For a show that isn’t about much, HBO’s Girls remains impressively polarizing. Most of the critiques the show comes in for — excluding the cheap shots aimed at Lena Dunham — are about the characters. Why is Hannah incapable of thinking about anyone but herself? How is a cartoon-like Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) at all an accurate representation of a real human? Why is Marnie (Allison Williams) incapable of making a single smart decision? Why does Jessa — the cool British renegade — hang out with these self-obsessed women? Why would anyone emotionally invest in these terrible people? And these are all fair questions that aren’t about Andrew Rannells’ Elijah, the show’s most compelling, interesting, and under-appreciated character.
Over the course of four (and entering five) seasons, the worst qualities of the main characters on Girls have consumed them. Not so Elijah, who is becoming the hero of a show in which he’s only a small character.
Hannah and Elijah have a special friendship that stems from when they dated in college. In the first season of Girls, Elijah comes out to Hannah when they meet up for drinks after a long time apart, a scene that exemplifies Rannells’ much-needed whimsical approach. When Elijah comes out, Hannah makes it all about herself. When she asks how he was able to have sex with her for that long, he responds, “Well, there’s a handsomeness to you.” In the current season of Girls, when Hannah is again having an existential breakdown from someone else’s problem — her dad, she learns, is gay — Elijah is there to laugh at her and make light of the situation, telling Hannah that he always knew her dad was gay. Throughout the five seasons, leave it up to Elijah to tell the girls what they don’t want to hear, but need to hear.
Elijah isn’t a genius, he’s just reasonable. That makes him — in this context — exceptional.
When it comes to the men in Girls, Elijah’s presence crucially disturbs the heaviness of stern, troubled men. Take Adam, for example — he’s a recovering alcoholic with a whole world of problems that are magnified by his complicated relationship with Hannah. Now in the fifth season, Adam has begun to develop romantic feelings for Jessa, in spite of the fact that they can’t be together because Hannah and Jessa are best friends. He is an incredibly nuanced character, well-intentioned and seething at the same time, but his plot lines are always drama-heavy. And then there’s Ray, who’s perhaps even angrier at life than Adam. Impossibly intelligent and constantly trying to understand the deplorable behaviors of those around him, Ray is a curmudgeon who also can’t help but fall in love with the wrong person — after he is with Shoshanna, he falls for Marnie whom he despises but can’t help loving. Desi, Marnie’s recent husband, is a sad man caught up in his own pathetically small mind, too busy to think about anyone else. Considering the bevy of deeply conflicted men in Girls, any scene with Elijah is a necessary break from the potency of troubled dudes in the show.
So far in the fifth season, Elijah has made only a few appearances, but they’ve presented necessary opportunities to laugh along with him at the other characters in the show. In Season Five’s first episode, in which Desi and Marnie get married, there’s an emotional kerfuffle as Desi experiences cold feet and thinks about running out on the seventh woman he’s proposed to. As everyone tries to calm him down while also dealing with their own issues — Adam kisses Jessa before the ceremony; Ray is about to witness the woman he loves marry someone else — Elijah daintily informs everyone that he will be taking MDMA after the ceremony to liven things up. In the next episode, Hannah is having an emergency with her recently-out gay father and she calls Elijah to come to the restaurant where they are so he — a more experienced gay male — can talk to Hannah’s dad. He arrives at the restaurant, looks through the window to see Hannah and her dad sobbing at a table, grimaces, and turns away from the situation.
He may have ditched Hannah when she needed his help, but the reality is that Hannah should deal with this on her own. He, just like everyone else on the show, is struggling through his early 20s, but the levity he adds to certain scenes is a welcomed reminder to laugh at yourself every once in a while.
Elijah isn’t a character in search of his own show or of a better arc or of anything else really. He’s just fully realized and fun to watch. In a sense, that’s the ultimate compliment — zeitgeist be damned.