In tonight’s season 4 premiere of ‘Girls,’ it’s all relative(s), with appearances from Hannah’s parents, Marnie’s mom, and the introduction of Shoshanna’s parents, and it’s these relationships that help us understand who our girls are and why. As Hannah prepares to head off to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Marnie continues to pursue her dreams of being a successful singer, paths diverge and neuroses are reinforced. Hannah appears to be more calm and collected, but we’ve seen this from her before, and how long will (can) it last?

“Iowa” isn’t as compelling as previous season premieres, perhaps because we’ve grown to know these characters so well, and much of the premiere is arranging all the pieces on the board for the nine episodes to follow—not that it’s a bad thing, and there’s still plenty to enjoy. For all the table-setting in the episode, it also feels like we’re picking up where we left off, as if we just started reading a new paragraph in a story we took a break from reading like, a year ago.

To refresh your memory, briefly: Hannah and Adam fought when she revealed her plans to go to Iowa; Shoshanna discovered she wasn’t graduating on time after spending much of her final year partying and hooking up; after finally getting clean, Jessa went to work for an elderly photographer named Beadie, hesitantly assisting with Beadie’s regretful suicide attempt; and after making out with her music partner, Marnie spotted him fighting with his girlfriend, and smiled hopefully while lurking behind a tree.

Now, Marnie and Desi’s jazz (but not jazz) brunch performance unites all of the characters together to help us get caught up how much (or little) things have changed. The focus of tonight’s premiere is, as Adam describes it, Hannah’s “next step in a series of random steps.” His late arrival to a celebratory dinner with Hannah’s parents in the opening scene clues us—and Hannah—in to the fact that Adam may not be handling her departure particularly well. But neither is she: for as happy as she is to take this exciting opportunity, there’s also the worry that the physical distance between her and Adam may become emotional distance.

Both Adam and Hannah are trying to assert some sort of laid-back approach, with Hannah cheerfully reassuring Adam after watching his weird anti-depressant commercial, and Adam assuring Hannah that they’ll just take this move one day at a time—there’s no need to “create drama,” he says passively, but there’s some passive-aggressive subtext to that remark. It echoes their falling out last season, when a frustrated Adam confronted Hannah, asking why nothing could ever be easy with her. There was perhaps some truth to his accusation of Hannah’s indulgence in drama, but aren’t all people often guilty of unnecessarily indulging in conflict and making things much harder than they need to be?

Speaking of which, if you had any hope that Marnie might evolve after her affair with Ray, “Iowa” quickly establishes that Marnie has not changed a bit. One of the few brief scenes in the opening has Marnie hooking up with Desi, only to reveal not long after that Desi has not left his girlfriend, who makes amends with Marnie for her cruel (but not necessarily inaccurate) assessment of Marnie’s behavior. The revelation that Desi is cheating on his girlfriend with Marnie isn’t exactly shocking, but it is infuriating in the sense that Marnie has become perhaps the most willfully troubled character of the group, regardless of Jessa’s drug abuse and recklessness, or Shoshanna’s cringe-inducing attempts at being a certain kind of girl, or Hannah’s regressive tendencies. None of them are bad people, but all are guilty of indulging in their flaws, often willfully, which doesn’t make them horrible—it just makes them human.

Moments like Shoshanna awkwardly apologizing to Ray or Shoshanna’s overly neurotic parents fussing over her underwhelming late graduation have a sort of heightened, sardonic quality—it’s what transforms the relatable into something entertaining. We smile and nod from a distance, but only because we know (or have known) slightly less dramatic versions of these characters and behaviors in real life.

On the periphery of “Iowa,” Shoshanna’s parents shed some light on her neuroses, and Jessa has to bid farewell to Beadie, whose tightly-wound daughter (guest star Natasha Lyonne) comes to rescue her mother from the woman who almost succeeded in assisting her suicide. For Jessa, Beadie is the parental and platonic figure she always wanted and never had. And just as we learn more about Hannah, Shoshanna, and Marnie through the eyes of their parents, we learn more about Jessa as well—she’s her best self when she’s with Beadie, and we wonder about the Jessa who might have been if only Beadie had been her mother all along.

The way each character deals with Hannah’s departure succinctly captures their individual relationships with her, as well as their own personalities. Marnie proves she’s still a good friend by arriving early to help Hannah pack and leave; Hannah’s parents are more supportive than ever, but her narcissism becomes more understandable through their neuroses and overbearing concern; Jessa cruelly dismisses Hannah’s departure as if it’s no big deal, but reveals agitation with her friend for hypocritically leaving right after she dragged Jessa back—just another person abandoning Jessa, as usual, though she conveniently ignores how often she’s abandoned others.

But there’s nothing more poignant and heartbreaking than the moment when Hannah goes to wake Adam to say goodbye, deciding at the last moment that maybe she doesn’t want to say goodbye because it’s just too hard. The discovery that Adam was feigning sleep hardly comes as a surprise, but it’s no less moving. Perhaps right now, the best thing for them to do is take a break from reading this story. They can always come back to it later and pick up where they left off, right?

Additional Thoughts:

  • Who else pumped their fist when Elijah gave Marnie that much-needed and stern talking-to? He is seriously the best.
  • Speaking of Elijah, his ex-boyfriend Pal and his lady pals are at jazz brunch, and they are horrible people. But Marnie would make a good ‘Law and Order: SVU’ victim.
  • Ray certainly seems to have a new, optimistic and laid-back outlook. He dreamily smiles at everyone and everything like he’s high. Who is this Ray and what has he done with cynical Ray?
  • Marnie’s mom is like Amy Poehler in ‘Mean Girls.’ She’s not like those other moms. She’s a cool mom. (Also her brass knuckle iPhone case RULES.)
  • Hannah loves Fig Newtons. Who doesn’t?
  • Adam is represented by the same agent who handles Norman Reedus. No, he can not help you meet Norman Reedus.