Every show about creative work faces the same obstacle: We’re supposed to believe in a character’s talent as a writer/comedian/actor/what-have-you, but we’re hampered by the quality of the work itself. Whatever else you may think about Sex and the City, it’s hard to believe in Carrie’s career as a successful columnist when the snippets of writing presented via voice-over are so routinely terrible. This is the problem that helped crater Studio 60, and elevated Slings & Arrows, where the Shakespeare performances are often hammy, but still surprisingly effective.
This has always been, and will always be, a challenge for Girls. It’s a show that very closely ties its characters to their successful (or failed) creative outputs, and the demonstrations of its characters’ work are as big a part of the show as anything else. Hannah’s writing has gotten the most attention — let’s all think back to the trigger-warning reading she gave at Iowa and shudder — but we’ve also gotten lots of Marnie’s music, small moments of Adam’s acting, and tons more from minor characters like Booth Jonathan.
This fifth season of Girls has been spectacular, and there are lots of reasons why. I can point to the performances — especially Jemima Kirke’s Jessa and Allison William’s Marnie — as being particularly strong. The decision to follow the main characters through stories that lead beyond the small sphere of Hannah’s apartment has been transformational. Hannah’s parents were given room to be tragic, thoughtful people, rather than just parent-shaped balls of uncool concern.
But this season has done another thing very well: It’s giving us a break from Hannah’s writing. Of course, Hannah has fallen apart in the interim. Her relationship with Fran was doomed, she spiraled downward into increasingly terrible choices, she became consumed with rage and misery over Jessa’s relationship with Adam, and she drifted apart from her other friends. It’s been a difficult couple of months for Hannah, and her struggles lead to narrative opportunity in the season finale, “I Love You Baby,” which gives us Hannah’s return to a creative life in the form of a story for the Moth.
Hannah’s story about jealousy is the season’s capstone, in no small part because it manages to be Very Classically Hannah Horvath and shows glimmers of possibility in her future. As Hannah stands on the Moth stage (in front of Ophira Eisenberg and everybody), she frames her season-long arc as an escape from the tangle of Jessa and Adam, while also accepting that she will always have to live with herself. She’s self-deprecating, she’s aware of her flaws (“I’m not like a cool, relaxed lady”), and she creates an end for her story, both in the story she tells and in the eyes of Girls viewers. The fruit basket she leaves for Jessa and Adam is really there, sitting outside their door.
Sure, it’s not a masterpiece. She is not, in this moment, the voice of her generation or “a generation.” And yet, she is the focus. Jenni Konner’s direction puts Hannah dead center, and the camera slowly pulls in on her with an almost-four-minute shot that’s neither flashy nor stylized, but deeply considerate of its subject. Thanks to her mother’s shopping trip, Hannah’s wearing an outfit that suggests she’s pulled things together a little — and she has started running. (Leave it to Elijah to point out that Hannah’s “a Moth ‘nine.’”) And unlike so frequently in the past, Hannah is not manufacturing events to mine details for a dramatic story. It’s the kind of authenticity-plus-distance that Tally Schifrin dreams of finding. It feels like Hannah finally got a win.
Hannah’s writing aside, an unusual and brilliant thing about this season has been its willingness to avoid the familiar model of separating characters and then pulling them back together. Last season, for instance, began with Hannah at Iowa and ended with Hannah, Jessa, and Adam all clustered together around the disaster of Caroline’s home birth, shortly after Shoshanna told Jessa she was moving to Japan, which left only Marnie hanging out in a separate thread. This season, we started with all four protagonists (and nearly all the side characters) at Marnie’s wedding, and then watched as Girls gradually pulled them apart.
Marnie ends the season by setting off on tour with Desi, destined to knock on his door in search of her open-toed shoes while he gets head from Des-merized groupies. Ray, from his love-blinkered point of view, seems perfectly happy to carry her guitar and figure out how much zinc she needs.
Shoshanna, with Hermie’s support, stages a triumphant comeback for Ray’s Coffee by rebranding it as an anti-hipster bastion. The new Ray’s is filled with signs that ban man-buns, support Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, and suggest that their costumers Trust the Government. And, much to Shoshanna’s glee, the Times Thursday Style section is on it. After Shoshanna’s stunning run in these ten episodes, her work at Ray’s feels like a bit of a letdown, but I have hopes for her in the final season. Plus, she gets to do a nice little dance with Hermie in the shop at night.
While Hannah is off needing to be reminded that she can’t bring notes onto the Moth stage (that was the most implausible thing about this plot — of course Hannah would know that), Jessa and Adam are pulling a Mr. and Mrs. Smith at his apartment, but without any of the fun spy stuff. Adam is still focused on helping Laird take care of Sample, and snaps at Jessa for putting too much food on Sample’s spoon. He also carefully examines Laird for signs of drug use when he comes back to the apartment, a suspicion that makes sense and also makes me deeply fearful for poor Sample’s future.
The buildup is easy enough to anticipate: With Caroline’s departure, and his anxiety about Laird, and the very real pressures of taking care of an infant, Adam’s patience with Jessa grows thin. But Jessa, who can feel Adam’s attention drifting and obviously still feels guilty, is the one who really ignites the fire. She brings up Hannah again and again before finally screaming that Adam forced her to violate her principles and steal someone else’s boyfriend, and that she’ll never forgive him.
Adam and Jessa’s fight is incredibly intense. They scream, they throw things, they knock over bookshelves. At one point, Adam breaks through a door in what looks like a reference to The Shining. There’s a sequence that’s filmed like a gut-wrenching tennis match, with a camera positioned between them like a silent third person, swiveling back and forth as each character spews invective and hurls ceramics. Seriously, there are a lot of breakable things in that apartment. The third-person perspective feels all too appropriate — the person still stuck between them, of course, is Hannah. We later learn that Hannah was actually there and witnessed the chaos inside while she dropped off her farewell fruit basket.
As the season ends, we’re left with what feels like an unusual victory, with characters drifting apart rather than winding back together. The closing montage to “Can’t Keep My Eyes Off of You” underlines that mood by finding moments of happiness (or at least some peace) for nearly everyone. Marnie watches as Ray bangs on Desi’s door, which doesn’t seem like much fun, and Elijah and Loreen find some wry humor in each other. Meanwhile, Shoshanna can dance with Hermie, and Tad can knock on Keith’s door, and Adam and Jessa end their brutal battle the only way they know how — by having sex in the wreckage of his apartment.
After her successful Moth reading, and after pulling herself out of such really dark lows, the final shot of the season is of Hannah walking across the Williamsburg Bridge, and then slowly starting to run. It’s an echo of the episode’s opening shot, where we saw Hannah inelegantly but determinedly running outside her apartment. In spite of Hannah’s patent willpower, that first run is played for laughs — she pauses constantly, and never goes beyond her own block. This time, the run looks much more inspirational, and those jokey pauses are transformed into a final, triumphant freeze-frame.
The final image in “I Love You Baby” could be a reference to any number of concluding freeze-frames. It’s most likely an allusion to The 400 Blows, but may also callback to Butch Cassidy, or even Rocky III. However, the most interesting potential reference is to another shot entirely — the closing hat throw in the Mary Tyler Moore credits. It’s a hopeful reading for the end of this season, maybe more than Hannah has fully earned. But as she runs across that bridge, I’m tempted to think she’s gonna make it after all.