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Girls in review: The ecstatic arty highs and grim sitcom lows

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Jojo Whilden/HBO; Mark Schafer/HBO

There are eight perfect episodes of Girls. But not this series finale, no. Put this last episode in a plastic bag, toss it in one man’s trash. (Toss out season 4, too. And any episode with Desi.) It was a cool idea, something more shows should consider: The finale-as-epilogue, starring barely anyone, no obvious dangling plot points to resolve. Here’s Hannah, five months and one baby away from New York City, new struggles disappointingly familiar, experiencing some final epiphany, starting a much longer journey for which the whole run of Girls has been mere prologue. It’s the kind of ending J.R.R. Tolkien would’ve loved: Vanquish the Great Evil, but then spend five more chapters with Frodo, let those lonely years pass until he’s well and truly bummed.

Girls sunsetted most of the cast before the finale. The individual endings were sometimes bittersweet, mostly whimsical, uniformly relationship-y. Shoshanna was engaged. Jessa was maybe back with Adam, and, more importantly, was redeemed with Hannah. Ray discovered socially conscious love with Shoshanna’s old boss, Tell us, sir, what was Brooklyn like before we made it so expensive? Adam’s sister, Caroline, was back with Hannah’s neighbor Laird. Hannah’s dad, Tad, out of the closet barely a year, was already settled into downtown old married couple bliss with the nice bald man he met online. A New Yorker for barely a minute, Tad’s already complaining about the drum circles in Washington Square Park. (That drum circle was there before you, Tad! They’ll still be drumming when you’re gone!)

Hannah said goodbye to most of them in the show’s penultimate episode. Titled “Goodbye Tour,” it felt a bit too much like a beloved character checklist. But it ended with a bang. For the first time all season, Hannah and Jessa and Shoshanna and Marnie were together in the same room – but only so they could decide to never be all together, ever again.

“I have come to realize how exhausting and narcissistic and ultimately boring this whole dynamic is,” said Shoshanna. “We can’t hang out together anymore because we cannot be in the same room without one of us making it completely and entirely about ourselves.”

No one really put up a fight; this friend group thing was over, and there was the lingering possibility that they had never been real friends, that this whole “group” thing was a lie. Truthfully, the idea of them as a “foursome” felt most convincing as a marketing tactic — or evidence, maybe, of how marketing tactics have long since trickled down into actual human behavior. Girls was never really anything like Sex and the City, but that was another HBO comedy starring four women, so it was a handy touchstone, explicitly referenced in the Girls pilot. And anyhow, weren’t all TV shows about young people living in a big city ultimately shows about friend groups, boys and girls hanging out and hooking up and forgiving each other’s trespasses?

Girls rebelled early against the construct. It didn’t believe in its own squad. These people never hung out together in a café, even if half of them wound up working for the same café. Way back in season 3, in the perfect episode “Beach House,” the four all went to the Hamptons for a weekend. The point of the trip, per Marnie, was that they had all been so disconnected. “I thought that this would be a good opportunity to have fun together,” she explained, “And prove to everyone via Instagram that we can still have fun as a group.”

Girls was secretly a bit weird and archaic with internet stuff. It had the first great Twitter moment in TV history: Hannah, at the end of season 1’s “All Adventurous Women Do,” pondered how to express her latest miseries (HPV, ex-boyfriend out of the closet) in an ambiguously pithy tweet. That scene already plays like an endearing time capsule, snapshotting a long-gone era when Twitter was a platform for self-expression and not a trench-warfare battleground for the soul of the human experiment. But Girls trended inexorably into a very TV-ish version of young people hanging out. There might be references to Tinder, but main characters found love interests the old-fashioned way: a cute co-worker, a friend of a friend, a nice lady from AA insisting you go on a date with her daughter. Hannah met the father of her child because she was on assignment writing a story, a romcom-sacred story line from Roman Holiday through How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.

But the show caught something essential about what social media had done to socializing. On Girls, friendship itself could seem like a performative gesture, like people were going through the motions of friend-ness. And for the main characters, those motions grew repetitive and unconvincing. At the season 3 beach house, they drank and danced and argued and wound up seriously pondering whether they even liked each other. “It’s not like the four of us have had any real fun together in, what, two years?” Hannah said, tossing out the whole runtime of Girls. After a night of harsh insults, the four woke up, couldn’t speak to each other; hungover, they waited at the bus stop, and wordlessly fell into a dance routine.

It was possible to look at that episode and say: “Ah, I see, with that dance routine, they have gotten past their conflict and discovered some deeper postverbal version of their friendship!” But you can rewatch that episode and feel the pain, and wonder if that weekend getaway was actually an ending — if the whole show after that was an epilogue. Soon enough, Hannah would go to Iowa, and Shoshanna would go to Japan, and Marnie would seriously pursue a music career, and Jessa also did things. These were flimsy years on the show, when it only held the characters together by trapping them; of course Hannah wouldn’t stay in Iowa, of course Shoshanna couldn’t find true happiness in Tokyo. (This was the period when Ray was on the show to pine after Marnie and run for local office on a popular “These cars are too damn loud!” platform.)

That entrapment went textual with Shoshanna’s “Goodbye Tour” speech. And to anyone who ever felt skeptical about Girls, “Goodbye Tour” seems like the show’s true ending. She stood revealed as the voice of reason, the unexpected exemplar of maturity; her lines felt metatextual, like she was standing outside of Girls and criticizing it like a harsh recapper. (Or, maybe, real people talk about themselves now like they are characters on a TV show.) You could run back the tape and say that Girls was the Shoshanna coming-of-age narrative all along, like how I used to say Lost was secretly about Desmond, or how Mad Men was arguably the Sally Draper origin myth. Of all the main characters, Shoshanna was the most obviously millennial — a word people barely used back in 2012, back when talking about millennials meant talking about Girls. Zosia Mamet played her with volcanic-eruption energy and a practiced coolness, as if Shoshanna was trying hard not to look as excited as she felt. Shoshanna was the youngest of the lead characters, and Mamet initially radiated that little-sibling craving to just be there with people old and cool enough to know how to find the warehouse party in Bushwick.

To see that person, grown up and perceptibly changed, rejecting the friends she used to gaze up toward longingly? It brings to mind the end of Henry IV, the ascendant young King spurning his old friends. Pause to imagine some future gender-swapped Broadway revival, with Zosia Mamet as King Henry and Jemima Kirke as Falstaff:

Presume not that I am the thing I was;

For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,

That I have turn’d away my former self

So will I those that kept me company.

Shoshanna’s rejection felt like a reconsideration of the whole Girls thesis statement. It felt dangerous. Girls could be brilliantly vulgar, transgressive in its no-bull presentation of nude unobjectified bodies on the same network that produced eight seasons of Entourage and five seasons of Flapper Boobs. And the characters could be stunningly brutal to each other. But dangerous? You could always feel the safety net. Hannah’s parents cut her off, but they also flew out to New York for her 25th birthday. Brief struggles with money were quickly resolved: Adam will pay for Jessa’s school with his commercial money, Marnie and Desi are popular musicians now, Ray’s ascending from mouthy barista to metropolitan Coffee Kingpin, Dean Ann Dowd wants to hire Hannah as a professor to teach “internet,” Elijah’s living in Iowa now!

These elements were familiar and forgivable, if Girls was an older sort of sitcom, the kind of show that depended on familiar characters acting in familiar ways — what’s Hannah’s dad up to, what’s Laird up to? But there were boundary-breaking episodes that pushed characters outside their oversharing comfort zone into a freaky space where they seemed to experience strange epiphanies beyond the easy improv-comedy language of pop-psychology and celebrity name-dropping.

Think of Hannah in the late-series episode “What Will We Do This Time About Adam?” sharing one perfect day with the man she used to love, talking about a baby and a home and a marriage, and then, suddenly, there are tears welling in her eyes, and a whole imagined future evaporates into thin air, and you realize that you were watching two lovers pretend that their last day together was their first day. Or think of Hannah near the end of “American Bitch,” sitting in a room with her writer hero who is also a lecherous mindgaming predator, both of them listening patiently as his daughter plays the flute. (The flute seemed perversely phallus in context, that context being “Matthew Rhys’ Phallus.”)

Or think of Hannah at the end of “All Adventurous Women Do” way back in season 1, dancing to Robyn because she has HPV and it turns out her college boyfriend is gay and it doesn’t matter or maybe everything matters, she’s young, dammit, the mess is the point.

In “Goodbye Tour,” after Shoshanna’s big line, after their fellowship was well and truly sundered, Hannah talked to Jessa and tried to offer some kind of summation. “If you think about it, we were all just doing our best,” she said. Was she talking about herself, her friends? Her whole generation?

“Our best,” Jessa said, “was awful.”

Then everyone danced. What else can you do?

Mark Schafer/HBO

This finale, though. Hannah woke up to find Marnie in her bed. This was an obvious callback to the Girls pilot: The second scene of the show was Hannah and Marnie, spooning. Back then, Marnie was a relatively understandable coherent human being, trapped in the downward spiral of a college relationship, beginning to notice the world outside the boundaries she laid around her.

After six seasons, a failed marriage to a drug-addicted bargain-Mraz, and a failed run at a music career on the downtown brunch circuit, the series finale version of Marnie became a homeless revenant, Hannah’s old city life come countryward to haunt her. She offered to move in with Hannah and co-raise Hannah’s impending child — the third such offer the new mom has fielded this season. Third time’s the charm! Five months passed, and Marnie became a taunting mom-shaming tormentor: You should really feed him breast milk, no successful person grew up drinking formula.

Marnie as Helper Mom was a sitcom contrivance, not helped by the fact that Hannah loudly declared that it was a sitcom contrivance. “It’s not matching up to what you imagined,” Hannah told Marnie, “Which was, like, that it would be a Laura Ashley catalog, or like a fun, zany sitcom starring Brittany Snow and the rest of the cast of Pitch Perfect!” Hanging a hat on a hat on a hat, Marnie and Hannah also watch Full House, an inane show built on contrivance that everyone remembers fondly until they watch Fuller House.

I’m assuming the Full House reference was wildly intentional, and maybe one thesis statement for Girls was, Life Isn’t As Simple As TV Made It Seem When You Were A Kid. This is a weirdly fruitful show topic for a generation raised more on TV than religion. It was a running theme on Community, a foundational arc for Bojack Horseman, and was flipped on its head in The Grinder, a TV show about how badly most people want their life to be a TV show. (The Grinder saw Trump coming.)

But that was the least fruitful idea for Girls. And the whole setup of the finale was an unwieldy vehicle for any ideas, really. As a performer, Allison Williams is, let’s say, inexpressive. But she could bring a terse quality to Marnie, like she was exhausted of being right. (Nobody on this show was better at saying “f—.”) Unfortunately, Marnie trended monstrous, and Williams’ deadpan made it impossible to ever figure out whether the show was making fun of her narcissism or sincerely driving her toward sociopathy. She was utterly unmoved by her ex-husband’s descent into drug addiction, seemed to view it largely as a hiccup in their musical career. As her boyfriend Ray mourned the passing of his idol, she suddenly remembered that she had a Physique 57 class, which was very different from Quiet Pilates. Marnie finally experienced her own epiphany a few episodes ago, when a sagely Greek pawnshop owner offered her advice and also revealed that everything gold in Marnie’s life was but gilded pewter.

Marnie came to represent everything worth parodying in Girls. The show was in on the joke, eventually if not immediately. When Desi revealed that he had been on drugs — like, forever, and Marnie never noticed — the sequence was shot like a horror pastiche. (Actually, Dunham claimed that episode was inspired by Straw Dogs, and dear gods of Hollywood, there is no remake I want more than a Dunham-directed Straw Dogs.) But bringing Marnie in for the finale — wedging her in, really, Guess who’s gonna help you raise this baby! — was an unconvincing gambit, a weird narrative hopscotch to put two central characters together for some final unnecessary catharsis.

“This is reality!” Hannah yelled at Marnie. “It’s happening now! And you suck at it!”

Then Hannah left her baby with her mom and her best friend and walked until she met a symbolic pantsless teen, and she gave the symbolic pantsless teen the pants off her legs, and then Hannah realized that the symbolic pantsless teen’s plight spoke symbolically to what Hannah was going through just then as both daughter and mother, and then Hannah walked back home with no pants on, followed close behind by a cop car. If this was reality, Girls sucked at it.

Mark Schafer/HBO

“You didn’t say it was gonna be this hard!” That was Hannah, earlier in the series finale, complaining to her mom, Loreen. Hannah’s mom was there to lay some harsh truths on the younger women. She told Marnie that sometimes you have to let your best friends go. She tells Hannah that everyone is struggling on the inside.

Becky Ann Baker was always great on the show; she made those lines work, even if they were all weirdly on the nose, like the show felt some need to land on some obvious helpful talking points. (THESIS: In the end, you have to leave your college friends behind. EVIDENCE: I married a gay man. CONCLUSION: The best way to be a friend is to let your friends go.)

And she was great since the start, when the show kicked off with Hannah’s parents cutting her off. Watching that scene back in 2012, it felt like the beginning of a modern hero’s journey, the moment of Hannah’s separation from what was known and easy. Baker’s performance was strong, and Scolari made a fine scene partner as her eventual ex-husband, and the show kept bringing them back, because Girls had that weird problem of loving its supporting actors but not always knowing precisely what to do with them. (Cut to: Ray, mooning over Marnie, or Adam, waiting patiently for someone to mention Hannah to him.)

And for a show that began with parental rejection — “Go, Daughter, Become Yourself” — Girls liked to entrap its characters in the peculiar pathologies brought upon them by their parents. In season 6, both Marnie and Hannah blamed their poor decisions on their parents’ failed marriages. That was treated as a gag, a sign of their own lack of maturity; and they realized that thanks to the safe pawnshop owner and the symbolic pantsless teen. But the show believed in parents, and believed in a very parent-approved notion of “maturity.” This was the Judd Apatow DNA shining through, that weird mixture of crass-sexy vulgarity edging onto the cliff of appealing domesticity. The women on Girls could be siblings to the dudes in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, layabouts who just decide one day to grow up. In Knocked Up, Rogen has essentially no money and then decides to get a job, a gig that pays for a cool new apartment. The last couple episodes of Girls suggested it bought into that weirdly bourgeois sensibility. Sure, live in rough Brooklyn for a few years, kids, make some memories. But know, all along, adulthood is waiting for you, with jobs and nice purses and personalities. Liberal arts colleges that will hire you. Yes, Marnie, law school was your destiny all along.

You could criticize the show’s socioeconomics, I guess; not everyone is lucky enough to be cut off. “Girls as Portrait of White Gentrifying Privilege” was a popular subtext for people who didn’t like Girls, just like “Girls as Generation-Defining Feminist Document” was a popular subtext for people who loved the show. All thematic interpretations have some merit, though no semiotics analysis helps to explain how Girls could be so great but also so infuriating, could shift from radical artistic daring to unconvincing sitcom farce.

Lena Dunham created Girls, ran the show with Jenni Konner, wrote or co-wrote all the best episodes, directed a few times each season. Maybe because she created the series, her scripts could represent the biggest narrative breakaways from anything that could be considered the Girls “formula.” “One Man’s Trash,” “The Panic in Central Park,” and “American Bitch” — my Holy Trinity — were all one-off short stories, centering on a complicated specific male-female dynamic, told with real-time tension. All those episodes were directed by Richard Shepard, who had a particular flair for capturing something romantic and wounded New York City. The episodes don’t build up to any obvious summary, really; they feel open to interpretation, yet irreducible to obvious analysis.

And the first two are stunningly beautiful. (“American Bitch” is too freaky to be beautiful, but it’s a thrilling modern noir, as tense and surprising as anything in Search Party.) There’s a moment in “The Panic in Central Park” when Marnie sits next to her long-ago boyfriend Charlie on the subway. Her head’s on his shoulder, and you can see her reflection in the brownish cruddy reflective glass of the subway car’s walls; she’s wearing a red dress, he’s all denim, they just fell into the water in Central Park. They look young and in love, but context is everything: Their relationship ended years ago, and this brief thing they have is about end again. It’s an indelible moment; it captures that peculiar young-old feeling you only get in your late 20s, when your whole life feels like the post-apocalyptic wreckage leftover from your early 20s.

And there’s that shot at the end of “One Man’s Trash,” when Hannah leaves the perfect house owned by perfect doctor Patrick Wilson. She’s spent a day there, or two days, or maybe a whole hermetically sealed lifetime; they played naked ping-pong, had rampant sex, she passed out in his awesome spa-shower. In the early morning, she walks away down the street. It’s my favorite moment on the show, and I’m not sure if it’s about being in your 20s or being in New York or being a writer or being a human. See her wander, this nomad. See the modern twentysomething, forever leaving homes she will never return to.

Not to return to the easiest and least helpful comparison, but: Sex and the City barely noticed the subway, exulted in a romantic High Fashion/downtown night club vision of New York City. It’s a glorious world painted in steadily brighter colors — though too many people overlook the cigarette-smoky first season, shot in the grayest phase of the 1990s. But Girls loved the subway, found something rather lovely in early morning walks of shame. Everyone inevitably wound up alone, passed out on a subway and waking up in Coney Island. We tended to talk Big Ideas with Girls, and history will decide whether Thinkpiece Culture helped the show or hurt it. Right now, Day One Post-Girls, what comes to mind most are those sensual pleasures, the glamour of New York’s grime, the gritty light striking naked bodies thrusting awkwardly in tiny bedrooms. On this show, when people had sex, you felt the city closing on.

Mark Seliger/Courtesy of HBO

Jemima Kirke looked bored on arrival, like this whole TV show thing was a chore, court-mandated community service, a favor for a friend. She acts the way Rihanna sings, and Rihanna sings like she has exactly 957 better things to do. Kirke’s first appearance on Girls was the third scene of the pilot. Meet Jessa: asleep in a taxicab, suitcase for her pillow, wearing a hat that looks like a choice. The first two scenes of Girls were interiors, Hannah at dinner with her parents, Hannah spooning with Marnie. So the first time you properly see Girls‘ New York City, it’s sunlight from outside crossing Jessa’s face with the street out-of-focus behind her in the rear windshield.

“Miss,” says the taxi driver, “We are here.”

Jessa wakes up, too fast to be believable. Kirke’s not a trained actor – but not everything worthwhile needs training, and maybe believability was actually Girls‘ least essential virtue.

“Already?” Jessa asks.

Except it doesn’t sound like a question. She sounds resigned, like she knows how this story will end, was hoping it would never start.

Across six seasons of Girls, Jessa married, went to rehab. One season, her whole big plot thing was House of Cardsing her friends’ relationships just so she could sleep with Zachary Quinto. Then she decided she wanted to be a therapist, then she triumphantly decided she didn’t want to be a therapist. She got together with Adam, which never didn’t feel like a final-phase sitcom pairing, this show’s variation on Joey falling for Rachel and Barney loving Robin, a final telltale sign that Girls was locking its characters into a snowglobe planet populated by main characters and comedian guest stars.

She was, in short, a uniquely pointless character. I miss her already. And I miss how, with Jessa, the show could be unapologetic, could deny any ready definition of maturity, could be blunt. “Our best was awful,” Jessa said at the end of her time on the show.

That’s way too harsh, but we live in harsh times. And if the later seasons were less convincing in general, they edged into something darker, suggesting that the purpose of the show was not some ascension into higher maturity — a portrait of the artist on her journey towards #adulting — but rather, a steady fall from grace into a lifetime of confusion. I loved the season 5 episode, “Queen for Two Days,” set in an empowerment retreat full of fascinating women left behind by men for one reason or another. That episode reflected the show’s worst farce-y instincts — Hannah hooks up with a yoga teacher! — but it had a genuine curiosity about these women, their experience, the sense that the whole world as they knew it was some kind of lie.

Girls could feel cynical about its characters, about relationships, about even the possibility of joy. Aspects of it already feel nostalgic, like how the ’90s looked prelapsarian by late 2001. If you accept it as a generational tale, Girls bridges the gap between Bush and Trump, between Clinton’s two great losses: Perhaps we will look back and consider that Hannah was giving voice to a new Lost Generation, dancers at the end of time, young people trapped between history, boldly struggling to live their truth while all around them chaos descended.

But there’s some hope. Meet young Grover Horvath, harbinger of Generation Whatever Comes After Z. Call me optimistic, but I think his best will be better than ours. I put all my faith in a boy raised by girls.