The Top Ten Best Girls Episodes

The editorial core of is full of love for Girls, Lena Dunham’s half-hour dramedy series that just last night ended its final season on HBO. We’ll have a podcast up this week discussing the full scope of the show, from its characters to its style to the cultural conversations it inspired, but first I wanted to put together a very personal list of my ten favorite episodes of this show – my favorite show on the air, until last night (because it ceased to be on the air, not because the finale let me down). Let us know what I overlooked in the comments. Actually, I’ll let you know right now that I was sad not to include “Dead Inside” (Season 3), “Goodbye Tour” (Season 6), “Home Birth” (Season 4), “Video Games” (Season 2), and “Vagina Panic” (Season 1), among others.

The Top Ten Best Girls Episodes

10. “What Will We Do This Time About Adam?” (Season 6)

We thought we knew where this one was going: With three episodes to go, it looked an awful lot like Hannah and Adam could wind up together after all. I have no doubt a version of this outcome could have been satisfactory, in part because Dunham and her writers are so nimble, and in part because much of this episode acted as canny fulfillment of a wish I didn’t know I had. I wasn’t particularly rooting for Hannah and Adam (if only because the show had broken them apart, and kept them apart, with such grace), but halfway through “What Will We Do This Time About Adam?” as the pair quickly reconciles, has sex, and spends the day together, I felt their reverie: There’s a loveliness to their ease with each other’s quirks and weaknesses – that shared experience Adam alludes to as he makes his case. But doubt starts creeping in late in the day, and by the time they reach Williamsburg staple Kellogg’s Diner and start talking about more practical, logistical matters – marriage, apartments, baby gear – Adam and especially Hannah have an unspoken yet visible realization that what’s past is past. Driver has been justly celebrated for his work on and off this show, but this scene really belongs to Dunham, who is so adept at playing a character not unlike herself that her acting has become, at times, drastically underrated. It’s a heartbreaker of a scene, and it plays out in large part on Dunham’s face. Meanwhile, in a parallel story, the series closes the book on its second-most prominent male character as Ray spends the day with Shoshanna’s old boss, played by Aidy Bryant. At its best, Girls manages its time masterfully, and while this episode isn’t as showy as some of its other limited-frame offerings, it does manage to cross-cut between two pivotal relationships changing over the course of just twelve hours or so.

9. “The Return” (Season 1)

For such a New Yorky show, created by someone who grew up in the city, Girls showed a nice feel for less outwardly exciting environs, as in this early episode that sees Hannah spending a weekend in her hometown, ostensibly celebrating her parents’ wedding anniversary. There are a lot of episodes where Hannah goes out of town and has sex with a local, but this one, where she briefly reconnects with a high school friend and attends a benefit for a local girl who has disappeared (a relatively incidental but weirdly vivid plot point). Considering how many shows utilize flashbacks to fill in a character’s backstory, it’s especially fascinating to glean bits of Hannah’s past by simply watching bits of it make their way into her present.

8. “Flo” (Season 3)

Another episode that isolates Hannah from the city benefits greatly from a stellar June Squibb guest turn. She plays Hannah’s ailing grandmother, and their lack of recent closeness doesn’t prevent her from imparting some excellent marriage advice. Advice also comes from Hannah’s mother (Becky Ann Baker, wonderful as usual), about the relationship with Adam that seems, at the time, mostly stable (stable enough for her to lie to her grandmother about getting married, at least). The low-key estrangements of family take center stage here, along with the suddenness of death, even when you think you’re expecting it. There are a lot of Girls episodes that could work perfectly well as stand-alone short stories; this is one of the best and most complete. Hannah may not have been cut out for literary fiction, but there are a lot of signs that Dunham, Konner, and company could be.

7. “Sit-In” (Season 4)

Hannah returns to New York from Iowa to find Adam living with someone else in their formerly shared apartment. So, naturally, she locks herself in her old bedroom and refuses to leave. Technically, this is almost a bottle episode as most of it takes place inside Hannah’s apartment, but the way much of the show’s cast cycles in and out of the rest of the apartment smartly pulls those limitations into something more expansive, even as the focus stays on Hannah’s immediate heartbreak and anger. Girls occasionally faltered when it needed to check in with too many characters in a single half-hour, but this one does a particularly elegant and hilarious job of doing just that.

6. “One Man’s Trash” (Season 2)

One of the show’s most famous installments has Hannah enter into a dreamlike and extremely short-term affair with a handsome, lonely middle-aged fellow played by Patrick Wilson, a casting decision that outraged many with its implausibility because, as we all know, a middle-aged Patrick Wilson is such an impossibly perfect physical specimen that he would never deign to have sex with a twentysomething woman in real life, and no amount of character-based specificity can change that fact. Seriously, though, this one is a beauty: A strange and sad timeout from the ongoing storylines of Hannah’s life, casting a spell that must be broken by the episode’s evocative end. We’ve talked before on this site about how some TV shows turn their back on the flexibility and creativity of the episode as a discrete unit, and “One Man’s Trash” is a great example of an episode that fits perfectly into the tapestry of a series without offering crucial plot developments. You could skip this episode and be able to follow the rest of the series with no problem whatsoever. But you shouldn’t.

5. “Wedding Day” (Season 5)

A show about characters in their twenties has to have at least one wedding episode, and although Jessa got surprise-married during the Season 1 finale, it’s this full-cast check-in, opening up Season 5, that really pulls out all the stops. Girls has just enough drama-slash-trauma for it to feel like a delightful surprise when it turns in a really fucking funny episode, no matter how often it happens. From the perfect manifestations of Marnie’s bridezilla tendencies to the revelation that her future husband Desi has been engaged eight other times to Hannah’s final dedication to her longtime friend, there’s plenty about this episode that feels both perfectly familiar (in that you now know these characters quite well and are able to say, yes, yes, Marnie would describe paying homage to her heritage as a “white, Christian woman”) yet also surprising enough to keep you on your toes.

4. “American Bitch” (Season 6)

Another bottle episode, and initially it’s less dreamlike than “One Man’s Trash.” It even seems like Dunham and company may be self-consciously writing toward a point, sending Hannah in to talk to an older, respected male author (guest star Matthew Rhys) who she once revered but ran down in a piece online. In confronting the author about allegations of sexual misconduct, Hannah is armed with more confidence and righteousness than in past seasons – or maybe those qualities just seem better-informed and more earned than they would have in Season 1. But the confrontation, and sympathy for this guy creeps in as he defends himself eloquently, even convincingly – only to twist further as he and Hannah share an uncomfortable, manipulative intimacy. Relatively separate from much of the Season 6 story arcs (such as they are), “American Bitch” (named for a supposed alternate Philip Roth title) is bold even by Girls standards: thought-provoking, sometimes lacerating, yet closely attuned to its subjects’ humanity. Paradoxically, the episode turns out to be most pointed and thesis-like in its final shot – which is also its most dreamlike and least literal. Can you think of another show, especially a half-hour purported comedy, that would produce an installment like this?

3. “The Panic in Central Park” (Season 5)

I’ve made no secret of my love for Marnie, who strikes me as the Betty Draper of this show: Chilly, beautiful, “unlikable,” and so obviously full of pain (sometimes self-inflicted, sometimes not) that I adore her even or especially at her worst. Dunham and Konner seem to love her, too; she’s the only character besides Hannah who gets her own showcase minus the rest of the main cast. Though I would have loved to see similarly separate installments for Shoshanna and Jessa during the series, I’m also grateful for this format-breaker, which follows Marnie through a single afternoon and evening, during which she reconnects with her barely recognizable ex Charlie, tries on several different versions of life, and returns home to Desi barefoot and demanding a divorce. There are other episodes where you can tell that Marnie feels lost, but this one – where she flirts with doing something about it, backs away from the easy, self-destructive, quasi-romantic solution, and takes a small step towards self-awareness – uses its close point of view to become more emotionally immersive. Anyone who talked about how this episode finally made Marnie empathetic may not have been paying enough attention, but it’s still a remarkable achievement, and a terrific showcase for Williams, nonetheless.

2. “Welcome to Bushwick aka The Crackcident” (Season 1)

For all of the show’s much-vaunted Brooklyn-ness and hipster chronicling, a lot of those elements, the ones most evoked when defending Girls as satire, tend to occupy the background of its stories, not the foreground (ultimately, a lot of the show takes place in apartments, offices, and coffee shops; the art installations and just-so parties are more exception than rule). In fact, I’ve never fully bought Girls as a satire of New York life, and I say that as someone who loves the show, loves New York, and laughs in recognition at plenty of it. Even in an episode like “Crackident,” which takes place (a.) at a warehouse party (b.) in Bushwick (c.) featuring lots of affected young people and casual drug use, isn’t necessarily sending up these characters, but rather observing them in a particularly stereotypically hipster-y environment. That said, “Crackcident,” in which Jessa hangs out with an older and married dude, Marnie and Elijah snipe at each other over a college production of Rent, Hannah puzzles out her relationship with Adam, and Shoshanna accidentally smokes crack, is completely hilarious. It might be the funniest episode of the entire run. But most of its laughs are character-based, not hipster-baiting cheap shots (although when the show does take a cheap shot, it’s usually also hilarious). From Jessa’s “dirt floor” crack to Shoshanna’s crack-fueled assault on Ray, this one is just a pure delight.

1. “Beach House” (Season 3)

“Crackcident” is the funniest, while “Panic in Central Park” and “American Bitch” win on audacity. But in terms of perfectly crafting an episode of TV that utilizes everyone in the show’s central, often quarrelsome quartet, for a story involving equal parts bonding and sniping (well, OK, probably more sniping), “Beach House” is a gold standard. Girls has been described as a show about female friendship – and then sometimes criticized for failing to live up to that standard (as Dunham has pointed out, there are relatively few scenes over the course of the series that put Hannah, Marnie, Shosh, and Jessa in the same room together). The final season clarifies the show as perhaps more about the dissolution of friendships formed in your twenties, and that’s certainly part of it. I think the description that gets at both of these qualities is that Girls pays a lot of attention to the parts of a friendship that aren’t just heedless, joyful bonding sessions that leave you amazed at the wonderful people in your life. A lot of the show has to do with people figuring out just how far they can tolerate the friends who may not be a perfect fit in their lives anymore. “Beach House,” a perfect mix of group vacation and group therapy that landed right around the middle of the show’s run, captures that so well that its conflicts, hurt feelings, and moments of actual fun all resonate through the rest of the series. The episode’s final scene, with the four ladies silently performing the dance they learned the previous night (right before another cataclysmic blow-up, foreshadowing Shoshanna’s late-S6 decision to “call it”), is maybe the most perfect ending in a show that has often specialized in wonderful final shots. So I’ll leave you with it here.