On Sunday, the generational lightning rod that is Girls will begin its final season. In advance of that milestone, The Ringer presents our favorite — or at least the most memorable — episodes thus far.
Season 2, Episode 9: “On All Fours”
K. Austin Collins: When I think of Hannah Horvath, I think of her Season 2 mental-health story line, which peaks with Hannah getting a huge splinter in her butt and driving a Q-tip too far into her ear — all because of a deadline. (It’s a very relatable show.) When I think of Adam, I think of sexual humiliation — specifically that of his girlfriend, Natalia, and of the look on her face after she gets her first serious whiff of Adam’s desire to degrade her in bed. And when I think of my Marnie — poor Marnie — I immediately recall the pain and shame of her singing at Charlie’s work party. (She wasn’t even that bad!)
It was a shock to learn that three of my favorite scenes in the entire series — the scenes that drive me furthest up the wall with anxiety — were all parts of the same episode, “On All Fours.” For me, these moments sum up who these characters are. Girls is a show about poignantly pathetic people whose lives I’m glad I only encounter on television. I remember them for their shame, not for their fleeting happiness — is that wrong of me? Blame the show! I’m loathe to admit it, but I care about these characters, and Season 2, overall, makes me wish I didn’t. Every moment of this episode in particular is designed to push these characters to psychological extremes they hadn’t seen coming. It’s a high point for the series: a moment you could feel the show growing into its own.
Season 1, Episode 6: “The Return”
Rubie Edmondson: Here’s my — and a majority of people’s — fundamental problem with Girls: I am not one of these girls. I don’t even know one of these girls. Perhaps this problem isn’t the show’s fault: It was touted as a millennial Sex and the City update when it’s anything but. (I’m still not 100 percent certain if Girls is earnest, or if it’s immaculately-crafted satire.)
Given all that, Girls manages an impressive feat: The extraterrestrial Hannah Horvath has moments that are relatable to actual human beings. Moments that you watch and think, “THIS IS MY LIFE. How did they know?!” In the opening minutes of Season 1’s “The Return,” Hannah travels home to Michigan to celebrate her parents’ 30th anniversary. Her parents take issue with Hannah texting during a living room Netflix session (Dad: “Ooh, you’ve got a mood on.” Hannah: “No, I don’t.” Mom: “Maybe she’s hungry.”) and Hannah storms off. She reemerges from her childhood bedroom for a midnight snack and begins stuffing her face with leftovers in the glow of the fridge: chicken and rice, some type of patty, plain spaghetti by the bare handful, before dejectedly carrying an armful of takeout boxes back to her bedroom.
Hannah would like to believe she’s an independent woman on her own in the big city, but she’s clearly not self-sufficient yet. She’s working up the nerve to ask her parents for rent money, and she brought a giant garbage bag of dirty laundry with her on the plane (does that count as a carry-on?). It’s that awkward season of life that Britney Spears sang about so eloquently. We’ve all been there. And for some of us, a menagerie of weird — and free — leftovers from our childhood fridge is more comforting than words of wisdom from mom and dad.
Season 5, Episode 10: “I Love You Baby”
Lindsay Zoladz: Look, Season 5 was the invigorating return to form this show needed, and its finale, “I Love You Baby,” was as close to perfect as Girls gets. First of all, never forget Elijah and Mrs. Horvath brown-bagging 40s on a street corner (“I’m like, three beers away from trying to fuck you,” he says, to which she replies, “Apparently you’re my type.” Spin-off, please!). Marnie and Ray finally get to be genuinely happy; Jessa and Adam fight so explosively that they trash their entire apartment. (Kylo Ren never even came close to being as terrifying as Adam Driver is in the scene where he punches his fist through the bathroom door.) But this episode will always be remembered for that wrenching slow zoom-in on Hannah as she stands on stage at the Moth and tells her story of the fruit basket she’s left on the doorstep of Jessa and Adam’s apartment — “In Perpetuity, Hannah.” Lena Dunham has never tried to make Hannah or any of the girls particularly “likable,” and in the show’s weaker and more didactic moments it almost feels like she’s pushing back on that expectation too hard. But “I Love You Baby” pulled off a feat that, this far in the show’s run, felt nearly impossible: It made you root for Hannah again. That closing shot of Hannah sprinting across the Williamsburg Bridge set to the jubilant strains of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” was the perfect setup for the show’s final season. You just want to know where she’s going.
Season 3, Episode 6: “Free Snacks”
Sam Schube: The characters on Girls are always negotiating professional compromise. What counts as success? What does it cost to pursue it? In the show’s post-recession Brooklyn, where nobody’s broke but nobody’s thriving, how you feel about a steady job says a lot about you. After two seasons of scattered freelance work and sporadic acclaim, “Free Snacks” finds Hannah taking a branded-content job at GQ. Her educated oversharing kills at the office, and you wonder if maybe all she needed was a cubicle to channel all her formless ambition into. What happens next, I think, says a lot about the show’s understanding of 20-something ambition and its blind spots: She seems to enjoy the work, and seems to be legitimately good at it. But Hannah can’t — won’t — understand why her coworkers would trade minor literary fame (N+1!) for economic security. She quits to pursue her dreams, and then she un-quits to pursue a paycheck, certain she’ll write nights and weekends. And then she goes home and falls asleep. It’s one of my favorite things about Girls: the way the show allows its characters to learn the wrong lessons. To not learn them at all; to grow sideways, and sometimes backwards. Failure, we’re told, brings wisdom. On Girls, it just brings another chance to fail. Also GQ has bad snacks.
Season 2, Episode 5: “One Man’s Trash”
Alison Herman: “Please don’t tell anyone this, but I want to be happy.”
I thought about this line and the ensuing monologue, without exaggeration, at least once a day for a full year after “One Man’s Trash” first aired in February 2013. So much of the discourse around Girls is an extended disclaimer that this show isn’t really chasing the zeitgeist, that Dunham herself made fun of such ambitions in the pilot’s opening scene, that it isn’t attempting to capture anything broader than its characters’ tiny, self-obsessed world. Disclosure: As a 20-something former New Yorker in media, I’m squarely in that world, and Dunham has our number.
Yes, “One Man’s Trash” is partially wish fulfillment; by having her character enjoy an intense weekend tryst with a doctor played by Patrick Wilson, Dunham gets to make out a whole bunch with Patrick Wilson. It’s also a profound expression of what happens when people’s self-image runs up against their repressed desires. Raised in material comfort, people like Hannah — like me — think they’re above it. They’re made for bigger things, like Great Art. Except being an artist is, in its own way, just as indulgent as buying a tricked-out Brooklyn townhouse. More, if the money that bought the townhouse comes from helping sick people. It’s just a lot less comfortable.
“One Man’s Trash” climaxes with Hannah admitting that, yes, she does want the more conventional trappings of happiness, the ones she’s just spent 48 hours steeping herself in: money, and a hot guy, and a high-tech shower. Pursuing your dream while the better part of your college classmates go into sensible things like law school and med school and finance involves telling yourself a story, usually about how you, too, are doing something important and not just dicking around, and how you’re sure of your path and don’t have a nagging feeling about what you could be doing instead. “One Man’s Trash” is Hannah admitting her story is bullshit.
Season 1, Episode 7: “Welcome to Bushwick, a.k.a. the Crackcident”
Kate Knibbs: Girls often had trouble calibrating how awful its characters were, but in the early seasons, I enjoyed it most as satire, which is why “Welcome to Bushwick, a.k.a. the Crackcident” is my favorite moment for the show. It’s an accurate, nasty, hilarious tableau of a post-college rager and its inhabitants. At a giant loft party, the cast basically only hangs out with friends they already knew (accurate), one of them does too many drugs (accurate), and when they do branch out, Hannah gets stuck in a conversation with a deep weirdo (accurate). Remember Tako, who could tell when people pronounced her name with a C?
All of the girls are at their worst in this episode, but since we’re asked to laugh rather than root for them, their bad qualities are comedic fodder rather than a drag. Shoshanna is hopelessly naive for doing crack, but watching her hi-ya Ray in the balls in sheer pantyhose is great physical comedy. Meanwhile, Jessa throws a wine bottle off a balcony, and then when she is confronted about it, she starts gleefully ripping into the guys she almost hit like a pure British demon. “I bet you were born on a dirt floor,” she yells. “I don’t think you’re cool, and I think your mother was poor.” Then she spits on them! Girls would eventually work overtime to humanize Jessa, but I loved her as a party monster. A whole series of this kind of thing would probably get tiresome — there’s no room for character development if you’re only meant to laugh at them — but I would pick being strapped in a chair in a dungeon and watching “Welcome to Bushwick” 100 times before I would ever rewatch that Girls finale where Adam romantically carries Hannah through the streets.
Season 2, Episode 7: “Video Games”
Sean Fennessey: This episode features Ben Mendelsohn, Rosanna Arquette, a song by Aimee Mann, a script by New Yorker cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan, a family reunion, and ends with Lena Dunham’s character crying her way through a painful bout with a urinary tract infection on a toilet. But I can’t explain why I love it as well as these images can.
Season 5, Episode 3: “Japan”
Katie Baker: “You seem very wealthy,” one of Shoshanna’s new Japanese friends tells her as they sit at a tiny bar, “because of your spoiled attitude.” Shoshanna isn’t offended: “Yeah, that’s just how Americans act,” she says. Let’s ignore the other story lines in Season 5’s “Japan” here, and not just because Frannah drama is my least favorite thing. (Fran-Hannah is totally the Berger-Carrie of this show.) The episode just really ought to have been done in “One Man’s Trash” style: focusing solely on one woman’s journey through a foreign country.
Rewatching the opening scene of Shosh’s daily commute from her bonkers abode to her kewl new job made me think of Michael Chabon’s recent GQ essay about his teenage son finally finding “his people” at Paris Fashion Week. She has never seemed happier, or more at ease, than she does as she greets people in Japanese upon arriving to the office, with those Hello Kitty headphones and those tiny stutter-steps. Which is why it’s such a gut-punch when her boss Abigail, played by Aidy Bryant, video-chats her to explain that she isn’t being fired — she’s just being “managed out.” She pleads, in vain: “You cannot make me go back!”
I cheered when Shosh ultimately decided not to depart Japan just yet, even if it meant leaving poor Jason Ritter and those airport flowers in the lurch. I also knew it wouldn’t last forever. (Those foreign shoots are expensive!) But in a series that is so often microfocused on the spoiled attitudes of the self-involved, “Japan” was an affecting, brief reminder of the planet’s generous expanse. We’ll always have Tokyo, me and Shosh.
Season 3, Episode 7: “Beach House”
Amanda Dobbins: This episode is meaner than I remembered. That’s good; that’s why I liked it in the first place, because the jealousy and the grudges and the general interpersonal cruelty that had driven the show was finally made plain. Girls is not so much about friendship as it is about friendship’s decomposition — the slow unwinding of early 20-something female codependency. By the middle of Girls Season 3, Hannah and Marnie are barely speaking to each other, which is, frankly, exactly what should happen to two ex-roommates who have shared a sexual partner. These are not people who should be best friends anymore.
“Beach House” is about that slow realization that old modes of friendship don’t work anymore and haven’t for some time. The details are perfect: Marnie’s dumb-ass room-assignment cards, the forced bonding schedule, the midway-drunk emotional conversation between 25-year-old women, the group dance, the dudes who crash the party and cause a fight. The climactic scene, in which a suddenly observant Shoshanna attacks the other characters for three seasons’ worth of narcissism and vanity, is so cathartic that it verges on fan service, but there are worse things than a self-aware episode of Girls.
It takes a few more seasons for the four characters to disentangle themselves, and the definition of television — and also possibly love, or guilt, or both — means they’ll never fully disappear from each others’ lives. But the final shot of “Beach House,” when Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna break into silent group choreography, is still one of the best thesis statements for their mismatched foursome. Sometimes friendship is just muscle memory.
Season 5, Episode 6: “The Panic in Central Park”
Ryan O’Hanlon: What would the logline for this episode be? Marnie baptizes herself in Central Park lake. Or maybe: You can either gain 45 pounds or start talking like a Dominican Italian construction worker — never both. Or this: Girls is the best show on television when it becomes a movie.
And last season’s sixth episode might’ve been my favorite movie of 2016. I say movie because, even though it was part of a larger whole, a piece of a multi-episode, multi-season story arc filled with everyone from Han Solo’s son to Lisa Bonet, it stands on its own as one affecting piece of art.
In the episode, Marnie walks out on Desi, her newly betrothed, and runs into her ex-boyfriend, Charlie. The two of them zig and zag through Brooklyn and Manhattan, throw money at a boutique owner, con some replacement cash out of a sleazy old socialite, steal a boat in Central Park, go swimming, get robbed at gunpoint, have sex, decide to start a life together … and then Marnie discovers that Charlie’s using heroin, leaves, and then ends things with Desi, too.
Of course, the episode is filled with emotional notes and callbacks that are amplified by everything that happened in the show’s previous 47 installments — for my lit-crit heads: Desi has a similar aqua-awakening a few episodes earlier — but if you’d never seen a minute of Girls, you could still watch this and come away satisfied. The narrative mechanics and character development of a 90-minute film get strained down into the 30 best minutes the show’s produced.
I find myself liking Girls the most when it’s least like itself and focuses on one character — see: when Hannah spends a day playing nude table tennis with Patrick Wilson — so I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better as a loosely connected string of vignettes, rather than one long, meandering tale. It’s too late now, I guess, but I’m hopeful for Season 6. After all, this has already been a weird year for form; even George Saunders was able to write a novel.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.