Dez & Marnie are sitting on their marital bed. She has headphones in, sitting cross-legged staring intently into her Macbook; he’s got puka shells around his neck and strums an acoustic guitar, bobbing his head at her, raising his brow, trying to get a look. It’s harmless but needy, like a puppy who deep down you don’t really love giving you eyes from across the room. Marnie takes her headphones off. “What are you staring at me about?” “What do you mean?” “You’re staring at me.” “I’m staring at you?” “You’re playing aggressive guitar at me.” “There’s nothing aggressive about that. It’s a ballad. I think it’s weird you haven’t said anything since noon.” This is the way a well-designed en media res goes; it’s what makes it so exciting. You see a situation, you get an interpretation, take it at face, infer a world (Marnie: cold and distant; modern technology: not helping.) Then there’s an update, a rebuttal—reality either rearing up and answering, contradicting the hubris of human inference, or else another subjectivity speaking for itself. Here we get the latter.
Dez: “I think it’s weird you haven’t said anything since noon.” Marnie: “Well, we’re in a fight, so I don’t wanna talk to you. That’s kinda… the definition of fighting.” “That’s kinda the definition of cold.” (They’re literal children.) “I’m not cold, I’m mad.” (But at least they can separate out feelings.) “So you can’t even let me know that you’re here with me? You can’t even connect?” “I don’t wanna connect! I want space!” Scales tip back via subversion. Marnie: “Would you prefer that I just pretend nothing’s wrong with me? And stop feeling all of my feelings and hug you and fuck you and tell you how amazing you are and how much I really love you?” Dez: “That sounds really positive to me, I think that’d make you happy too.” But when Dez starts childishly escalating the scene, balance is restored to the relative righteousness of players, scales tipping back under the watchful eye of Anubis. We’ve been pulled out of contextual ambiguity only to be tossed into ethical and psychological ambivalence instead. This is the magic of Girls: how often it pushes back, scolds us for taking sides, asks us to pass judgment and then slaps our hand with the reproach of upending.
Taking to the streets for fresh air, Marnie gets to repeat the dynamic with ex-boy Charlie (parallel construction: the differences between scenarios allows us to tease out nuance). She runs into him on the street for the first time in years; he invites her to a party. “Are you serious?” she asks. “Why would I wanna go with you anywhere? You know I literally haven’t heard from you since you told me you never loved me and that I was a spoiled brat who’d never amount to anything besides being someone’s wife?” She acknowledges she was an asshole at “what, 22 years old?” but chases the awareness with minimization (“everyone’s an asshole at 22”). He acknowledges, tries to speak, she escalates, laying into him over it. “All right,” C says. “Well I apologize for that… My dad died. He killed himself actually, he hung himself.” It reads histrionic on the page, but in the moment the confession basically lands. He asks her again to the party. She accepts.
They go shopping for a dress; he’s high-energy, almost frantic grabbing dresses for her to try on, passing a handful into the dressing room. Then he runs off to the restroom. There’s no clear explanation for the behavior: mania? a desire to please? Marnie lays her life story at the store clerk’s feet, complete with hand and hair flips, while she waits for Charlie’s return. In case we didn’t get the “asshole at 22” joke earlier, they help us out: “Yes, I am only 25 and a half years old…” she soliloquies, facing the camera, giving a practiced eyes-to-the-heavens smile. Charlie gets back, tosses a handful of bills on the counter, rushes her off again. It’s strange, but the flurry feels more like romance than a red flag.
The party they’re attending is unexpectedly fancy, formal, demographically late-Boomer. Marnie’s confused; C says he just has to stop and meet with a friend. It’s an older, Eastern European man and his younger, blonde date. While Charlie talks to the husband, the wife mentions buying coke to Marn. We’re starting to put the pieces together when Charlie returns, says he needs to use the bathroom again, leaving her alone at the bar with the couple who strike up a conversation and ask her name. She gives a fake-sounding Spanish name, vaguely pornographic, which may prompt his inquiry: “Well Magita, what would you say if you asked you to join Masha and me later upstairs?” He mentions; she charges $300 upfront, then asks another $200 as a premium when he shares his room number—she’s “afraid of heights.” He puts down the money. “And a $100 gown rental fee? Unless you want me to wear my jeans.” It’s almost cute. He puts down another bill.
The two burn through most of the cash on dinner and wine. It’s like what Lewis Hyde says about gifts, in Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property—gifts must be re-given, or distributed; ungenerosity in good fortune is socially frowned-upon, seen as a selfish act. Or maybe it’s just the Stanford marshmallow experiment. Either way they’re drunk, dancing in an Italian restaurant. “You’ve gained weight,” she tells him, hugged close against his body. “That’s not a very nice thing to say to a person.” “No, I know, I like it. It’s like you’re not trying to please everyone anymore.” If you dislike Marnie, you’ll see a flash of self-love after she delivers this line, the delight in being the kind of person who would say such a thing. If you’re more generous, it’s a moment of insight into why she left him in the first place, and to why she’s leaving Dez now: she wants someone who believes in himself, or maybe just someone who doesn’t desperately need her back.
Now they’re in Central Park at night, pre-Giuliani one of the most dangerous parts of the city, post-Bloomberg a cinematic date night for urbanites with short memories (or recent leases). They make out on a rowboat, tumble over the side. She’s underwater for a while, just sitting there staring out into the darkness, the time-honored Campbellian tradition of watery rebirth. Afterwards, cutting back across the LES desert they stumble into a would-be mugger who takes her bag after a status standoff with Charlie, broken by the drawing of a gun. Their exchange is full of bluffing and reveals. When they at last get home to Charlie’s apartment: “You live here?” (Warily) “I do.” “There’s a garbage bag on the window.” “Yeah, well, I sleep late.” “So get curtains. Actually, you know what? Never mind. I’m not here to change you. I don’t need to change anyone anymore.” He has his shirt off and is in bed, pulls her down. She orally fixate, bites lightly on her fingernail. He suggests they run away. “What if like, the last few years were just a bad dream and we ran away? And opened up a general store. Somewhere where they needed a general store.” He’s lost but that’s okay right now: so is she. In a sense she’s interchangeable to him; he hasn’t contacted her in years, which makes their honeymooning a whim of nostalgia masquerading as long-repressed desire. But in the wake of her fight with Dez, Charlie’s interchangeable to her as well; it’s almost enough to work. She straddles him, undresses herself, ready to consummate their escape.
Afterward she goes to use the dorm-style shower, chats with a young woman who enters. “Why is everyone such a fucking disappointment?” the woman asks. Marnie: “Guy problems?” Girl problems. “She left me off on the side of the BQE. Kicked me off her motorcycle… I just can’t have one more fantasy busted open, I swear to God, I can’t fucking take it.” She’s speaking for Marnie, who just doesn’t know it yet.
Charlie’s on the bed, sleeping on his side, when M gets back to the bedroom. She pulls his jeans gently off the floor to hang over the chair, a small but sacred gesture of care, and a rubber tourniquet falls out, the kind for shooting up H. The rush to the restroom; occupying Marnie with a handful of dresses to try while he was gone; the frantic energy and impulsiveness. Even the deep feelings, the true-love invitation. The details that didn’t make sense suddenly add up: Someone else was speaking all along.
When Charlie claims he’s diabetic she leaves, walks home barefoot. She looks toward the heavens, now, and grins: its more subtle than in the boutique, more genuine, unplanned, unthinking. The music is wistful but kicks up with optimism; we gets shots of crowds practicing martial arts in a park, men working at a fish shop, (“life goes on,” we’re meant to understand) as she walks through Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Dez is sitting on the stairs of the apartment building with a pillow. He asks her where her rings are (stolen), whose dress she’s wearing, where her shoes are. There are rings under her eyes, her hair’s matted. “I’m sorry,” she says. “For what?” he asks. “I don’t want to be married to you.” “Okay,” he says, giving it to her. But like Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” the moment of grace is not allowed to be, must devolve into bitter resentment. With a straight face Dez begins degrading her, telling her how little sense of the world she has. “You’re gonna get murdered,” he keeps repeating. We can’t tell if he’s worried for her or having a panic attack himself. Then we can, when he starts sobbing.