In the very first episode of Girls, Marnie (Allison Williams) walks into the kitchen she shares with Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) and deposits her retainer, fresh from her mouth, into the loving hands of her doting college boyfriend Charlie (Christopher Abbott). Charlie was so loving, so kind, so thoughtful, so well-meaning that he had to be broken up with. “What does it feel like to be loved that much,” Hannah asked Marnie, back when they were still friends, and not frenemies sharing a TV show. “I don’t know, I can’t feel it anymore,” she replied. “I can feel him being so nice to me and it makes me so angry.” Hannah understood what Marnie was getting at: “You’re sick of eating him out, because he has a vagina.” Charlie was so attuned to Marnie’s needs, he didn’t know his own. There’s nothing hot about the guy who will hold your retainer.
Almost everything about Girls has changed since that first episode, which had a low-key verisimilitude that the show swiftly replaced with a more outsized, overtly comedic style. But as of Sunday night’s episode, “The Panic in Central Park,” it seems fair to say that nothing about Girls has changed as much as Charlie. When we last heard from him, he had brutally dumped Marnie (turnabout is fair play) and was running a tech start-up. But in Sunday night’s episode, he returned all but un-recognizable—as in, Marnie barely recognized him. Charlie has a new beard, new tattoos, and a whole new way of talking. He has a new tragic backstory (his father hanged himself), a new job as a drug dealer, and, needless to say, a new sexual bravado.
Abbott, the actor who played Charlie, quit Girls abruptly at the end of the second season. He nodded toward some broader frustrations with the blinkeredness of the show in this New York Times profile of him (by Slate’s Laura Bennett), and also seemed to suggest that he did not personally love Charlie, the hype around Girls, or the way that the hype around Girls led people to believe Abbott might be similar to Charlie. It always seemed like Abbott would have preferred to play someone like the Charlie who showed up Sunday night: a wounded, worldly man who knows his own mind.
As the episode begins, Marnie is in her too-small apartment being driven crazy by her husband Desi (the hilarious Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Desi and Marnie are musical partners with great sexual chemistry—Desi is perhaps best known for a scene in which he motorboated Marnie’s ass—but Desi has become a kind of cartoonishly grotesque version of the original Charlie. He is a man so suffocating he—literally—won’t give Marnie any space; so insecure he can’t get a scone by himself; so fixated on Marnie’s feelings he can’t bear when she has any.
Marnie leaves the apartment to get away from Desi and runs into the new Charlie. She tries to blow him off, but he isn’t having it. He is now totally unlike Desi or his former self. As Marnie says while they are on the dance floor, he “is not trying to please anyone anymore.” The two have a whirlwind day full of romance and red flags in a gorgeous, self-contained duet, that involves Bob Mackie fashion, champagne parties on the Upper East Side, Marnie being mistaken for a prostitute, a mugging at gun point, dinner and dancing, illicit rowboat rides, sex, plans to run away together, and then, in the morning, the revelation that Charlie has become a heroin addict.
Marnie and Charlie’s day together plays almost like a dream sequence, a dream where someone you know is himself, but also someone else. But Girls is uniquely suited to this sort of thing: Its characters are figuring themselves out so hard, they behave in ways you thought they never would. If it seems unlikely that Charlie would have transformed into version of ’70s Al Pacino, well, who would have thought Jessa and Adam would be dating? Or that former valley girl robot Shosh’s seemingly real connection with Japanese culture one week would turn out to be a mask for deep and profound misery the next? Just five episodes ago, when Marnie and Desi got married, it was Desi who had second thoughts.
Charlie helps Marnie to wake up to her own life. After leaving him and his needles, she leaves Desi. Charlie seemed, briefly, like an escape, a way out of her bad situation, but he would have just been another bad situation. “I’m not trying to change you,” Marnie says to Charlie, and herself, as she walks into his SRO, notices the plastic bags on the windows, and then tries to un-notice them. But Marnie is Marnie: she is always going to try and change people. It really is about time the person she focused on changing was herself.