“I have never felt such a profound need to, like, Instagram a stranger.”
Hannah Horvath says that in the sixth and final season of Girls to an actual stranger, the beautiful owner of a shop that she visits while on a road trip. It’s peak Hannah, a 13-word summation of many of the qualities that make her at once endearing and insufferable. There’s the reflexive self-dramatization of the writer compulsively narrating her own life; the youthful vocal tic (“like”) that brings her grandiosity down a notch, thank goodness; and the infuriating triviality of the wish that Hannah felt an urgent need to blurt out. Underneath it all is a sense of the ephemeral that makes Girls poignant to viewers who don’t, like, loathe the show on principle. This moment, like all moments, like life itself, is fleeting: The instant you register an epiphany of any scale, it gets buried in the cosmic feed.
And of course, this is the sort of moment that might exasperate even a devotee of this HBO series by Lena Dunham, Jenni Konner, and Judd Apatow, which has been a continuous object of controversy since its debut. If you’re reading this piece, you know the charges by heart: unbearable whiteness; a related clumsiness in relating to people of color; a persistent, at times aggressive-seeming obnoxiousness when it comes to rubbing the characters’ often petty, selfish behavior in our faces. And then there’s Dunham herself, an exemplar of body-positive bigness and a magnet for internet fat shamers who don’t think anyone over a size eight should be allowed to take her clothes off on camera; one of the most prominent and critically scrutinized female creators in TV history, and a celebrity who’s regularly accused of being a bad feminist; a public figure who can’t seem to go a month without having to apologize for something she said, and who’s probably done more to embolden young female filmmakers working in a sardonic, earthbound vein than anyone since Elaine May. The show is Dunham and Dunham is the show, in subtle as well as obvious ways. I can’t think of another current writer-director who seems as inclined to treat both life and art as a workshop in which everything is raw material and there are no failures, only moments that did or didn’t go as the artist hoped. Because Girls is all of a piece — folding the sublime and the tasteless, the sloppy and the meticulous into nearly every scene — you have to accept the totality, including the parts you can’t stand, otherwise you can’t watch the show at all.
The first three episodes of season six, all written by Dunham, suggest that Girls will go out as it came in: lancing its characters’ pretensions and delusions while demanding that we care about them as people, and working in a storytelling mode that’s lightly serialized with stand-alone plotlines and structural stunts mixed in. Episode one focuses mainly on Hannah as she parlays her first splashy newspaper piece into a contract freelancing gig writing vaguely Vice-like “And then I went here and did this” pieces for a hipster-baiting lifestyle publication. The show’s other major characters get reintroduced reacting to Hannah’s success — some approvingly, others with surprise, admiration, discomfort, or resentment.
But most of the story is about Hannah’s visiting the Hamptons to research a surfing school aimed at rich women and crushing on a laid-back surf instructor (a beguiling guest appearance by Riz Ahmed of HBO’s The Night Of, who seems relieved to be playing a happy person). It’s a strong episode that showcases Dunham’s fearless physicality: She grinds on a dance floor, enacts a comic millennial version of From Here to Eternity’s beach scene, and dons a pink wet suit that makes her look like Gumby’s sister. It also gives you a sense of the kind of woman she might be evolving into, as well as the one she’ll always be, for better or worse.
The second episode is more of an ensemble check-in that distributes its screen time between Hannah’s roommate Elijah (Andrew Rannells), the indefatigable Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), her ex-boyfriend Ray (Alex Karpovsky), Ray’s sex partner Marnie (Allison Williams), and Marnie’s ex-husband Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), and that briefly seems to validate Hannah’s loathing of her ex-boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver), who’s now dating Hannah’s former best friend Jessa (Jemima Kirke).
I can think of no better summation of the show’s strengths and weaknesses than this alternately compelling and badly misjudged half-hour. A subplot that finds Shoshanna visiting an event for women entrepreneurs with Elijah and Jessa in tow spotlights Girls’ knack for finding new target-rich environments for satire. Even as the show takes Shoshanna’s need for this kind of organization at face value, it wastes no time skewering its acronym (WEMUN: Women Entrepreneurs Meet Up Now), mocking its business-speak catchphrases (the group promises to teach its members “how to synergize and mobilize”), and showing how its founders flaunt success based on opportunism and fads (“You guys literally cracked open the market on athletic denim!” Shoshanna peals).
On the flip side, though, it never quite convinces us that Elijah, Shoshanna, and Jessa would be at this event together, only that it needed to put them in the same space so that necessary things could happen. Answering the question, “Why would these people continue to spend time together?” has become more of a problem as Girls’ characters have aged, deepened, and experienced successes and failures that had little to do with their peers.
A parallel subplot involving Hannah, Marnie, and Desi introduces a massively important new bit of character development so suddenly that they might as well have shown new pages being delivered to the actors in their trailers. Here, too, though, Girls delivers incidental pleasures that feel exactly right, such as the striped “Where’s Waldo?” shirt and Team Zissou hat that Desi wears, and Shoshanna saying that when she gets to spend time with old friends, she feels as if she’s gotten “an emotional face-lift.”
Episode three, a bottle episode directed by Richard Shepard that finds Hannah visiting a charismatic but sleazy bestselling novelist in his townhouse, is an outrage generator that’s sure to launch a thousand hot takes. It’s a two-character play, showcasing a guest performance by The Americans’ Matthew Rhys that equals Patrick Wilson’s work as the doctor in season two’s “One Man’s Trash.” But it’s also aggressively meta in the way that it deals with some of the issues that have followed Girls and Dunham around like gnats since 2012, and although it broaches some of its topics organically and with true wit, parts of it have position-paper feeling. It is at its best when treating the novelist as both a promise and a warning of what Hannah could become, personally as well as artistically. It’s at its weakest when it has the characters take pro and con positions on the sexual power dynamics of male celebrities and female groupies, feminism as practiced in life and as monetized by websites, and so forth. At once naturalistic and rhetorical, self-serving and disarmingly honest, the episode feels like a summation of the show’s conflicted attitude toward media outlets that know Girls is good for clicks no matter what. It even seems to realize what trouble it has gotten itself into: Hanging on the wall of the novelist’s study is an illustration of Woody Allen with a saint’s halo behind his head, pointing a revolver at his own temple.