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In Praise of Hannah and Her Mother on Girls

Loreen and Hannah talk motherhood in the bathroom. Photo: HBO

There’s a scene in the series finale of Girls where Hannah sits in a bathtub, entirely nude. She’s talking to her mother, Loreen, who sits next to her on the toilet while Hannah washes herself; they talk about how hard breastfeeding is, and the physical recovery from childbirth, and all of Hannah’s fears about becoming a mother. She wants to breastfeed her son so that he can be successful in life, and she’s immensely worried that she’s going to transmit all of her flaws to her son — “I’m mentally ill, I’m overweight, I isolate people, I’m a quitter.” Breastfeeding feels like the best, most important thing she can do for him, and she’s failing at it.

All the while, as Hannah enumerates her many fears and frustrations about new parenthood and the pain of postpartum recovery, Hannah’s mother performs physical acts of parenting. Loreen hands her a towel as Hannah gets out of the tub, and then takes the towel and gives Hannah a bathrobe. “No one understands!” Hannah spits, as Loreen follows her into the bedroom, helping Hannah fasten her bra. “Mom, I buckle my bra every day,” Hannah tells her, before continuing, “but just … do it. For a second.” Loreen does, and then helps Hannah with her pants.

As season six has followed Hannah’s pregnancy, the show has been oddly silent about one of Girls’ most beloved thematic preoccupations — there was ample discussion of what Hannah wants in her life, whether to tell the father of her child, what kind of career decisions she should make, what friendships have ended up being real and which are destined to end. There was almost no discussion of the physicality of pregnancy. It was a weird absence, especially given Hannah’s regular attention to her own body and the series’ reliance on that body as a storytelling tool. This is the person we watched crouch next to a train station and wince in pain while urinating with a UTI, and yet her experience of pregnancy passed with barely a mention.

With the series finale, and with this scene between Hannah and her mother more specifically, the body comes back into focus. Pregnancy may have been weirdly incorporeal on Girls, but the finale gives us postpartum bodily concerns full force. Hannah stands on her front porch, hooked up to a breast pump backpack, with milk spilling regularly into the tiny bottles. She’s looking forward to the time when her butt and her vagina go back to feeling like separate entities, Hannah tells her mother. She’s still bleeding. Her nipples feel like iguana skin.

This bathroom/dressing scene between Hannah and Loreen, and the sequence that follows as Loreen storms after Hannah through the house, gives us a frame for all the tension that’s been swirling around the finale thus far. Hannah and Marnie’s codependent relationship, and Hannah’s not particularly passive-aggression, come into focus against the two-pronged force of Loreen as a parent. She chides Hannah, she scolds, she yells, she’s furious and patronizing and harsh; at the same time, she bathes and clothes Hannah like a mother caring for her very young child.

The shape of that scolding is a mirror for its content; Loreen tries to parent Hannah physically and emotionally, while delivering a discourse on the physical and psychological elements of parenthood. She tells Hannah about her own struggle with breastfeeding, and that it won’t matter whether Grover drinks “nice, postwar formula.” She rails at Hannah for behaving as though her son is a temp job she can quit, or a phone number she can delete. The finale stretches here a little — Loreen’s admonishments come off as perhaps overly harsh, and more rooted in the Hannah of the previous seasons than in the evidence we see of her as a parent within the episode. It doesn’t much matter, though. The pinnacle of the argument, and the point of it, is Hannah screaming at her mother that no one can possibly understand. It’s Hannah Horvath distilled, presented with direct evidence of her own mother’s mothering but incapable of seeing those exact same circumstances as the ones driving her own life, hilariously and infuriatingly myopic.

Except before, Girls has always presented this element of Hannah as funny and also somewhat ambiguous — she’s self-centered, sure, but on the other hand, maybe no one really does quite understand what she’s going through. Here, in the finale, the self-absorbed Hannah we see through the frame of Loreen’s parenting is no longer someone who can keep floating through the series, unmoored and perpetually starting over. She’s stuck, Loreen reminds her. She chose this, and she’s stuck with it. And so the finale becomes a final boss battle of egotism versus selflessness, a rumble in upstate New York that will either end in Hannah accepting her responsibility and identity as parent, or being branded as that most horrible thing inside fiction and without: a Bad Mom.

The finality of this — the sense that we’re watching Hannah jump through what will be the last, most important fiery hoop of self-actualization — is maybe the element of the finale that most betrays itself. The show’s sixth season has been remarkable, but its weakness has been the necessity of leapfrogging Hannah through several massive life events without allowing her much time for the best, most interesting parts of Girls: The moments where she backslides. The finale is that problem encapsulated. In a series about how we are never fully grown, about how all achievements and paradigm shifts come with some regression, the finale is stuck with the burden of finality, something that feels intrinsically un-Girls-like. It mitigates that sense a little by retaining Hannah’s petulance even after she seems to make the turn into accepting herself as parent. It does not attempt to persuade us that life will now be sunshine and roses for her. Still, the sense of conclusiveness looms, tying everything into a bow that feels a little too neat (or maybe it’s a lactating nipple folded into a suddenly too-perfect envelope).

But the shape of how this final boss battle takes form — the way it loops selfhood and parenting and ideas of success and failure through the frame of the body — feels completely in keeping with what Girls has been from the start. That scene between Hannah and her mother, with Hannah’s breasts dangling while she yells irritably that she’s still bleeding, with Loreen simultaneously clothing her and trying to dismantle her, is all of the complexity and frustration of being a person and a parent all mixed up together. It’s being reduced to the physical while also trying to confront the way physicality is mysteriously and variably linked to how we think about ourselves as people. It’s the universal and the individual all rubbing up against one another. “No one understands!” shouts Hannah, and she’s perfectly wrong and absolutely right. It’s her body, and her son. And it’s also her mother, chasing after her, trying to care for her daughter, with her body.

The Girls finale is sometimes frustrating. It’s too aware of its own symmetry, and in its haste to leap forward with Hannah into the future, its gestures toward conclusion feel precisely that — a bit hasty. Its strength, though, is in the specificity and messy universality of the sequence with Hannah and Loreen. It’s human and vulnerable and angry and wry and defiantly naked. And the promise it makes for Hannah’s future is the one that feels truest, and most like what Girls is about. Try not to worry too much about what’s happening at this precise moment, Loreen tells her daughter, because “things will get so much harder that you won’t even remember this part.” “I hope so,” Hannah replies.

In Praise of Hannah and Her Mother on Girls