When people discuss Lena Dunham, it's tends to be black and white. She's either a privileged, self-obsessed, rape fabricator who molested her younger sister and represents everything that is wrong with the millennial generation. Or she's a fearless creative voice whose bravery, candor, political activism and openness to constructive criticism represents the best of modern youth.
This harsh polarity not only impedes fruitful discussion before it starts, but is also highly ironic given the fact that Girls, the hit HBO show Dunham created and stars in, lives and breathes in that messy gray zone between such reductive dichotomies.
"I really like that we've engendered dialogue about issues that are important to us," Dunham tells TVGuide.com. "There's definitely times when I've been like, 'What are we debating about?,' aspects of the show that certainly aren't partisan to me. But I also understand that it's not everybody's idea of escapist television. So I try and just say, 'As long as they're talking about it at all, then it's hopefully a positive thing.'"
With Girls fourth season premiere (Sunday at 9/8c, HBO) just around the corner to trigger another think-piece brigade, Dunham's refusal to let the critics dampen her excitement and pride is heartening. And this year, Dunham has a lot to be proud of. Having seen the first five episodes of Season 4, it's easy to admit that Girls' might be at the top of its game. After Season 3, in which the girls often felt more like caricatures of monstrosity than watchable anti-heroes, Dunham and her writers have once again honed in on the vulnerabilities that drive their heroines' often bad behavior.
Dunham, who was only 25 when Girls was greenlit, says that growing up and becoming more settled in her own life has helped her tap into the heart of these girls' chaotic lives. "I think that maybe it lends a little more wisdom to offer, rather than just pure emotion, which can be helpful," Dunham, now 28, says. "It's been great, the opportunity to mature them a little bit. Not too much because it's still a show about girls who are constantly causing disasters, but enough so we can have a little more sympathy for their plights."
That being said, expect each one of the girls to push the limits of your patience more than once this season. As soon as Hannah arrives in Iowa, her over-inflated ego is hilariously spotlighted in her first class at the Iowa's Writers' Workshop, where her peers tear her writing to shreds over its "stunted feminist ideas," privilege and clear autobiographical inspiration. But rather than use this as an opportunity to lampoon critics of the series and Dunham, it's Hannah's id that becomes the butt of the joke.
"Hearing me read it aloud here today may bring up some of the more triggering aspects of the piece, so I just want you to feel free to quietly leave the room and express your emotional reaction in any way that feels safe, even if that is kind of a darker expression," Hannah warns her classmates before reading her story about getting punched by her boyfriend. Her story is absolute garbage, yet Hannah refuses to accept a single criticism of her work, even going so far to assume that one student must be a victim of abuse since she can't comprehend any other reason why someone wouldn't like her piece.
"I think Hannah learns a lot about what she needs in terms of validation," Dunham says of Hannah's time in Iowa, for which she drew upon her own experience at writers' workshops. "And that maybe it's more important to her to be independent than to be validated by the establishment about what a great writer she is."
As Hannah grapples with whether or not she belongs in Iowa, she also finds her romantic life flipped upside down when her relationship with Adam (Adam Driver), which was left undefined, officially comes to an end. "I think Hannah and Adam are both growing out of each other. But they are also really committed to each other, really love each other. So, that's the challenge," Dunham says. "You can change in a way that makes it so the person that you love isn't necessarily the person that you're supposed to be with. And I think that's what's really painful about a lot of breakups in your 20s."
As previously reported, this opens up the opportunity for Hannah to once again enter the dating field. According to Dunham, Hannah's renewed interest in "exploring her womanhood" will be just as awkward as ever, but that Hannah won't be merely spinning her wheels or reliving previous mistakes all season. "I'm actually really proud of Hannah considering she's been a consistent dummy since the pilot. I mean, I adore her but I recognize her limitations," Dunham says. "I think this season really shows her growing and evolving and becoming more sensitive to the people around her and less self-involved. It's baby steps, but I especially see the season finale show some real growth on Hannah's part that I'm super proud of."
Unfortunately, Marnie (Allison Williams) won't be experiencing the same degree of growth. The aspiring singer is still ferociously pursuing her (taken) musical partner Desi when the season picks up. "I think Marnie is desperate for affirmation and the way that she particularly affirms herself is through male attention. And the more unknowable and un-gettable the guy is, the more it affirms her when he is attracted to her and interested in her," Dunham says. "I actually have a lot of sympathy for her, even though it may be hard to have sympathy for the character who's sleeping with somebody else's boyfriend. I think it's coming from a place of deep hurt within her."
But in the world of Girls, irrationally acting out because you don't know how to handle your feelings is par for the course. Right off the bat this season, Jessa (Jemima Kirke) lashes out at Hannah for deciding to go to Iowa and things only gets worse from there. "I think Jessa has a very immature reaction to her leaving and I think it stems from her probably having some abandonment issues, many issues that she hasn't addressed since she was a child, because she's kind of stunted in her emotional growth," Kirke says. Adds Dunham: "Hannah's unable to pick up on her signals and respond, so that tension is reflected in every aspect of their relationship this season."
Jessa's developing friendship with Adam only further complicates issues for the pair. But Jessa and Adam aren't exactly comfortable being buddy-buddy either. "It was sort of an arranged friendship because he goes to AA meetings and she needs to go to AA meetings and they're trying to awkwardly make it work as friends," Kirke says. "But they're unexpectedly liking each other in a genuine way."
And for those who've always longed to see Shoshana (Zosia Mamet) get knocked down a peg or two, this is the season for you. Having finally graduated from NYU, Shoshana's idealized version of the real world quickly crashes to pieces. "I think she thought she'd show all her friends up by getting a $50,000 a year job within the first week of graduating and that did not happen," Dunham says. "I think that [this experience] will hopefully make her a little less judgmental. I mean, she's always looked at these other girls like, 'How are you such complete failures?' and this will make her understand."
Season 4 will also introduce a new girl into the mix, Gillian Jacobs' Mimi Rose Howard, a pretentious New York artist. "She's a very unwelcome presence for Hannah," Jacobs warns.
"Gillian brought a very interesting take to the character," Dunham says. "She has a very detached persona and there's something almost — this term is overused — but there's something a little on the spectrum about her."
"Mimi Rose Howard is one of my favorite [characters] we've ever written," Dunham continues. "She's completely different than any of the girls on the show. She's like a space alien to them. It's like putting a Chihuahua next to a Great Dane. It's not the same kind of woman."
Girlspremieres Sunday at 9/8c on HBO.