“You have an accent that you didn’t have before, you talk differently.” “No. Nah, you just don’t remember me right.”
Among the countless superlatives one could throw at “The Panic in Central Park”, the one that reigns supreme over all of them is: it makes you happy that Charlie is back. Few characters in American letters vanished as abruptly (and with as much relief) as Christopher Abbott’s Charlie somewhere between seasons two and and three of HBO’s Girls. His getting tiresome was as much text as it was audience irritation, as the whole point was that Marnie was getting frustrated with him and needed to move on. But times change, and Desi’s weaponized passive-aggressive sensitivity eventually became every bit as grating as Charlie’s beige yuppie ineffectuality. And so, after a fight with Desi, when Marnie walks by a bunch of skeevy street harassers and sees that one of them is… Charlie, it’s a breathtaking moment.
This episode is, structurally, an analogue of “One Man’s Trash,” the standalone in which Hannah has a brief and many splendored fling with Patrick Wilson (and which Richard Shepard also directed from Lena Dunham’s script), except because it’s Marnie’s episode, there’s a lot of lingering exteriority, and the dawning realization that she is (as yet) not much more, emotionally, than impulse and desire. She is, as Desi (credit where due) astutely notes, quite cold, and values her own needs and wants over all else in the world to an extreme degree. And yet, Dunham — in particular among the show’s writers — takes great pains to not simply paint Marnie as a negative character. All four of the show’s central quartet are wildly self-absorbed. But, it practically shouts from the rooftops, who among us was not in our early-to-mid 20s?
Marnie’s day-long adventure with Charlie takes up most of the episode, and it’s a beguiling one, beautifully shot by Shepard and cinematographer Tim Ives — one image in particular, of Allison Williams underwater after falling out of a boat in Central Park, is breathtaking — following a radically different Charlie than the one we, and Marnie, once knew. He’s rougher around the edges, has a blurrier accent, and jaunts off at a moment’s notice to champagne galas at the Plaza, in this case to sell cocaine to a guy who pays Marnie $600 to have a threesome with his Russian lady friend. (The purchase of Marnie’s cocktail dress gives comedian Lane Moore the opportunity to play the definitive “done with Marnie’s bullshit” scene, until a challenger appears to take its place.) The new Charlie is spontaneous, untethered to expectations or obligation. The new Charlie is enough of a calming presence that Marnie doesn’t even lose it when they get robbed; Charlie, still Charlie after all these years, literally brings a knife to a gunfight (it doesn’t go off, no one gets hurt, but still). Marnie ceremonially loses her wedding ring in the event, which initially looks like a sign that Marnie is going back to Charlie. And when Charlie post-coitally puts forth the impossibly romantic idea of hopping on his motorcycle and running away, everything to that point has been so otherworldly that it almost seems as though Marnie will go for it. Her entire initial two seasons, after all, were entirely centered around him. But no. Per the episode title, Charlie’s a junkie. So Marnie leaves, at which point (surprisingly devastating) it looks as though she’s going to go back to Desi. But in a moment of supreme cruelty, she tells her crying husband that she wants a divorce, as calmly as she might suggest their next song be in A minor. (There’s a beautiful bit of structural poetry in the idyllic wedding of the premiere barely lasting half the season.) Finally, she lets herself into Hannah’s apartment and crawls into bed with her and Fran.
“The Panic in Central Park” is a richly realized half hour of television, maybe the best episode in the history of a show that’s had some awfully good ones. It felt like an entire life, in the way every good story does. And it reveals that Marnie, the most seemingly together of the quartet when the show began, is completely adrift, with not only the nature of her self but the existence of self in question… not only to everyone around her but to her as well.
Danny Bowes (@bybowes) is an artist and critic whose film and TV writing has appeared in Premiere, Tor.com, The Atlantic, Indiewire, Yahoo! Movies, RogerEbert.com, Salt Lake City Weekly, and The A.V. Club.