Good Girls digs deeper into the grind of a life of crime but loses a bit of its spark in the process.
In the first three episodes of Season 4 provided to critics, Good Girls one begins to feel a creeping sense of the same. The “girls”—Ruby (Retta), Beth (Christina Hendricks), and Annie (Mae Whitman)—are still jockeying for power with Rio (Manny Montana). Beth is finding herself, once more, in a sexually charge situation with a known felon—this time a hired killer named Mr. Fitzpatrick (Andrew McCarthy)—while her husband Dean (Matthew Lillard) is left in the dark in that and so many other ways. Ruby and Stan’s (Reno Wilson) child, this time their son, is getting in trouble, the kind of trouble their criminal endeavors make both easier and harder to deal with. A zealous federal agent, Phoebe Donnegan (Lauren Lapkus), is closing in on them all, too.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
This is not, however, a bug of this latest season but rather, clearly, a feature. The people behind the show, led by creator and executive producer Jenna Bangs, haven’t lost control of the wheel or gotten lazy. No, it’s all very intentional. Crime may pay better than a grocery store job, but, at a certain point, it can be just as repetitive. If the previous seasons have all been about exposing the rot at the heart of the idea that Americans work hard and get rewarded as a result, season 4 stands ready to remind us the promises of an easy life brought to you by crime are just as hollow.
Girls also nails the sensation we all have when we do the same thing over and over, the feeling of the loop somehow getting tighter and tighter. Take, for example, Rio’s relationship with the trio. In the past, Rio would hang over one threat of blackmail and send Beth and Co into anxiety-fueled fits for episodes after, if not an entire season. Here, in the first three episodes, he makes several and they parry effectively in kind. But there’s no joy to it, no sense of thrill. This is crime as the rat race, a daily cycle of two steps forward, one step back.
Even new challenges feel similarly grey and empty. In other seasons, in other shows, a shopping spree designed to hide criminal endeavors would likely end up a candy-colored celebration of rampant consumerism. Here, Retta’s Ruby uses it to get school supplies she seems more annoyed with than anything. Whitman goes even further, draining the dominance of a charity auction of any feeling beyond desperate defiance, raging against her reputation and the fact that her son Ben (Isaiah Stannard) is outgrowing her. In a room full of people impressed with her charitableness and a tropical getaway waiting for her, she has never seemed more miserable.
Not all of it works, certainly. Fitzpatrick’s romantic fixation on Beth induces eye-rolling for sure. Yes, Hendricks is an undeniable presence on-screen but does that really mean every criminal she partners up with inevitably wants to sleep with her? The situation does, however, go to show Beth no longer gets lit up by her criminal pursuits. Contrast her reactions to Fitzpatrick’s interests with that of Rio’s and you find someone who is very much done connecting risk and sexual satisfaction. Having a “work” husband to flirt with, and maybe more, just isn’t that much fun anymore.
There is a cost to this approach. By driving Girls deep into its malaise, the show does lose a bit of its kick. While still more than capable of landing a dry aside or darkly funny case of mistake communication, it nonetheless has a little less zest. It’s being honest about how dull crime can be. It rightly portrays how hard it can be to shake loose of crime due to a combination of the trouble you court and the dependence you develop. But these aren’t as fun to explore as illicit sexual trysts or Robin Hood-esque stickups. In the series’ commitment to emotional truth, it ends up losing a bit of what drew viewers to it in the first place.
This is crime as the rat race, a daily cycle of two steps forward, one step back.
It’s difficult to figure out how the show can resolve that conflict. On the one hand, it doesn’t exactly feel as though Girls can support a full and complete exploration of “regular” people falling totally into a life of career crime. On the other, Retta, Hendricks, and Whitman have all done such strong work capturing how small moral compromises gather and change you that it feels like a betrayal to simply roll back the clock on the show’s tonal evolution.
In the final episode of those provided to critics, there does seem to be a suggestion the show has an awareness of the possible problem too. In many ways, the last third or so of that installment presents like an ending. If you told me it was the series finale, I would believe it. So, perhaps, Good Girls is about to pivot in a new direction and it just needed these first three episodes to clear the decks.
Regardless, even with a little less spring in its step, the show remains one of the few network hour-long series that actively seem to be trying to do more than just stay on the air. As a family-driven drama that feels grounded in some reality, that consistently rejects going for easy tears in favor of more complicated relationships, Good Girls more than earns its timeslot.
Good Girls starts up the printing presses again on March 7th.