tv review

Girls’ Final Season Was the Show at Its Saddest, and Best

Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath. Photo: HBO

Girls ended not in the city but in the suburbs, not among friends but in near isolation, with Hannah Horvath (series creator Lena Dunham) resentfully raising her baby with forced assists from her mother Loreen (Becky Ann Baker) and her friend Marnie (Allison Williams), who broke into Hannah’s house and snuck into her bed like a stalker but proved genuinely helpful in the end. It ended true to its maddening heroine, who could never leave well enough alone, choosing instead to illuminate herself, often inadvertently, in self-serving and obliviously hurtful statements she blurted out right after making an otherwise decent and intelligent point. Predictably and hilariously, the show also gave us not one but two moments of Hannah exposure, flipping the bird to people who questioned the necessity of Dunham’s almost weekly nudity on Girls when they weren’t flat-out saying that big girls should never take their clothes off. Tellingly, though, the nudity had a metaphorical dimension and was an expression not of sexual power, but of childlike vulnerability (Hannah stepping out of a bath while talking to her mother) and obliviousness (Hannah getting pulled over by a cop in her college town after giving up her pants to a troubled teenager).

Watch the most painfully self-centered things Hannah has ever said.

This was also, in its way, a textbook cable-drama finale, a fact that may be hard to recognize because Girls is a half-hour show that’s been described (at times inexplicably) as a comedy. Testosterone-saturated telenovelas like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and Breaking Bad used to do this sort of thing on the regular: deliver a satisfying climax in the penultimate episode of a season, then reserve the actual last episode for a denouement or ramping down, and use it to make additional points that complicated whatever statement viewers took away from the preceding week’s installment. Accordingly, the episodes leading up to Girls’ sendoff were a study in entropy and inevitable, unstoppable failure, showing the core group of friends and lovers (Hannah, Marnie, Shosh, Jessa, Adam, Elijah, and Ray) realizing that their collective bond wasn’t built to last, even as many of them (Ray and Shosh in particular) made real advances toward autonomy and contentment. The second-to-last episode ended with a spirited yet melancholy montage of major characters dancing at Shosh’s engagement party (which Shosh didn’t tell Hannah about because she didn’t think of her as a friend anymore; yeee-ouch). It was a neatly shaped expression of separation disguised as a last hurrah, and the way the episode kept alternating shots of Hannah dancing and Hannah standing still and observing the party raised the question of which of those two images expressed her internal state. Was she dancing in apparent abandon even though, on the inside, she was watching the scene as a detached observer who didn’t belong anymore?

The last episode clarified things: It seemed clear, to me anyway, that Hannah was in for a very rough stretch, and that in that moment of her life she felt alienated from herself as well as others. Her slide into reactionary anti-urban vitriol paved the way for her escape into the bubble of a small town. Many of the images made it seem as though Hannah had sentenced herself to house arrest. She kept moving away from her baby, away from her mother, away from anything suggesting motherhood, physically running away from the one obligation she can’t just shrug off. Loreen’s arrival was also redolent of escape from trauma and failure: She was visiting her daughter, but also taking a brief holiday from a city where she’d married a secretly gay man and gotten divorced from him, decades after the two of them figured out why the marriage could never actually work. Marnie, too, was fleeing disaster — actually, disasters plural: a collapsed marriage, rejection by her own mother, and the kind of lacerating takedown (by Shosh) that would make an even slightly more self-aware person curl up into a fetal position for days on end, wondering what she could do to be a better friend and less obnoxious person.

This was the saddest Girls season overall and easily the best — an object lesson in how to shape a serial narrative so that it only makes the points it needs to make and absolves itself of the need to distribute its attentions democratically and never neglect anybody. Many of the show’s persistent flaws and blind spots were still in evidence, in particular its earnest but often clueless attempts to liven up the show’s anthropologically accurate white urban liberal hipster panorama with splashes of cultural color. These often came across as a diversified version of Magical Negroism: Hannah’s encounter with a mystically attuned black woman in a vintage shop; Marnie’s “the more you know” moment with a foreign pawn-shop owner who told her that her mom had lied to her about the value of her jewelry; and finally, Hannah’s own fitful mothering of a brown baby, the son of Riz Ahmed’s surfing instructor, a character arc that made me think that, emotionally, the kid was in better hands than I could have imagined in season one, but culturally, it had been set adrift downriver in a basket. Not once do Hannah, Loreen, or Marnie express any concern for the identity issues that the fatherless Grover will experience growing up. This is admittedly not the first thing a young woman who unexpectedly finds herself pregnant would worry about, maybe not even the fourth or fifth. But Girls should have known that the question would come up and figured out a subtle way to mention it without actually mentioning it. Throughout its run, I suspect Girls got such disproportionate flak for not dealing gracefully with this subject because it seemed smart enough to engage with it. It was, after all, so very good at other things.

I love how most of the final ten episodes feel even more like short stories than Girls’ usual, in particular the finale, the episode with Adam trying to reenter Hannah’s life, and the episode where Hannah goes to interview Matthew Rhys’s charismatic but creepy novelist and ends up being pornographically spooned and and feeling, rightly, as if she’d been tricked into it. That Adam-Hannah episode in particular packed a gut-rattling punch. It summed up many of the final season’s feelings about college and post-college relationships into a series of outwardly mundane actions: having sex, walking around the city, talking about this and that. Running beneath everything was a current of despair and denial. The rush that Adam and Hannah feel when they’re around each other is based entirely on sexual and intellectual chemistry, that spark that poets and rom-com writers prize so much, but isn’t enough to build a partnership on. Marnie experiences her own version of this when she tries to solve her peer group’s irresolvable problems in an impromptu bathroom conference at Shosh’s engagement party. All things must pass, and youthful ideals of friendship and love go first.

Girls’ Final Season Was the Show at Its Saddest, and Best