“Girls” is purposefully not a show created for everyone. Throughout its run, the Lena Dunham vehicle confronted you with uncomfortable truths often ignored on TV and in real life. These varied from how women’s bodies actually look, the systematic forces conspiring for you to fail (and specifically, women to fail), the kooky idiosyncrasies that expresses genuine love, and hypocritical hipster coffee shops.
Primarily, this show existed in that murky existential ground of your mid-20s, in between the gap of your wildest fantasies and what really lurks behind the curtain. It was about characters seeing the ugliness, discovering what little regard the world has for your dreams, and continue trying regardless. The characters on “Girls” were megalomaniac monsters in this way: They still believed they were special when everything in their life instructed them they were not.
The show could be highly relatable and highly problematic for this reason. Narcissists tend to produce easy fodder for tsk-tsking bloggers, and the criticism at times was warranted, but the solipsism and selfish attitudes felt familiar, though you’d rather not admit it. “Girls” skewered millennial exceptionalism, but also understood its root causes. Hannah and Marnie and Ray and Jessa and Elijah and Shoshanna and Adam all thought they deserved whatever achievements they desired because the world had told them they did.
Part of that, indubitably, stemmed from being white and privileged enough to attend a private institution like Oberlin and move to Brooklyn with no real hardships. Their complaints could be petty, but who among us is really that wholesome in our expectations? The show didn’t always acknowledge this reality early in its run, though eventually did, elevating their high-wire act to produce bigger stakes and even bigger falls.
“Girls”, along with FX’s “Louie,” established the written and visual language of the half-hour “dramedy,” the most creative stimulating and inventive format on television. Because of the “Girls” intrepid creative team, traditional sitcoms with multi-cam setups often felt shallow while hour-long dramas could seem bloated in comparison. Both “Girls” and “Louie” (an abstract, sardonic romp) helped pave room for some of today’s best shows, like “Insecure,” “Togetherness,” “Master of None,” “Atlanta,” “Transparent,” and more.
Though “Girls” led this disruption of both television and movies by melding short-film aesthetics with the half-hour comedy, its real lifeblood was its characters. Their potent originality wasn’t their intellectual packaging or pretty looks (girls and guys), but how the show allowed—encouraged, even—these characters to display the messiest versions of themselves. They were people, like many millennials finding themselves in that purgatory of post-collegiate life, grasping at quick fixes to big problems.
“Girls” was smart and subversive in pushing its characters into traditional answers, then exposing the fallacies of those conventions. Marnie and Jessa thought life would become easier through marriage and learned the opposite was true. Shoshanna believed running away from her past and re-inventing herself would solve these old problems, but even in Japan ghosts come calling. Elijah dove heedlessly into ironic detachment (still unhappy), Ray into intellectual superiority (still lonely), while Adam turned to the dark side to save him (still Star Wars).
Hannah, well, the examples are numerous. But in this vein, the show loved playing most with her writing career. Glossy magazine copywriting sucked, writing an e-book was lame, an MFA degree didn’t suit her, and teaching, ultimately, was unfulfilling. It wasn’t until Hannah accepted writing about herself and her muddled contradictions and sloppy human-ness did she find career fulfillment. In addition, in her personal life, when Hannah began accepting the shortcoming and flaws of those around her—like when she doesn’t blame or chastise Marnie during Desi’s pill withdrawal breakdown, but instead boosts her up—does she discover a version of internal contentment.
Which is why the show’s prolonged three-episode finale arc felt rather unsatisfying. It veered into conventional explanations for complicated situations. All Hannah needed to grow up was to become a mother and leave New York City. She received a full-time college teaching gig—how is she qualified enough again?—and a house. She domesticated herself and that has made all the difference.
For a show revolving around self-delusions of grandeur, who would’ve thought the ending would be the most unbelievable stretch of the show? Not just the house and teaching offer, but the characters seemed like they were floating through narrative obligations. Everything tidied itself neatly, like Ray and Shosh suddenly discovering perfect love. The Hannah-Adam last gasp played more as fanfic shipping, as the writers refused to push it toward a place of real consequence. Following a reckoning of personal insecurity, Jessa accepts Adam back, with no fight, no “I understand” conversation, and no future suspicion. It was like his dumping her never happened. Nor did Adam confront any pain or confusion after glimpsing his dreams of being a dad—something he so obviously wishes to be—and instead returns to plot destroying the last Jedi or something.
Hannah’s pregnancy always seemed suspect, more plot device than anything else. It was forgivable, however, as it seemed like the show was leading its main character down the conservative route, only to reveal why it was a false path for Hannah. Either that or we’d witness some radical transformation on the part of Hannah, though the former was far more interesting. Instead the show never made a firm choice in either direction. By the finale Hannah reverts to being an insolent child, unable to accept the attempts of kindness from Marnie and her mother Loreen (why Marnie is even there, I guess, isn’t a question worth totally exploring either).
“You wanna act like this whole thing is an accident, like it happened to you?” Loreen screams. “You made a choice to have this child, and it’s the only one you can’t undo.”
Hannah runs away once again, until happening upon a character I affectionately named Foil. This high school girl who appears visibly traumatized, complaining how unfair the world is. When Foil eventually admits she’s frustrated she can’t bang her boyfriend, Hannah flips, and becomes the patronizing, responsible mother. “SHE’LL TAKE CARE OF YOU FOREVER EVEN IF IT MEANS ENDLESS, ENDLESS PAIN,” she yells. Foil so obviously reflects this dollhouse mirror of an earlier Hannah, and it sickens her into maturing into the Mom she’s meant to be. It’s all pretty saccharine honestly. Furthermore, it’s not believable and slightly betrays the empathetic ethos of the series, which always allowed for the pettiest and whiniest complaints to hold some legitimacy. The small stuff dismantles us most, not the big weighty life events we’re pretending to manage along the way.
Hannah returns home, changed. The issue of breastfeeding and her son Grover latching properly just fixes herself, the selfish Hannah finally becomes a giving mother. Here’s the problem: Lena Dunham does not play a believable mother. As Hannah, she never gets there, which they could cover up when she was pregnant, but the shortcomings were glaring in the finale.
The unseemly compromises into family felt right out of Judd Apatow’s playbook, who co-wrote the finale, but co-showrunner Jenni Konner told The Hollywood Reporter that Dunham wanted to end Hannah’s story this way since the first season. In a later joint interview with Dunham, Konner said of the finale, “”One of the funniest things was that our writers really turned against us on it.” Dunham later added the writers wanted to end it with Episode 9 and refused giving notes on a draft of the finale.
That speaks to just how forced this super conventional ending and storyline was for a transgressive, innovative show like Girls. It’s disappointing and unfortunate for a show that featured such careful, brilliant writing to miss the landing like this. But endings are invariably harder than beginnings. The show sustained itself long enough, and delivered all-time great TV episodes like “The Panic In Needle Park” and “One Man’s Trash.”
Writing that this boring, conservative ending undoes the “Girls”’ iconic legacy is far lazier writing than the show itself displayed. Dunham and co. thought “Girls” needed closure. But really it seemed they needed it more than anyone else.