After Adam walks out of the stage door in his beautiful suit; after he tells Hannah, “I’m sick of trying to work it out. Can’t one thing ever be easy with you?”; after Hannah has the last, and for once elegant, word and leaves him to wait in the alley until she’s gone; and after Adam poses reluctantly for pictures with the rest of the cast and receives the kiss on the cheek in front of photographers that will propel him into a different kind of life, Hannah comes home to her apartment alone.
Marnie’s left for Manhattan. Elijah’s living goodness knows where. Adam seems likely to continue to occupy Ray’s bathtub, at least for the foreseeable future. Caroline is having a baby with Laird. And the camera lingers over the picturesque houses tattooed on Hannah’s back, reminding us of the difference between a dwelling and an actual home. Having broken up with her boyfriend for the second time in three seasons, Hannah picks up the taped-together letter that is her acceptance to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and holds it to her lips and then her heart. A smile flowers on her face, as big as the one that bloomed while Adam was onstage, even as tears threaten to turn her careful eye makeup into a disaster area. After years of watching Hannah Horvath struggle to make it in New York, she’s contemplating life outside of it. If this had been the final image of Girls, the scene might have lingered in our memories as even more piercingly poignant than it actually is, a liberating rebuke to the ideas, propagated by culture high and low, that brought Hannah and her friends to New York City in the first place.
But Girls was renewed for a fourth season before this one even began airing. And I wish Girls had ended on that sad, lovely, exciting note because so much of what happened in its third season was so uneven, an inconsistency that was all over this final episode.
Girls has sinned most against poor Shoshanna Shapiro this season, whiplashing her from lobotomized to venomous, and treating her “sexual walkabout” as an afterthought even to its afterthoughts. Shoshanna has always been different from her group of friends — younger, more ethnic, oriented toward business rather than the arts — and “Beach House” offered up welcome reassurance that, no matter what else had happened to her this season, she knew her friendships weren’t exactly working out for her. But Girls has been so little interested in the potential story lines of Shosh’s social anxiety, or the potential gap between her talents, her interests, and her end goals, that it’s jarring to find out she isn’t graduating from NYU, and to see the Shosh of the last two years reemerge.
“I want you back. I want you back. I miss you. I made a mistake. This whole entire year of freedom was just fucking stupid, and I want to be with you again,” Shoshanna tells Ray sadly, reaching for all of her clichés. “You made me a more stable human. And you made me want to be the best version of myself. And I want to be your girlfriend again and I want to pretend that I was never not your girlfriend before.”
It’s incredibly sad to see Shoshanna learn these inevitable lessons. But any feeling I have for the character is undercut by the fact that Girls is trying to shoehorn a meaningful story line for her into the season’s final half hour. Girls sometimes does lovely things with its artisanally crafted half hours, but Shoshanna’s character this season is a stark illustration of how badly the show can drop an arc, a discipline it might have to hew to more closely were it operating under the more punishing demands of a network schedule.
Jessa’s trajectory this season has almost the reverse problem: her grudging trip through rehab, her attraction to work, and her relapse were all handled beautifully. But Jessa’s realization that Beadie only hired her because she believed Jessa could get her access to the drugs Beadie needed to kill herself doesn’t have nearly the sting it should have. And that Beadie decides she wants to live conveniently spares Jessa any sort of legal consequences she might have faced for helping the other woman. It’s a dodge for Girls to act like Jessa hit bottom, then to manufacture a much deeper precipice. For all of its sexual bluntness, all the Q-tips in Hannah’s ears, Girls can be surprisingly lacking in conviction.
Something similar happens with Marnie, who seduces Desi by bringing him a guitar pick that James Taylor once owned because “I know that he’s a hero of yours, both in his music, and in the honest way he lives his life.” It might have been interesting for Girls to lean in a little harder on the idea that Desi is sort of a fraud, rather than suggesting that he’s bringing Marnie into true artistry, or for the show to see him as grosser than Marnie does, a guy who’s scamming on a younger woman to fill the hours while his girlfriend, who is both accomplished and a peer, is busy with the rest of her life.
When Marnie and Clementine run into each other in the ladies’ room, Clementine wearing the cooler shade and cooler cut of green dress, Girls gives us the scene Marnie deserves. “I know what you’re up to. It’s written all over you. I don’t blame you, he’s fucking sexy,” Clementine tells her rival, before declaring her “a sad, pathetic mess.” Marnie tries to play the role of the righteous other woman, and it’s delightful to see Clementine having precisely none of it, ordering Marnie to “Seriously, shut the fuck up. Has anyone ever taught you when to speak?” Of course they haven’t, and Marnie barrels forward, telling Clementine, “We’re recording an album,” as if that means anything whatsoever. “Not anymore, you’re not,” Clementine snaps. But rather than seeing Desi snap back in line and learning something from it, Marnie instead sees the couple fighting, Girls preserving the illusion that there was something real for her. It might be generous to Marnie, but it feels awfully squishy.
And however much I love Adam and Hannah, how ever much I think Adam Driver and Lena Dunham are extraordinary together and want to see them in every genre of movie that can possibly involve courting and spark, this ending sort of feels like a cheat, too. All season long, Girls has given Hannah an out on writing, whether she was distracted by an unexpected squatter, felled by the cancellation of her book, or tied up in a new job. If we were meant to figure out this season that Hannah is actually a special and talented writer — independent of the fact that she is in a perfect position for the New York publishing industry to exploit her willingness to expose herself for potential profit — admitting her to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop without ever showing us anyone responding to her writing, or even convincing us that she can meet a major deadline, seems like asking us to take a great deal on faith.
The last two episodes of the show also feels like Girls ducking out of one of the best, world-expanding things it’s done in three seasons: putting Hannah in an actual office environment in the New York magazine industry. Joe, Karen, and Kevin were terrific characters, people with the actual kinds of literary experience Hannah so badly craves, with distinct personalities and relationships to their ludicrous jobs writing sponsored copy. And though it’s been little-remarked on, Karen was precisely the character of color critics of Girls have been asking for since the show premiered — a sustained, non-stereotypical presence in Hannah’s life who wasn’t there to contribute to her education as a writer, or as a decent human being.
And now they’re gone, to be replaced by either a new set of characters in Iowa, or whatever fresh disaster befalls Hannah if she stays in New York. Girls has done great things when Hannah’s left the city and gone home or to the hospital or the beach. I just wish Lena Dunham’s New York didn’t leave me increasingly gasping for air.
Jessa’s Résumé: Emotionally destructive nannying! Inappropriate christening dress sales! Assisted suicides for the immediately regretful! I feel like Jessa is auditioning to be a supervillainess’s deeply irritating sidekick.
Shoshanna’s Grad School Plans: Business school never seemed like much of a fit for Shosh anyway, but now that she’s going to graduate late, I hope the poor girl gets some decent writing and consistent screen time to figure out what she is going to do with her life. There’s room on Girls for someone who’s actually career directed and conventional. Better that than seeing Marnie go through the same plot line for a third season in a row.
Marnie’s Life Plans: Can the next out-of-New-York episode involve Marnie having to go to a college reunion and get absolutely destroyed? Please?
Hannah’s Parents’ Life Savings: I badly want to get Mr. and Mrs. Horvath a financial counselor. I am worried about the cost of Iowa.