“I feel like I’m looking out the eyes of a woman at hands that have touched and have been touched.”
Marnie Michaels is having an identity crisis. Correction: She’s been having an identity crisis since the second season of Girls. Always trying and never feeling unless she forces herself to. The insecurity, the abandonment issues. The general lack of comfort in her own skin. But Marnie looks like she has it all together—there’s no reason for her not to be “perfect”. For these reasons it’s easy to despise her and dismiss her as a spoiled brat. She’s certainly imperfect and judgmental—incredibly aloof and unaware of how much she detests herself. The list goes on forever. And yet, “The Panic in Central Park” manages to make of her a human person, even seeing how insignificant her problems are at first glance. Contrary to Marnie’s friends and even her mother who all constantly roll their eyes at her problems, the pain and confusion of a pretty girl is no less felt than that of someone like Hannah (someone everyone expect to be a flailing mess). Marnie’s crisis of identity is captured in the presence of an old lover.
Let’s be perfectly honest: Marnie’s storyline as a whole has been a bit stale since the show’s third season (minus the wonderful “Beach House” episode that explored her dynamic with friends beautifully). The surprise reappearance of Charlie (Christopher Abbott) still does a more than adequate job of revitalizing our ideas of Marnie—making us care about her trajectory a lot more. She’s been stuck in a rut for so long that the immediate pan to Charlie’s face feels like a jarring slap to the face. But the show doesn’t make a big funk about it. There is nothing extreme or dramatic about how he and Marnie interact now—this is more of a slow burn rediscovery of self and other.
Marnie reacts as if still suffering a bit from the post-traumatic stress of their breakup. That scene alone sees her go through a cathartic mess of emotions. She gets the confrontation she’s needed for so long and gets to say just how confusing and f*cked up it was for Charlie to jettison her with such disregard. A catalyst from Charlie’s father’s suicide, we find out. This is a very different Charlie—he is almost unnoticeable. Marnie even does a double-take. Note the change in dialect, the jean jacket and the gruff, street guy beard and mustache. But there is a familiar comfort in that face, even if it is partially obfuscated behind a scratchy new exterior. Marnie notes this change. Charlie insists that she just doesn’t remember him right. Marnie corrects his grammar. In this, there is a flicker of their old dynamic, in which Marnie corrects and Charlie deflects. Charlie then asks her to accompany him somewhere.
At first, Marnie gets a kick out of this impulsive escapade—a burst of narcissism from having this strange and exhilarating encounter with a past lover that sends her all around Central Park’s most notable areas. Hell, the two even get mugged—which has its own dangerous thrills, thrills Marnie didn’t even know could still exist. One of the best things about this episode is how equally humorous and emotionally gripping it remains throughout. The direction captures some of the show’s most beautiful shots. Not only that, but the small bits of dialogue, a movement between Williams and Abbott, a gesture or look all have weight to them. All the small details of life that translate a lot more than words and the words do a lot, here. Dunham’s writing is as good as ever, loaded with subtext and full of subtle tension.
This excursion with Charlie brings something out in Marnie. Here, she is a curious mix of cautious but ultimately bold and brave. It’s refreshing—she isn’t the uptight pristine pop tart that we’re all used to hating but rather a glowing, spontaneous rebel to her own predisposition toward control and perfection. Charlie’s altered persona inspires in her an epiphany (the panic) that’s been in the works for quite some time.
When Marnie is mistaken for a call girl, she doesn’t get offended but rather plays along and even gets some cash out of the deal, awarding her and Charlie a fancy Italian dinner before rekindling in a boat and falling in a pond. Their interaction feels matured, yet there is still a lovely child-like curiosity in rediscovering one another and remembering what makes them tick. Marnie takes full interest in this changed man, but Charlie seems a bit distant throughout the night. These two were almost literal babies just seasons ago, now here they are at opposite ends of life, both incredibly sad and transcending their expectations for better or worse.
Marnie points out that Charlie has stopped caring what people think about him—she likes it. But that’s not the truth. Not really. Charlie is now posturing more than ever and calling that a life. Hiding in behind a new vice that hasn’t allowed him any real growth as a person. How we knew him from his first two seasons is as kind of a softy, someone everyone made fun off for being a pushover—Hannah repeatedly referred to him as a man with a vagina and Marnie dumped him for being too good, too nice. Charlie is still nice, but he’s a street thug now. He is the antithesis of Charlie circa Season 1 and Season 2. This probably makes him one of the most tragic characters of the show just remembering where he was before and where he is now as a drug addict and a listless ragamuffin.
Music plays a big part in this episode, which is not an accident just considering Marnie’s music career has largely influenced her development as a person, both the good and the problematic. When Marnie tells Charlie her album with Desi is mostly influenced by him or rather the loss of him—“You were my family”—he deflects with a big gesture, a distraction for him and Marnie with the help of a conveniently placed boat. One gets the sense that Charlie just desperately doesn’t want to be alone and what better way not to be alone for the night than to reconnect with a familiar face.
The veil having been lifted—the things that led him to this point—it feels random. It feels random and surreal and sad. A lot like life and its general indifference to the meaning we make of the people who weave in and out of our own existences. This is the stuff of what makes Girls so potent. When it’s on—like it is in this episode—it’s really on and makes some very arresting observations about how young people reconcile their expectations with the harshness of bleak reality.
The fairytale crumbles around Marnie, but she knew better or at least she realizes that she should have always known better. Marnie’s been drifting in fairytales for a while now, even marrying a man she knew she shouldn’t in order to distract herself from…herself and her issues. From this, how can Marnie trust anything of what came before with Charlie? Charlie could have even been lying about his father committing suicide, high and floating on his own fairytales and clouded by drug use. Perhaps the day he left Marnie, Charlie was already in the midst of his skeevy new drug habit. We don’t know and I for one love the ambiguity because we are in Marnie’s shoes. No one knows, but that speaks to something integral to the life experience and how people change while remaining essentially the same.
Marnie gets stripped of her wedding ring, her earrings, her shoes, and her fantasy of reckless perfection by the end of this adventure in Central Park. Desi reacts with typical narcissistic indignation but Marnie does not fall for any of his tricks and declares herself a single woman again, tears in her eyes. Desi responds with a mix of cruelty and his usual ridiculous absurdity by insisting that Marnie is gonna get murdered.
It’s a striking retort, one that I can see a lot of people saying to someone like Marnie because the strange and humorous, yet dark reality is that Marnie is the kind of girl people will kick when she is down and out—ultimately killing her instead of seeing that she is actually going through something. The world doesn’t think highly of the jaded pretty girl or her issues. The world sees her and they think “She’s so pretty, she can’t possibly have any real problems.” That’s a problem within itself. So when Marnie crawls into Hannah and Fran’s bed, we can only presume that she is back to being lost. At least she knows it this time. “The Panic in Central Park” gets 5 out of 5 stars!
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