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‘Girls’ Was Better Than Its Last Season

Parsing the conservative, sometimes maddening final episodes of an iconic show

(HBO/Ringer illustration)
(HBO/Ringer illustration)

To paraphrase a Joan Didion essay that Hannah Horvath can definitely quote from memory: It is easy to figure out the beginnings of TV shows, and harder to see the ends. Girls, which ended its sometimes brilliant, sometimes maddening final season Sunday night, was a show that had occasionally been radical both in form (it perfected and perhaps forever changed the bottle episode) and content (ditto the awkward-sex scene). But it ended on an oddly conventional note, and I’m not just talking about Hannah’s embrace of motherhood. In the final few episodes of Girls, the usually pessimistic show kept pulling unbelievably happy endings out of thin air for nearly its whole motley ensemble. Ray found love in a hopeless place (Williamsburg in the summer). Shoshana found a deus ex fiancé whom we (like Hannah) had never seen before. Even when the conclusions weren’t happy, per se, they were definitive: In the wrenching third-to-last episode, Adam and Hannah tried and failed to rekindle their romance one last, ill-fated time, as if the viewing audience needed any more proof that these two weren’t destined to be together. In its last few episodes, Girls underwent a strange tonal shift: A show that once drew much of its power from its fluidity and open-endedness became, at the last minute, uncharacteristically obsessed with the most traditional kinds of narrative closure.

“Latching,” Sunday night’s series finale, featured only three of Girls’ main characters: Hannah, Marnie, and Hannah’s mom, Loreen (a series-best episode for Becky Ann Baker, who’s been consistently excellent and underpraised throughout the show’s run). After a short prologue in which Marnie tells a very pregnant Hannah that she’d like to help her raise her child, we flash forward five months to Hannah’s new home upstate. Marnie is living with her, helping Hannah take care of her new son, Grover, and — ever the perfectionist — proving to be more adept than Hannah is at the duties of motherhood. Although Marnie is clearly being her overbearing self, Hannah is also being disproportionately cruel to her, demanding that she stay in the one night she expresses a desire to go out on the town (or at least the upstate version of “out on the town,” a wine-and-cheese tasting with live music from a jazz trio — one of those perfectly self-parodying Girls details). Throughout the episode, a harried Hannah struggles to accept the emotional responsibilities of motherhood, frustratedly concluding that her baby “hates” her because she’s having a tough time getting him to breastfeed.

We’re led to believe that she’s suddenly turned a corner, though, after she has a random encounter in which she admonishes a moody, Abercrombie-clad teen who’s just had an argument with her own mom. “Do you think your mom wants to tell you to do your homework?” Hannah asks her. “No, but that’s her entire job, that’s her job in the world. She has a million, trillion things she’d rather be doing. … She’ll take care of you forever even if it means endless, endless pain!” Before our very eyes, as if a switch has been flipped, Hannah understands the sacrifice of motherhood. When she returns home, Grover finally latches. And that’s a wrap on Hannah Horvath.

Throughout its six-year run, Girls often made me think of a line that’s stuck with me from Mike Mills’s 2010 movie Beginners. “We didn’t go to this war,” says the movie’s protagonist in a voice-over, speaking about his aimless generation. “We didn’t have to hide to have sex. Our good fortune allowed us to feel a sadness that our parents didn’t have time for and a happiness that I never saw with them.” Though the people in Beginners are a little older than Hannah and her cohort, Girls spoke to a similar mood. It was a show about the very particular kinds of sadnesses and joys that spring from the great privilege of having too many options about how to compose a life. It was a show about the glory and the terror of freedom, which loomed large for these characters both as individuals and as a part of a larger whole. Back in 2012, in her New York magazine cover story (the benevolent patient zero of Girls think pieces), the critic Emily Nussbaum spoke with Jemima Kirke about her performance as Jessa. The character “‘has her own kind of agenda, lives by her own rules — some people might even say a free spirit, but I hate that term.’ Most free spirits aren’t free at all, [Kirke] adds: ‘They’re quite the opposite.’”

“I think that I may be the voice of my generation,” Hannah Horvath tells her parents in the first episode of Girls. “Or at least a voice of a generation.”

When asked about this famous line in Oberlin’s alumni magazine several years later, Lena Dunham tried to put it in some context. “I mean, the character said it when she was on drugs. It couldn’t be more of a joke. I’ve kind of settled into the fact that it’s going to be on my tombstone. But it was funny because I was trying to think of the most absurd, self-righteous thing you could ever say.”

Fictitiously drug-induced or not, this kind of swaggering grandstanding was what made Girls what it was; the broad stroke of the show’s title was perfectly in line with that kind of a declaration. (Imagine how different the conversations about the show would have been had it called itself something less presumptuous — say, Crashing, or Looking, or even Entourage, to pull a few possibilities from the HBO lineup.) In a culture in which authority and generational representation are coded male by default, Girls was a show that tried to be definitive of something feminine. Of course, it was also this generation-defining stance that illuminated the show’s most-glaring blind spots: the unexamined whiteness, the assumption of certain financial privilege, the slippery slope between critiquing millennial narcissism and indulging it. Since Girls’ rise was parallel to the rise of the internet think piece, the creators of the show became more aware of these criticisms than they may have been in earlier eras of TV — for better and for worse. Any time the show tried to correct some of those oft-critiqued blind spots — like the inclusion of a random, undeveloped black love interest (Donald Glover) or even the decision to make Hannah’s baby mixed race — the echo chamber made it difficult to decipher which choices were genuine and which were merely reactionary. (If, at this point in the social media TV conversation, there’s any discernible difference between the two.)

The show will be forever tied up in its technological, sexual, and cultural moment. Only a few months before the 2012 debut of Girls, Kate Bolick had published her much-discussed lightning rod of an Atlantic cover story “All the Single Ladies,” a lengthy interrogation of why women were now marrying and having children much later, if they were doing either of these things at all. But like many of the women reporting on millennials, Bolick wasn’t quite one herself; a show written by then-24-year-old Lena Dunham brought with it the possibility of following a subset of white women who were not so bound by the traditional female milestones and biological deadlines.

But too much freedom can be just as frightening as its opposite, the characters of Girls soon learned. Hannah articulated something like that realization midway through the second season, during a monologue in what will rightly be remembered as one of the series’ best episodes, “One Man’s Trash.” “I realized I’m not different,” she says tearfully to the dreamy, established doctor Joshua (Patrick Wilson). “I want what everyone wants, I want what they all want. I want all the things.”

Those “things” turned out to be pretty conventional. The show had been touted as a kind of rebuttal to the young women we were used to seeing on TV — a radical take on body image and stereotypes about feminine kindness. But by the end of its run, all four protagonists of the show had either been married (and divorced), engaged, or had a child. They were all 28 or younger. In the Girls universe, those old-fashioned milestones might not have been so old-fashioned after all.

Throughout the series, Hannah Horvath was a human question mark, but the final season tried to redraw her as a period. It was that questioning nature that made the show’s occasional forays into fantasy and surrealism work (particularly in the bottle episodes, like “One Man’s Trash” and “American Bitch”), but in the final season, there was a lot of belief to suspend. Hannah’s writing career took off at a hard-to-believe pace (even after she botched that surfing assignment). She seemed to have a conclusive conversation with every difficult person in her life: Jessa, Adam, Grover’s father, Paul-Louis. Of course, there was that much-scrutinized job offer to teach writing at a college upstate — not to mention the fact that the doctor who told her she was pregnant was Joshua, who she hooked up with in Season 2.

It was sort of alarming how many characters offered to put their entire lives on hold to coparent Hannah’s child. Elijah’s proposition was probably only nominal (“Our kid is gonna have great skin and be the right kind of slutty!”), but Adam’s was definitely not — it’s a miracle they didn’t move in together before realizing what an awful idea it was. Marnie, though, actually followed through on her promise. “I can admit that I don’t, like, have a lot of other things going on,” she tells Hannah at the beginning of the finale, after having snuck into her home. “I’m currently living in my mom’s home gym, and my band broke up, but the thing is, I still have a lot to give.” By the next scene, Marnie has all but given up her city life (save for a personal trainer with whom she has Skype sex) and moved into Hannah’s remote country house as a kind of live-in nanny.

There was a strange kind of desperation in the way these characters tried to (forgive me) latch on to Hannah’s pregnancy, as though it were the first irrefutably adult thing that had happened to anyone they knew — the first life event for which, as Loreen points out, there could be no take backs. It felt both believable and a little overblown, how ready all these characters suddenly were to give up the aimlessness of their 20s and throw themselves toward the milestones and life goals they’d once rejected as being too conventional. It is nice to know some approximation of the fates of these characters we’d all spent so much time with, but I just don’t think that Girls needed to be the kind of show that told us how all these characters “ended up.” Very few people have “ended up” yet at 27 or 28, least of all Hannah Horvath.

It’s not terribly surprising to hear that the finale’s breastfeeding plot came from the mind of Judd Apatow, who tends to lean on family as convenient story resolution. The decision to close the show with the small triumph of Grover latching onto his mother’s breast was nice, but in its suggestion (however much Dunham disagrees) that becoming a mother was the ultimate act of fulfillment for Hannah, it belied the themes of feminine discovery and self-determination that fueled the entire series. The show’s previous season finale had a much more powerful ending: a freeze frame of Hannah sprinting across the Williamsburg Bridge, toward an unknown destination. Dunham is a film lover, so it’s easy to believe this shot was an allusion to the all-time classic ending of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, in which a freeze-frame shot captures the face of the troubled protagonist, Antoine Doinel, the moment before he reaches the coastline he’s been sprinting toward. To stop the movie there was to suggest something sad but wise about human nature: We’re most ourselves right before we get the things we think we want. It would have been perfect and tragically poetic to leave him suspended in midair like that forever. But Truffaut, like Dunham and her colleagues, just couldn’t do it: He made four more Antoine Doinel movies.

It’s a fool’s game, to retroactively pick the exact moment you wish a TV show had ended, but I’m going to play it anyway. I wish Girls had wrapped at the close of its fifth season. That’s how I’d like to remember Hannah Horvath: alone, sprinting across the Williamsburg on a balmy summer night, having just read her triumphant piece at the Moth and left the fruit basket on Jessa and Adam’s doorstep (“In perpetuity, Hannah”) — astonished at her newfound senses of stamina and eloquence and maturity. Long before she got all the things, or even some of the things — the flourishing career, the professorship, the baby — but frozen in the exact moment she oriented her body in their direction.

Disclaimer: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.