In Defense of Marnie (Sort Of)

For much of GIRLS ' short existence the narrative has been that Marnie is the worst. While she started as the foil to Hannah's messy, narcissistic journey of self-discovery, she eventually lost her own footing and fell headfirst into an aimless existence that has rendered her the most uncomfortable and often painful member of the GIRLS ensemble. But in Season 3, the embarrassingly myopic Marnie has become the most compelling character on the show.

Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean we have to like her. "Likeability," the notion that a character is someone with whom we would want to have brunch or try on silly sunglasses in a movie montage, is increasingly irrelevant in the large landscape of available — and quality — television. Did we really like Walter White on Breaking Bad? Or did we love his the existence of such a compelling anti-hero? Do we like Cersei on Game of Thrones? Or she just a master at mean snarls and drinking from bottomless glasses of wine? Do we like Dennis on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia? Or do we just love that his status as the worst makes the It's Always Sunny world go 'round?

In comedy and in drama, we continually find characters who'd never really merit the term "likeable" when we really think about it, but we love them entirely for being an intriguing manifestation of writing, directing, and acting. And it's in that space that Marnie lies.

While Marnie has always been the girl who once "had it together" and who's been scrambling to behave as if that's still the case, Season 3 has thrown her into the belly of her own beast. Jessa is still floating through life, seemingly learning little from knowing a friend literally faked her own death to get out of being friends with her; Shoshanna is on her robotic (yet, somehow still funny) journey to wipe Ray from her brain; and Hannah is at her borderline sociopathic, privileged, navel-gazing worst. Oddly enough, Marnie is the only person whose actions make sense.

Granted, that might not be clear from the start. We've learned to take Marnie as comic relief to the point that some critics even think Lena Dunham has it out for Marnie portrayer Allison Williams and Buzzfeed lists about her various screw-ups abound. But in the Season 3 landscape of characters whose selfish, emotionless actions feel like the work of dramedy robots, Marnie's breakdown is all that feels real.

Her entirely fragile mental state is seemingly so controlled, just like everything in her life, from her tiny, contained Chinatown "apartment" in which her bed lies inches from her kitchen sink to the picture-perfect, ripped-from-the-internet-GIF-factory kitten that she just happens to find on her way home. Just like her perfectly tight braid and her continually flawless face, Marnie's life appears put-together, but unlike the other titular girls, her erratic actions actually seem to indicate emotion: the inner chaos striving to break out of the perfect shell Marnie's forced herself to maintain. And more often than not, it comes out as some cruel wise-ass one-liner that seems more at home in Mean Girls than Dunham's series.

But that's why, in Season 3's "Only Child," Ray is able to break through. There are cracks in her shiny casing and when he gives one of the most accurate and brutal descriptions of Marnie's personality ever, it breaks those cracks open a little wider:

For beginners, you're extremely judgmental. You came in here and you immediately insulted me and my neighborhood ... You come across like you're better than everyone and you want no part of their lives, but then when you're excluded from things, you're outrageously offended and hold onto this grudge. You're unbearably uptight. You use people. You use people a lot. So much so that even when you try to connect and be sincere, it comes across as phony. In a nutshell, you're a huge, fat, fucking phony...

...That being said, I still like you. I think you mean well and I'm old enough to recognize that all this bullshit comes from a deep, dank, dark, toxic well of insecurity, probably created by your absent father.

This was, in a nutshell, why I love Marnie. It's not because I just love watching her crash and burn while awkwardly sing "Stronger" or "What I Am" or "Take Me Or Leave Me," like some schlocky comedic sideshow. And it's not because it's sadistically satisfying to watch a series throw "the perfect one" down such a dark path full of wallowing and confiding in silent animals — though Marnie is definitely a recipient of "pretty privilege" up until this point as Anne Helen Peterson at the LA Review of Books smartly points out. But the real reason it's easy to love Marnie's story — even if you don't love Marnie herself — is that her struggle is a pantomime of our own struggles when tumbling down the rabbit hole of rapidly dwindling prospects.

And her prospects in life, love, and work have all significantly dwindled — as Ray says to her over Chinatown dumplings, they don't have anyone else. But it took Marnie a while to get here. Even after losing her job at the gallery and working as a cocktail waitress, she's swept off her feet by a young, hip artist, Booth Jonathan. When that's a bust, she moves onto embarrassing herself with Charlie only to wind up with the fairy tale ending capped off with the infamous "I want to have brown babies with you" line. Things never really got that bad for Marnie because a perfect solution was always around the corner, but now, she's finally out of solutions.

Her friends are busy worrying about their book deals, boyfriends, not-actually-dead friends, and sexual walkabouts. She's largely alone, which is why we find her talking to her fluffy new kitten that she probably can't afford now that she's quit her job out of anger and embarrassment — she's directionless.

But even when she turns to Ray — the last person anyone would ever expect her to turn to — she stonewalls him. She puts on her smiling Marnie face and pretends she's just as on top of the world as she was when she had a job at a top gallery and later when she was in the "perfect" relationship with a handsome "perfect" boyfriend. While Marnie's wall will always be tinged with self-importance and privilege, the concept of keeping that wall up, even when someone (like Ray) is working to help you tear it down and move on is not a Marnie-specific concept.

When we're kicked down a couple of notches — or even a whole octave, like Marnie — it's difficult to admit it. No one wants to remain the weepy friend, moping around feeling sorry for themselves, and even less appealing is the notion that others might sniff out your new "lesser" existence and take pity on you. Pride is a very real, very fragile thing and Marnie's is irreparably wounded. So while this means she's probably going to continue to say insane things to Ray (seriously, who complains when someone brings you free muffins and coffee?) and she's probably got one more embarrassing singing moment in her, this struggle signals one very important hope: that Marnie might actually be broken down enough to change and grow.

While Shosh, Jessa, and Hannah are regressing like their collective life goal is to be completely despicable, Marnie is so broken and destroyed that she will have to rebuild herself into some shape that's not quite the same as she was before. And the possibility of that reconstruction is something worth hanging onto. Even if it means we have to see an encore of her regrettable Rent karaoke.

Images: HBO; Wifflegif (3)