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Younger Ends Its Fifth Season With a Perfect Moment of Doubt

Charles (Peter Hermann), making a big announcement in the season five finale of Younger. Photo: TV Land

“I have got everything that I want. I’m happy.”

When Charles (Peter Hermann) announces this near the end of Tuesday’s Younger finale, for a few seconds, it seems like we may get a happy ending to a highly enjoyable fifth season. Over the course of ten episodes, Charles finally realized Liza (Sutton Foster) is not the millennial she says she is, and not only decided not to fire her for lying, but to pursue a relationship with her. In this last episode, Charles commits to pursuing that romance by stepping down as Empirical’s publisher and assuming a new role as chairman of the board, a decision that takes him out of the day-to-day work of book publishing, which he loves, but enables him to be with Liza without the specter of an improper boss-employee affair hanging over their heads.

He’s got the woman of his dreams, more free time to enjoy with his kids, and a toe still in his work. He’s finally got it all now, he tells Liza. As for Liza, she’s got Charles, and an even more high-profile gig running what is now Empirical’s core imprint, Millennial. Sure, she still has a huge problem since apparently she’s supposed to continue being Diana’s assistant and getting paid dirt wages, but still: She says she’s happy, too. Then the two of them join hands and walk openly, at last, through the streets of Manhattan with blissful smiles on their faces.

In a typical rom-com — or perhaps the kind of novel that Cheryl Sussman’s misguided women’s imprint Chick(y) would publish — that would have been the end. Instead, those smiles are immediately replaced by Charles’s and Liza’s expressions of fear and regret and an inability to even make eye contact with each other. It’s a moment that says a lot about the kind of show Younger is and the issues that, even its breezy way, it confronts. As much as we talk about TV Land’s delicious, book nerdy Darren Star confection in romantic-comedy terms, this ending is a reminder that Younger is also a series that has something to say about what it means to reach middle-age.

Before going any further, let me be as clear and blunt as Diana Trout when she wants Liza to fetch her an espresso and say that Younger is undeniably, unapologetically a romantic comedy and that’s precisely what I love about it. It’s a show filled with exceedingly good-looking people, an Instagram-ready version of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and an insatiable appetite for adding new romantic entanglements (or complicating existing ones). It checked all those boxes superbly in season five, and did provided exactly the kind of just-sophisticated-enough escapism that was needed during this long, way too rainy summer. It also delivered a far better finale than season four’s jarring trip to Ireland. Instead of leaning into out-of-left field developments — like Josh trying to get with Liza the night before his wedding — Tuesday’s finale addressed matters Younger had grappled with throughout its whole season.

The initial central question of season five was laid out in the explosive first episode, after Fake George R.R. Martin — a.k.a. Edward L.L. Moore (Richard Masur) — exposed the truth about Liza’s age to Charles: What will Liza and Charles do now that he knows she’s in her forties? Once Charles thawed out and declared his feelings for Liza, the central question shifted to something new: How can they possibly make this relationship work? But really, both questions are just different ways of asking the overall one that has always informed the show: Is it possible for anyone to have it all?

Liza has to tell a big, fat, twenty-something lie that fuels this series because she dropped out of the workplace to raise her child and then couldn’t get back into it. Society convinced her she could not be a wife, raise a daughter, and have a thriving career all at once, so she sacrificed the career part. But once she finally has the space to pursue her passion again, she can only get what is more or less her dream gig — again, minus the fact that she’s actually doing two jobs and still presumably makes less than people more than a decade her junior — by pretending to be someone else. Liza is a member of a generation that often feels squeezed out and marginalized by their baby boomer and millennial counterparts; the conundrum that is Younger’s premise illustrates that perfectly.

Over the past five seasons, Liza slowly revealed her true identity to a select few, but she’s never had a moment when she could fully celebrate her success or a relationship, be it with Josh or Charles, while fully being herself. A bit earlier this season about being age-queer was utterly ridiculous, but there is something to the idea that Liza can never fully be out and proud about who she is. Granted, a lot of that is her fault. She didn’t have to lie. But in order to buy into Younger, you have to concede as a viewer that she kinda did, because society — read: snobby New York publishers — wouldn’t give her a shot otherwise. If I may be a total Generation X cliché by quoting a very Generation X movie while explaining a Generation X problem on a TV comedy: Liza stole a Snickers bar, but the establishment also totally owes her a Snickers.

By the end of season five, we find Liza at the closest point she’s ever been to having the life she’s craved. She still has to keep her secret, although with Vanity Fair staffers fully aware of her lie, not to mention Moore and Cheryl Sussman, I’m not sure how much longer she can do that. But at least she gets to do what she loves and be with the man she loves, seemingly without having to worry that she could be exposed and fired.

And yet, even though she says she’s happy, a tidal wave of doubt rises up, the same way it does for Charles. That look of uncertainty and self-reflection they both exhibit is the look someone gets when they realize there is no such thing as having everything in your life go swimmingly at exactly the same time. A lot of us spend our young years consciously or subconsciously believing that and devoting our energy to chasing that lie. We covet for the better job, the bigger apartment, the ideal partner, the gorgeous family, as if we can find peace by collecting all the markers that constitute a happy existence. We try to win at life the same way we win at the board game Life.

It doesn’t work that way. But a lot of people don’t fully appreciate that until they’ve gotten some years under their belt. That final Charles/Liza scene is that moment of realization for them and it reflects both their age and wisdom, as well as the degree to which they’ve been deriving joy by acting less practically — one might even say younger — than they actually are. Being in their bubble, as Charles called it, also meant not dealing with the realities of what being with each other would mean.

Younger obviously has no qualms about stretching the bounds of believability to suit its narrative, but the season’s ending is one of those times when the show actually opts to be realistic. It feels absolutely right for Younger to go on hiatus on this downbeat note. After five seasons, this show about the ramifications of one woman’s lie is willing to reveal what it looks like when grown adults lie to themselves.

Younger Ends Its Fifth Season With a Perfect Moment of Doubt