At the beginning of the end of Girls, we’ve got many questions. Are Jessa and Adam meant for one another? Will Shoshanna find a job that truly challenges and values her? Will Marnie ever accept that she is a mediocre musician? Why do she and Ray call each other “baby” so much? How are Laird and baby Sample doing?
All that is well and good, but the biggest question — the one that Girls has posed from the very beginning, and the one this episode is most interested in exploring — is whether or not Hannah Horvath can change. Her flaws have been at the center of the Girls narrative (as well as its criticism) from the show’s first episode, and they’ve acted like a tidal force throughout the past five seasons. She hits high points, moments of potential success and nascent stability, and then she crashes into emotional ruin or career collapse. She makes baby steps forward, toward what looks like a happy relationship with Adam or with Fran, her well-paying job at GQ, her book deal, her stint at Iowa, her teaching job, and then some seemingly unavoidable combination of outside events and Hannah-ness inevitably churn her back to into breakdown.
This first episode of season six is built to push all of Hannah’s worst and best tendencies together, and to test exactly how far she’s come. Fresh off the success of her “triumphant” Moth story and the resulting Modern Love column in the New York Times, Hannah’s landed a writing gig with something called SlagMag. She’s asked to cover the phenomenon of insanely rich women from the Hamptons who are co-opting surfing the same way they did yoga. Hannah isn’t even being sent there to be a great surfer, or to do deep reporting on the Montauk surf scene: Her editor (played by Chelsea Peretti) is quite clear that they want Hannah for her “look,” — “your vibe, your shape, your whole thing.”
As we’ve seen time and again, Hannah does not deal well with success. (See also: losing almost every job or career opportunity she’s ever had on the show, even the good ones.) So when she trundles off to surf camp, things go pretty much the way you’d expect them to. She is comically inept at wearing a wetsuit, or doing the surf drills. She pretends to injure herself and ditches the whole exercise. She gets drunk on jewel-toned cocktails, sleeps with a surf instructor named Paul-Louis, and wakes up with plans to go back to her room and write and cry. Not in a “sad way,” she explains, but “a Sunday in high school” kind of way.
In other words, it’s a Hannah Horvath special in the making. All she has to do is hit on her editor, fail to meet her deadline, and then once again ask her father for money. And all of that could still happen. For now, though, she instead agrees to spend the day with Paul-Louis, who’s played with a glorious, sweet dumbness by Riz Ahmed. They hang around the beach in Montauk, walking down docks and looking at fish. They even pull a From Here to Eternity, a scene that balances on a tightrope of recognizing how unpleasant it would be to have actually sex by the ocean, while also being fun and freewheeling and legitimately sexual. Hannah is truly, actually happy, in the unselfconscious way of a little kid.
The epiphanies she has on the beach with Paul-Louis are remarkably, almost hilariously trite. He is a peripatetic, sunnily uncomplicated person, a guy who’d be called “ditzy” if he were a woman. He’s also a “really special person,” something Hannah realizes by actually listening to him talk about himself. The idea that it’s easier to love something than to hate it, that hate takes energy while love “gives vibes,” that Hannah’s friends are too often defined by what they dislike — these are all ideas that feel right. They’re certainly true in the clear, uncluttered, uncomplicated way you’d feel while staring out at a beach sunset after getting high and watching Hangin’ With Mr Cooper.
Trite though they may be, Hannah’s ability to see those truths, and to actually listen to and honestly appreciate Paul-Louis as a person, represents some of the best of who she can be. All along, Hannah’s desire has been to pursue interesting, wide-ranging, challenging experiences, and to write about them. Yes, that desire has led to frustrating self-centeredness, self-destruction, and occasional cowardice. But the desire is still there, and in the case of Paul-Louis and this beach, Hannah readily admits that her initial impressions were wrong. When he then casually stuns her by explaining that he has a girlfriend, she’s ready to be furious and put out, but then she lets herself accept that as well. The beach trip initially seems like it’ll be the worst of Hannah — she’s given responsibility and opportunity, then goes about squandering it through laziness and carelessness. Instead, she becomes open and thoughtful. Although her nature-inspired realizations may sound like Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts, they’re also surprisingly positive.
Well, positive for the most part. Hannah’s still pretty blind when it comes to her friends — the idea that her friends are more defined by the things they hate than the things they like is something that sounds more true than it may actually be. Speaking of whom, “All I Ever Wanted” spends most of its time with Hannah, but it also finds a few moments to catch up with the rest of the gang. Shoshanna really only gets a moment to yell about Paul Krugman (“fuck you, Paul Krugman!”), and the brief scene we see of Jessa and Adam suggests that they’re living in a naked, yogurt-filled sex cave that doesn’t seem sustainable in the long term.
The biggest non-Hannah story belongs to Marnie, who’s still trying to sleep with Ray, but seems unwilling to actually commit to him. Why Ray still puts up with Marnie is completely baffling to me. They call each other baby about 47 times, but nothing about their time together in this episode suggests that they like each other at all, or are even attracted to each other. Even the very brief Ray/Shoshanna scene suggests that they’re significantly more compatible than Ray is with Marnie. Meanwhile, as Ray is discovering that Adam and Jessa shoved aside all his stuff so that they’d have more room for sex (?!), Marnie’s off having not-yet-divorced, Fleetwood Mac-style sex with Desi, the only person on this show with any real belief in her musical talent. It’s hard to believe that Desi is the best partner for Marnie, but it’s similarly hard to believe that she’d ever be happy with Ray. “Who would ever make you actually happy?” is as good a summary of Marnie’s journey on this series as any.
The final scene of the episode returns to Hannah at the beach with Paul-Louis. They’re gathered around a bonfire, listening to one of his surf instructor friends sing “She’s So High” and smiling beatifically, like it’s the last day of summer camp or something. It’s no accident that this scene take places after Hannah overcomes her impulse to be furious at Paul-Louis, after she recognizes that it was always going to be a brief, impermanent thing for her as well. It feels like growth. It feels like an ending, really. But that last shot of Hannah looking at the bonfire is a beautiful, subtly perfect unscrewing of her Zen-like embrace of the fleeting moment. She’s smiling, childlike, utterly unconcerned with judgment or self-consciousness or anything beyond the fire and the music … and then her expression shifts. Right there at the end, in the final split second before the episode cuts to black, all that uncluttered happiness collapse. The world comes rushing back. Her mouth twists.
The final shot of season five was of Hannah, determined and triumphant, running forward into the future. It was freeze-frame, an extended opportunity to read the confidence and resolve on her face. Its companion shot is here — another close-up of Hannah’s face, but this time showing us just the briefest glimpse of doubt before the credits kick in. It’s not confident, happy Hannah. It’s the Hannah who’s suddenly realized she has to go back to New York, she has to somehow write this story, and she has to keep going. Much though she might like to run away and be a surf instructor and land that gig at Atlantis, she’s still herself. Maybe she has grown. But she’s also the same as she ever was.