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Why Lena Dunham Is Such a Great Actress on Girls

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by HBO

When we talk about Lena Dunham’s work on the show Girls — and over the past five years, the media (Vulture certainly included) have talked about it A FREAKIN’ LOT — we tend to focus on her role as the show’s creative driving force. We question why she makes certain choices as a writer and director, or the extent to which her character, Hannah Horvath, is an alternate version of Dunham, or why she has chosen to focus the series so much on — spin the Girls controversy roulette wheel to see what you get! — white people, her own nudity, and/or explicitly rendered, sometimes disturbing sexual encounters.

What we talk about less often, especially during more recent seasons of Girls, is Dunham’s work as an actress. Hannah Horvath has often been — and brace yourself, because this is a shocking statement that no one has ever made before about Hannah Horvath — a maddening human being. Aside from the obvious, like the fact that she’s a narcissist who pulls a muscle every time she tries to widen her worldview, one of the main things that makes the character so infuriating is the way Dunham plays her, which is with absolutely zero apologies.

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

Given the number of anti-Hannah think pieces that have been churned out over the past five years, another actress might have been inclined to soften the character’s edges a bit, or put a less entitled-sounding shine on her line deliveries. Dunham never has. Whether the primary beat she wants to hit is funny, poignant, or just outrageous, she steers toward honesty in every scene. That approach has made some Girls viewers like Hannah, and others loathe her, while still others gave up on the show in the middle of season three because they just couldn’t take her anymore. The fact that the character has been so polarizing speaks to what an astute, admirably committed performance Dunham has given — one informed by the fact that she knows and understands this character from the inside out.

“Of course she knows and understands this character,” you say. “She’s basically playing herself. What’s so great about that?” I’d argue — as Dunham herself has — that while she is playing a woman with whom she has some things in common, she’s still transforming into another character for each episode. I’d also add that even if she were “playing herself,” that would not necessarily be easy. Jerry Seinfeld was basically a thinly veiled version of Jerry Seinfeld on Seinfeld, and I think even he would say that his acting was pretty so-so.

Girls is, by genre definition, a comedy. And Dunham is consistently funny as Hannah, but again, mainly because she’s not blatantly trying to be funny. The actress has famously never been shy about using her body to highlight Hannah’s vulnerability or, sometimes, her outright ridiculousness. It is a wonder, for example, that any of her co-stars were able to keep a straight face in the season two episode “Bad Friend,” a good chunk of which captures a coked-up Hannah wearing a preposterous, see-through mesh T-shirt. But Dunham uses her physicality in subtler ways, too. In the season one episode “Leave Me Alone,” in which Hannah’s college frenemy, Tally (Jenny Slate), tells her that writing her first book was like “water-birthing her truth,” Hannah immediately spits out the phyllo-wrapped appetizer she’s just put in her mouth, as if Tally’s spiritual hokum has offended her sense of taste on every conceivable level. It’s a small moment, perfectly executed.

Dunham also has a flair for delivering dialogue with just the right levels of deadpan dryness. One of my favorite lines in all of Girls comes out of Hannah’s mouth in season three, after Hannah’s e-book editor David unexpectedly dies. “I just hope when I die that I don’t see it coming,” she tells Jessa after hearing the news. “I hope I’m already dead and then five minutes later, I’m like, ‘What the fuck just happened?’” Dunham says this with total sincerity, without implying for a second that Hannah might or should realize that five minutes after she dies, she won’t be cognizant enough to question how it all went down. Of course that wouldn’t occur to Hannah; she can’t imagine a world without herself in it. Dunham’s performance, even when she’s going for a laugh, remains steadfast in that self-involved perspective.

During the last two seasons of Girls, while Hannah has still been self-focused, she’s also started to blossom into a more considerate adult with at least some sense of perspective. (Admittedly, it’s been a process; I’ve purposely wiped my mind of the time she flashed her vagina at the school principal because she — correctly, as it turns out — thought it would distract him and get her out of trouble.) As her character has matured, Dunham has been able to more regularly display her range in some genuinely emotional and dramatic scenes. It’s interesting that the three Emmy nominations she has received for outstanding lead actress in a comedy were for the first three seasons of the series. Some of her best work has actually been in the seasons in which her performance was overlooked.

In season five’s “Hello Kitty,” when Hannah sees Jessa and Adam together for the first time, Dunham weakly says hi to both of them, then blinks back tears, her face avalanching in despair despite her repeated deep breaths and obvious attempts to keep it together. If you’ve ever been in a similar situation, watching what Dunham does here is like seeing how you must have looked when your ex’s new relationship become a real, tangible thing in front of your eyes. Even if this girl from Greenpoint drives you absolutely nuts, you can’t witness this moment and not sympathize with her.

With season six serving as a curtain closer on Girls and an opportunity for Hannah to say goodbye to Brooklyn while preparing to raise a child, there have been even more heavy moments for Dunham to play, and she’s nailed them all — from her wounded response when Elijah tells her she’ll be a terrible mother, to the crushing realization in a diner that she and Adam can never be a couple again, to the moment in last week’s episode when Jessa apologizes to her for the whole mess with Adam.

“It’s okay,” Hannah says, full-on crying, her voice strained, after Jessa awkwardly expresses regret. “I mean, think about it. We were all just doing our best.”

“Our best was awful,” Jessa replies.

“The worst best,” Hannah croaks. That response strikes so many of the notes that have come to define Dunham’s depiction of Hannah: It’s poignant, funny, a little sarcastic. It can’t be ignored or denied, even if you find all the baggage surrounding this conversation a little tiresome at this point. That’s Hannah.

On Girls, a lot of times, she really could be just the worst. But because Lena Dunham portrayed her with such specificity and fearlessness, she was also the worst best.

Lena Dunham Is Such a Great Actress on Girls