The problem of how to end Girls has always rested on the problem of what we want from Hannah. Do we ultimately want her to succeed? Or do we want her to continue to cycle through failures, moving forward but not really changing? And if she does succeed, what does that look like? Does it look like career success, or some other measure of maturity? Whose measure of maturity?
The answer, it turns out, seems to be exactly the thing Hannah struggled against for so long. She is measured against the maturity, and the success, of her mother.
The episode begins with Marnie, at loose ends and living in her mother’s home gym. She offers to come live with Hannah in her magical upstate country home and help raise her son. Hannah, pregnant and alone, accepts. (“I’m here,” says Marnie. “I win.” Hannah’s “… yeah, okay?” response is the definition of underenthused.) And then we leap forward five months to Hannah at a pediatrician’s office, fretting about Grover’s inability to breastfeed and whether he’s gaining enough weight. Grover, by the way, is the one thing his father mentioned to Hannah in their only disappointing post-Hamptons phone conversation: Paul-Louis told Hannah he kind of liked the name.
To no one’s surprise — perhaps least of all hers — Hannah’s falling apart. Marnie keeps bugging her about breastfeeding, and the correct way to position her nipples, and Hannah both pushes her aside and leans on her like a crutch, alternating between snapping at Marnie and being truly astonished that Marnie could imagine actually leaving Hannah alone with the baby for a night. And so Marnie calls Hannah’s mother, who arrives bearing the hammer of truth. “No one understands!” Hannah yells to Loreen. She’s decided to do this brave, courageous thing alone, but now her son hates her, she can’t feed him the way she’d like, Marnie keeps judging her, and she’s freaking out that she’ll raise Grover to be a quitter. Loreen, in what’s probably Becky Ann Baker’s best performance of the series, is having none of it. “Your son is not a temp job!” she yells after Hannah. “Do you know who else is in emotional pain? Fucking everyone.”
Watch the most painfully self-centered things Hannah has ever said.
Hannah goes charging off into the rural New York not-even-suburbs, furious and desperate and uncertain, and Marnie and Loreen wait for her at home, talking out their own issues and hoping Hannah will come back sometime soon. They’ve run out of breast milk.
The breastfeeding idea — its literal implications, its thematic resonances — weigh heavily on this finale episode, which has the not-too-subtle title “Latching.” Hannah can’t get Grover to latch, which becomes both literally and symbolically emblematic of her abilities as a mother. She can’t bond with him. She hates pumping, and is worried she won’t be able to give him the very best food; it’s nutrition that Marnie helpfully points out is “liquid gold” that will ensure Grover’s long-lasting health, his mental and emotional development, and even his ability to get a job with a good salary some day. Hannah’s onboard. She’s committed to the idea that breastfeeding him is best, but her inability to do so snowballs into an existential crisis about her more global failures as a mother.
And it’s more than that. From the very first episode, Girls has been a series about whether Hannah could detach. We usually put that idea into different, more positive terms: She needs to launch, she needs to stand on her own, she needs to be self-sufficient. But really, it’s been a question of whether she can separate, can unfasten herself, from her parents, from boyfriends, and from former friends. Doing so is maturity, Girls has seemed to suggest. Maturity is independence and autonomy, and reliance on no one. And so now, at the end, irony of ironies, the thing Hannah needs most is to help her son latch. As it turns out, acting “like a fucking grown-up” for Hannah doesn’t look like the disconnection and separation the series has depicted her wrestling with from the start. It’s accepting her mother’s help, it’s letting Marnie live her own life, and it’s figuring out how to bond with her child.
While Hannah’s out trekking around the very quiet streets, Loreen and Marnie have a heart-to-heart. Marnie cannot stay there, of course, even though she’s figured out how to have something like a sex life with the magic of video chatting, and has also got the whole flannel-PJs, hair-braid look down pat. It’s a nice conclusion for Marnie, whose rampant self-centeredness is somehow transformed into an equally destructive, and yet totally plausible, urge for self-abnegation. Loreen, bringer of wisdom, shuts that down quickly. It’s the fastest way to destroy her friendship with Hannah forever, she tells Marnie.
So that leaves us with Hannah, wandering around in the darkness, trying to come to terms with her life. She runs into a teenager, fleeing desperately from her home, and the panic Hannah initially assumes is a disaster scenario is actually just classic teen angst. This, with Hannah furious and stern, is probably the moment the finale tells us that Hannah grows up, morphing into Loreen in front of our very eyes. This teen’s mother, Hannah yells, is gonna tell her to do her homework “because it’s what’s fucking GOOD for you,” and even though parenting is “endless, endless pain,” that mother is going to take care of that teen “FOREVER.” Hannah, inevitably, trudges back to her house, accompanied by a gently funny, slow-moving cop car just trying to make sure she’s safe. (This relationship, by the way, has one of my favorite lines of the episode. Why is Hannah wandering in the dark with no pants? Well, she just had a baby. “Sounds about right,” says the cop.) Hannah sits on the porch between her mother and Marnie, and when Grover starts crying upstairs, Hannah is the one to go get him. “I got it,” she tells them.
Season five ended with Hannah charging across a bridge in New York City, newly hopeful about herself as a writer and newly confident in her ability to cope with all the interpersonal drama she struggled with throughout the series. It ended with a freeze frame, turning triumphant forward movement into something still. It made a static ending out of motion. It was one way of capturing a sense of continuing forward progress while also creating a sense of conclusion.
“Latching” ends with some of that same forward-looking projection — after glimpsing a vision of future parenting, Hannah goes upstairs to her son and finally succeeds in getting him to latch. She sings to him softly; he feeds happily. We can imagine the future stretching out before them both, with Hannah balancing teaching and being a parent, with Loreen helping as much as she can, with Tad coming up from the city and bringing wine and cheese, with Grover (his name is Grover!) hopefully finding some school where he’s not the only non-white kid in the class. But where season five ended with Hannah pushing herself forward into the unknown, the series finale feels much more cyclical.
As envisioned by Girls, maturity and growth and grown-up-hood does not look like Hannah running helter-skelter into the night, careening wildly into a future unknown. Nor does it look like Adam running into her apartment like the end of a romantic comedy, scooping her up and rescuing her. It looks like Hannah, by herself, choosing to go back home and be a parent. (Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she was going back that way even before the police escort showed up.)
I’m not yet sure how I feel about the trajectory this finale sketches for Hannah as a complete character. I’m not particularly enamored of the way it jettisoned every mention of her as a person separate from her role as a mother. I also wish Hannah had been able to come to an appreciation of her mother as a person without needing to undergo the trial by fire of having her own child. But there’s no arguing that the idea of parenting, and of latching more specifically, forms an almost uncannily coherent symmetry for the series.
Hannah needing to grapple with the undeniable, all-encompassing identity shift that comes with parenting is a nicely dramatic ending gesture for the series, but it also fits neatly with what Girls has been about from the start. It’s almost puzzlelike in how nicely it ties up the dominant preoccupations of the series, all the way down to how it threads the breastfeeding needle at the end. Thanks to Hannah’s absence, Loreen has had to give Grover formula, which was not the end of the world. Everything turned out fine. And that distance, that acceptance that latching was not the end-all-be-all of parenting accomplishment, was the same thing that then let Hannah and Grover do it successfully.
If the questions all along have been Can Hannah grow up? Can she detach?, it turns out that the answer is, Yes, but growing up looks different than she imagined it would. So Hannah rocks her son and feeds him, singing “Fast Car” to him gently and settling into her new life. It’s an odd song choice. But it underscores the closing image, which is not of Hannah standing on her own, but of the two of them, heading into the future together.