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How Girls Breaks the Traditional Rules of the Friendship Comedy

The end of an era. Photo: HBO

Spoilers ahead for Sunday night’s episode of Girls.

More than halfway through Sunday’s penultimate episode of Girls, Marnie Michaels calls an emergency meeting during Shoshanna Shapiro’s engagement party. She forces all the relevant parties — herself, Shosh, Hannah, and Jessa — into a cramped bathroom to do what one would traditionally expect of the four principal characters on a half-hour comedy closing in on its series finale: mend fences, forgive each other, and vow to remain best friends forever.

“I am trying to fix this,” Marnie says, “so that we can hang out as the friends that we’ve always been, and we can be again if we just —”

“No,” Shoshanna interrupts. “Nope, that’s not it. We cannot hang out together anymore because we cannot be in the same room without one of us making it completely and entirely about ourselves.”

“I think we should all just agree to call it,” she adds a few seconds later. “Okay?”

It’s not necessarily surprising to witness the time of death being declared on this collective friendship. It’s been clear for a while, especially during recent seasons, that the glue holding together the girls of Girls has lost much of its adhesiveness. (Two years ago, in the midst of season four, Margaret Lyons wrote a piece for Vulture in which she asked, “We all know that these people aren’t nearly as invested in each other’s lives anymore. How come they don’t know that?”) Apparently, now they do. And maybe watching them finally realize that was the whole point of Girls.

Even if the series finale ultimately suggests that Hannah, Shoshanna, Jessa, and Marnie maintain some level of contact with each other in the future, that won’t change the fact that Girls is ultimately about what happens when people grow up and the support systems of their young adulthood start breaking down. It’s a show about four young women linked to each other who, eventually, become completely separate adults. That represents a bit of a left turn within the pantheon of comedies built around companions making their way in New York City.

Consider Friends, for example, whose finale threatens the possibility that a member of the flock will fly away — Rachel is all set to move to Paris in the last episode — but ends with everyone together. The apartment Monica and Rachel originally shared is being vacated, which is a signal that the Central Perkers are embarking on a new chapter. But there is no doubt that these six people will always be in each other’s lives, a concept that’s easy enough to believe considering that some of them are already related by blood, married, or have children together.

Will & Grace goes a few steps further in its finale by focusing on a rift between the two leads that it initially implies is never fully repaired. But in the end, a major flash-forward shows us Will, Grace, Jack, and Karen having drinks together decades in the future. Like Friends, it hints at a non-Hallmark ending but ultimately veers away from it and doubles down on togetherness.

Even the cynical Seinfeld finale, which also starts off with a journey to Paris that does not go as planned, ultimately keeps the Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine connection intact. Granted, it keeps that intact by putting them all in jail for violating good samaritan laws, a curtain call that can hardly be called sentimental. But it still follows the unwritten rule of TV friendship comedy: The established group dynamic must never disintegrate.

Then there’s Sex and the City, the series to which Girls has most often been compared. The last season focuses largely on Carrie’s decision to move to Paris — seriously, why is France always the obstacle in these shows? — to be with Aleksander while struggling with her lingering feelings for Big. But it also makes a point in the finale of showing its four main women — Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha — all together and exuberant in each other’s presence. Via voice-over in the final moments of the show, Carrie says that, “The most exciting, challenging, and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself.” But that doesn’t fully ring true because we can see that Carrie does not have to spend a ton of time with herself. She’s got her best friends to keep having brunch with, and Big, and “the love,” as the song “You Got the Love,” which plays over those final Manhattan moments, makes abundantly clear.

Girls, on the other hand, seems to have taken Carrie Bradshaw’s platitude and made it a mission statement. Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna have always lived as if the most significant relationship of all is the one they each have with themselves, which is a big part of their respective problems. Shoshanna is 100 percent correct when she says, “We cannot hang out together anymore because we cannot be in the same room without one of us making it completely and entirely about ourselves,” except for the first part of that statement. That’s not why they can’t hang out together anymore. They can’t hang out together anymore because it’s been this way from the beginning; they — or at least Shosh — have just gotten mature enough to finally realize it.

There’s something especially fitting about Shoshanna being the one to vocalize this conclusion since, as established in the very first episode, she was the Girl most in love with Sex and the City and most eager to see herself as a character in that Cosmo-sipping, ladies’ night 4eva! fantasy. On Girls, life isn’t Sex and the City. The women of Girls never have brunch together; over the course of the series, especially its second half, it was more rare for all four of them to be in the same space at the same time than not. The New York they know is less about shoe shopping than realizing how often people take shits in the middle of the street. But Shosh being Shosh, she still can’t give up on the fantasy entirely, which is why she’s traded up from one social circle to another that sounds a little more Carrie Bradshaw–friendly, at least in the sense that her new friends all apparently have nice purses.

Unlike on Friends or Sex and the City, Hannah doesn’t just threaten to leave the city. We can see in this week’s episode that she actually follows through and does it. (It’s unclear exactly where she’s living, but I have already convinced myself that she resides somewhere in Westchester County, where she might conceivably bump into Sarah Jessica Parker’s character from Divorce.) But it isn’t that departure that causes the friendships on Girls to come to an end. With Hannah’s brief stint in Iowa, and Marnie’s marriage, and Shoshanna’s move to and return from Japan, and of course the whole Jessa-Adam relationship, they have already been doing that for a while now. Slowly, we’ve been watching the inevitable happen.

At its core, Girls isn’t a friendship comedy so much as a coming-of-age story, a portrait of that emotionally fraught period where a person or people make the transition to adulthood. During that transition, it’s natural, especially if you’re living in a city as overwhelming as New York, to clutch onto the life preservers bobbing in the sea around you. For Hannah — and undeniably, Girls is Hannah’s story more than anyone else’s — those life preservers were Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna, as well as Elijah and, for a time, Adam. In this week’s episode, as Hannah looks around the room at Shoshanna’s party with a blissful smile on her face, it’s obvious she’s saying farewell, with no regrets, to the ones who kept her afloat. Will she see some of these people again? Maybe. Perhaps in the future she’ll even have a “I couldn’t help but wonder” moment as she tries to imagine what Jessa or Shoshanna is doing with her life. But all she’ll be able or inclined to do is wonder. Because, as Girls has been signaling for a long time, the odds are she won’t have any idea.

How Girls Breaks the Rules of the Friendship Comedy