couldn't reconcile the so-called "attractiveness gap" between the two actors; others found the episode entirely self-indulgent. But taken out of context, "One Man's Trash" is just a concise, deeply felt short film, with a sharper focus than most TV episodes can allow when dealing with several different storylines at once.

Both "One Man's Trash" and "The Panic in Central Park" came from the same creative pairing, with Dunham writing the scripts and Richard Shepard directing. Both episodes are indulgent, but that doesn't mean they're messy; you can feel the deliberate care in every line and shot.

And both focus on a single character as she indulges a wildly different side of herself when she feels hopelessly lost. For Hannah, it was indulging in comfort with a man who wanted to make her feel great; for Marnie, it was taking a step back from who she thought she was and being able to truly see herself for maybe the first time.

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