Touted by producer Jenni Konner as an episode you must watch live, Sunday night’s Girls was an episode just about Marnie. Before it aired, Allison Williams said she was the “most proud of” it, suggesting that it would make Marnie-haters more sympathetic to her character’s plight.

The promo made it pretty clear that this would be the episode Charlie, Marnie’s ex who left suddenly between Seasons 2 and 3, would return. Charlie’s character was not intended to leave, and it was reported that when he did, it was because of disagreements between Christopher Abbott and show creator Lena Dunham. When Abbott eventually spoke about his departure, he told The New York Times:

No single catalytic moment made him decide to leave “Girls,” Mr. Abbott explained. It was more of a gradual process of realizing that his priorities as an actor had shifted. “The world that Lena wrote was very real, especially in New York,” he said. “But it wasn’t as relatable for me on a personal level. It’s not that I only like to play roles I know to a T, but there’s something satisfying about playing parts where you really relate to the characters.”

A few seasons passed and things seem to have settled down, however, with Abbott spotted returning to the set over the summer; a source told Page Six he would be coming back for one episode, though Abbott denied he was doing anything but visiting. But he did end up returning in a big way for last night’s episode, entitled “The Panic in Central Park,” which Dunham says she wrote “in a fever dream.” It was inspired by 1971 film The Panic in Needle Park, based off the book by James Mills, with a screenplay written by Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne.

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Those familiar with the movie—which stars Al Pacino and Kitty Winn as two heroin addicts in love—might find the idea of Charlie and Marnie, whose relationship timeline was generally about as a dramatic as the push-pull between Charlie being too needy and Marnie being too inconsistent, a strange one. The quick explanation, it seems, for Charlie’s swift exit from the Girls universe is that his father had died. Marnie runs into him at a particularly fortuitous moment: she’s just had a fight with her new husband Desi, and walks past Charlie as he’s sitting on a loading dock with some of what appears to be his new coworkers, who are catcalling Marnie before she and Charlie recognize each other.

Charlie, it is immediately clear, has had a bit of a transformation: he talks differently, is no longer involved with the dudes he founded his start-up with, and is less scrawny than he used to be. Marnie, perhaps needing an escape into something both familiar and new, spends a whirlwind day with him in the city; he’s clearly selling drugs, but somehow, this doesn’t bother her until she realizes he’s using heroin. She’s ready for the escape, even getting in enough to pretend to be a prostitute (briefly), snagging some money from a rich guy that she and Charlie use to pay for dinner.

“I got in touch with Chris Abbott and said, it would be so exciting for us to check in with where Charlie has been,” Dunham said in the behind the scenes look into the episode on how it came to pass. “I remember writing the episode and thinking, if Chris doesn’t want to do this, I’ve just wasted some major hours putting this to paper, but I had to and I knew the only way to show Chris was to write it. He really saw that this episode wasn’t just a plea for viewers to go, oh my god, Charlie’s back! but it was actually a fully-formed creative statement that was really important to the progression of Marnie, but was also in many ways a film unto itself.”

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“When he showed up on set it was really one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had,” she continued. “It’s truly the piece of writing that I’ve done for the show that I’m the most proud of.”

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There’s layers upon layers to unpack from one episode of television—that it was based on a seminal film about New York, written by a famous set of authors, and was intended for an actor who dramatically left the show. Dunham said it was inspired by someone she was formerly close to, and that she wanted to explore how Charlie, a character who was often labeled as “a pussy or a sissy,” could have moved in this dark direction.

How exactly Charlie got to this place is never really made clear, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. What seeing him does for Marnie—wake her the fuck up—certainly is. At the end of their day, the two of them are mugged, losing all their possessions (including her engagement ring), but Marnie doesn’t seem to care. She’s too jazzed on escaping herself, and the relationship she ran into in which she ignored the signs that her husband is self-involved, but more importantly, insufferable. Marnie spends the night with the newly-tattooed Charlie, and the two of them talk about running away together. You know she’s in deep fantasy land when the material possessions-obsessed character starts talking about how she doesn’t even need to bring any of her stuff.

The fall comes quick, though. Showering in the bathroom Charlie shares with his neighbors, Marnie meets a lesbian griping about her dramatic breakup. “Why is everybody such a fucking disappointment,” the woman says while Marnie stands there dripping in a towel. “I can’t have one more fantasy busted open, I swear to God, I can’t fucking take it.”

Returning to the room, Marnie finds Charlie’s needle, prompting her to walk barefoot with no belongings back to the apartment she shares with Desi, and break up with him.

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Fantasies are not realities, is the succinct message of this episode. Despite the fact that there’s a bit of disbelief suspension required to watch it (it was held together largely by its inspiration and the viewer’s curiosity in seeing this old character return in such in a new form), Dunham’s skills as a filmmaker and writer are always best seen through bottle episodes that act as films (see her Season 2 episode “One Man’s Trash” featuring Patrick Wilson, or this season’s Shoshanna-only episode, “Japan”), where her characters can take their time with each other, but more importantly, with themselves. Whether it ends up making any sense in the realm of the show at all sort of falls by the wayside. Perhaps that’s the strength of Girls; Dunham lets it go where it will, her argument always seeming to be that that’s what life does. Sometimes it doesn’t really follow (that two young women living in New York City in the same friend group could have had quick failed marriages before the age of 26 does not ring particularly real) but often, that doesn’t seem to matter much.


Images via HBO