Goodbye, 'Girls': How the Finale Took On the Groundbreaking Show's Legacy

The first show of the Brooklyn-gentrification era, a pre-Trump celebration/critique of female brazenness, an endless think-piece generator, Lena Dunham's launching pad from indie filmmaker to celebrity, one of the most enduring signifiers of that nebulous concept known as "the millennial" – love it or hate it, Girls has been an undeniably potent piece of popular culture during its five-year, six-season run. At the 2012 TCAs, shortly before the HBO show's pilot premiered, the soon-to-be "voice of my generation" was quoted as saying, "Gossip Girl was teens duking it out on the Upper East Side and Sex and the City was women who figured out work and friends and now want to nail family life. There was this whole in-between space that hadn't really been addressed." Her series didn't just address that space. It practically colonized it.

We've watched Hannah, Jessa, Marnie and Shoshana go through a lot of life changes – Hannah and Adam's breakup, and Jessa's subsequent affair with him; Marnie's fall from her more comparatively type-A role, and her ill-advised marriage; Shoshana's push toward maturity, culminating in her going abroad and getting engaged back at home; and of course (the event that merits the biggest spoiler alert) Hannah's last-season pregnancy. Even with these surface changes, however, you were often left guessing just how much this quartet were evolving. The less glamorized version of female friendship that Girls offered was refreshing in the post are-you-a-Miranda-or-a-Samantha age. All that backstabbing along the way made you wonder why (and how) the girls were still friends at all. It also frequently invoked a tumultuous relationship even with its most loyal viewers, in large part because of its tendency to stay in that in-between space. By the finale, Hannah ends up in a position that looks superficially stable, with a baby, a house, and a job, but neither she nor her friends have fully slouched toward adulthood, as the tense, bathroom-set standoff in the penultimate episode made abundantly clear. (Setting that tense scene, the last to feature all four leads, in the bathroom is a telling decision; Girls has perfected a brand of what might be called "bathroom feminism.")

Still, with all the talk about Girls as representative of millennial womanhood, it's easy to forget the show was a comedy. Dunham has always an acute eye for capturing character types – from Adam, a character so gruff and consistently shirtless you could practically smell him in the early seasons, to Shoshana, the fast talking, crazily dressed girl approaching New York like an excitable tourist. The show grew increasingly self-critical in its portrayals, culminating in an amusing set piece in the final episode in which Dunham has a run-in with a troubled, whining teenager – one who may well be a stand-in for her younger self.

And in addition to wrapping things up, the finale is a slyly subversive play on both the show's legacy and its take on sexuality. Jumping ahead five months to the birth of Hannah's baby, named Grover (and darker-skinned than we might expect, which could easily be read as a corrective to accusations of the show's whitewashing). At her new home, Hannah is accompanied only by Marnie, who has a cloying desire to help parent, and her mother, Loreen. Fed up with her daughter's self-pity and immaturity in the face of this new responsibility, Hannah's mom eventually explodes: "You know who else is in emotional pain? Fucking everyone!" It's a philosophical truth, tartly delivered, and one that our heroine desperately needed to hear. The final image of the show, of Hannah's content expression as Grover finally feeds, goes for poignancy. Those naked breasts are anything but gratuitous, and in her wide eyes and shy smile is the suggestion that she realizes she must grow up. Of course, it's impossible to know just how well she'll end up, but for a moment, at least, she's in a good place. She's no longer the voice of her generation, or at least, the voice of a generation. She's just another mom nurturing her child.

Regardless, 10 or 15 years from now, Girls will be our time capsule of that time span – one filled with ill-fitting crop tops and awkward sex and overuse of the word "literally." There's now no shortage of TV characters in navigating that "in-between space": see the absurdist Brooklynites of Broad City or the caustic Los Angelenos of You're the Worst. But capturing the zeitgeist in an era of mainstream liberalism that now feels too distant, Girls became a conversation starter and a scapegoat first – and for longer than it takes to get a college degree. It ended at just the right time. The characters had begun to overstay their welcomes, and it feels like the right time to consider what other versions of millennial femininity on television can offer. In their mid to late twenties, the "girls" are now in a position where moving out of the in-between space is not a choice, but a necessity. The final shot finds Hannah making some progress. She has a long way to go. But unlike, say, five years ago, you have the feeling she'll get there eventually.

The 'Girls' finale went out not with a bang but a literal whimper – how the swan song of Lena Dunham's HBO show made you rethink the show's legacy. Danielle Levitt/HBO

Lena Dunham on Her ‘Girls’ Finale and That Final Shot

The girls in HBO’s “Girls” have finally become women, kind of.

In the series finale, “Latching,” which aired on Sunday, Hannah (Lena Dunham) has just given birth to a boy. She’s moved to a proper house upstate, with her type-A best friend, Marnie (Allison Williams), on hand to help raise the kid. And then she slips into stubborn self-absorption: She gets frustrated with her baby for refusing to breast-feed, blames her mother for her shortcomings, storms away from her house and child, loses her pants, and returns late at night to finally connect emotionally and physically with the baby. (He takes the boob.)

In a phone interview, Ms. Dunham talked about whether parenthood makes you an adult, the influence Judd Apatow had over the pregnancy plotline, and the choice to give the unconventional Hannah a rather conventional ending. The interview has been condensed and edited.

First of all, congratulations. How did it feel to finally air the last episodes of the show?

It felt all over to us months ago, but when we started to feel the fan reaction, it became very real again. It’s revived the feeling of loss.

The show is called “Girls.” As it ends, do you see your characters as having become adults?

I’ve always had a tendency to refer to people diminutively. I feel like I’ll be calling people “girls” until I’m 67. Only when I feel very serious, self-important and slighted do I refer to myself as a “woman.” That being said, I do believe the characters have achieved a kind of growth. They’ve moved into the world of the living, where they have real-people problems. I’m proud of them for it.

Hannah’s growth in the final season is quite literal. When did you know that “Girls” would end with her becoming a mom?

I’ve been talking about that since the second season. I always liked the idea. It’s not an unfamiliar narrative, a child forcing somebody to grow up. But it’s unfamiliar in that happiness for a female character doesn’t involve either the perfect ending with the will-they-won’t-they man of her dreams, or a movement toward the career she’s always wanted.

It involves stepping outside of herself. Even though Hannah didn’t plan to get pregnant, some part of her understood the opportunity to step outside of her own misery and see the world through a different lens. But also, it’s not like the child is just born, and she looks into his eyes, and her problems disappear. It’s all about trying to reconcile that anxious, addled, selfish person with the fact that someone else needs her now. I think Hannah needed that in order to get to the next step of her maturation.

I’m interested in the conversations you and Judd Apatow had around that idea, given his own work’s focus on pregnancy and parenthood and their relationship to adulthood.

We all know he made “Knocked Up.” He’s been very public about the fact that he became a father when he was a young comedian, not really sure what he wanted to do, and it ended up being an incredibly positive thing for his life. So he had a lot of feelings about it. I’m also not a parent, so I was really relying on Jenni [Konner] and Judd to explain things to me.

They’re both incredibly passionate, engaged parents who are obsessed with their kids, but they’re also willing to talk about the thorniness of it: like, it may be the best thing you ever do, but some days you don’t feel like you can do it. That was the perspective we needed, because this couldn’t be a “Hannah has a baby and her self-involvement goes away as soon as she becomes a mother” plotline. It had to be a “Is she going to leave her baby at the fire station?” plotline.

In the very last shot of the series, the baby finally latches on to Hannah’s nipple to breast-feed, and we see this moment of joy and relief and epiphany on her face. Tell me about how you arrived at that ending.

That was a concept that Judd had really early on. Jenni was directing the episode, and she wanted to find a way to do it where it doesn’t feel like the shot is saying, “Breast-feeding saves the day,” and it doesn’t feel like the shot is only about the baby. When she came up with that idea — where it’s all in Hannah’s face, and for all intents and purposes, we don’t even know what’s going on below the frame — that was so appealing to me. I wanted to feel like there was a version where anything could be happening below the frame: The baby may have laughed, and Hannah may be gasping with pleasure and joy. It was all about Hannah realizing: “Oh, he’s here. He’s actually here.” Since the baby was born, she’s almost been in a fugue state, and she’s just woken up to it all.

There’s a way of seeing the ending as quite traditional, though. Did you have any reservations about having Hannah grow up through motherhood, which is this very conventional idea?

It’s been an interesting litmus test: Some people find it really beautiful, and some people say that Hannah being pregnant feels isolating to them. Whether Hannah is opening her legs to her boss or telling lies to Adam, people have always had a polarizing reaction to her: “Yes, that’s me,” or “I would never.” It feels only right that the final choice she makes in the series be just that confounding.

Your final thoughts about the final episode?

I loved the all-women energy of the episode. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I know that in many ways mine was a very traditional finale, and I’m so happy that it had this odd emotional coda. And I really enjoyed wearing those fake lactation nipples.

What Was Missing From the Girls Finale

How should a show end, when it’s as groundbreaking, contrarian, and frequently infuriating as Girls has been for six seasons? With a wedding? With a flash forward to 50-something Hannah ranting peevishly about how inconvenient Brooklyn’s emergency climate-change evacuations are for her schedule? With a brunch reunion, in homage to Sex and the City, followed by a montage of all four main characters (or five, since all non-Hannah scenes essentially became The Elijah Show in season six) living out their truths?

The ending Lena Dunham, Jenni Konner, and Judd Apatow eventually landed on was none of these things, although it did leap ahead to a few months after the events of “Goodbye Tour,” where Hannah, Shosh, Jessa, and Marnie agreed by default that their friendship was over. Rather, “Latching” felt like one of the show’s frequent Hannah-centric interludes, which have been abundant in Season 6, between “All I Ever Wanted” and “American Bitch.” But something vital was missing. Whether or not you’re a fan of Hannah, it’s become apparent by now that her creative instincts are her most redeeming quality as a character. She might be lethargic, slovenly, and self-centered to the point of absurdity, but she’s an astute observer of people, an apparently gifted writer and storyteller, and an oddly incisive moralist. “American Bitch” was fascinating as an episode because it allowed Hannah to showcase all of these strengths and more.

So what made “Latching” so unsatisfactory was seeing Hannah reduced to her worst qualities, in a lazily conceived episode that seemed to exist only to echo the show’s consistent two-steps-back-one-step-forward model of maturity. There was a jump in time to a moment set a few months after Hannah had given birth to Grover and was now co-parenting with Marnie in her improbably lovely house in upstate New York. Marnie, whose arrival in said house was announced by a tracking shot of her body spooning Hannah’s in bed (in a symmetrical callback to the very first episode), had taken to aunthood and country life like a sustainably farmed fish to water. But Hannah was struggling, interpreting her failure to breastfeed Grover as a sign that the two weren’t compatible.

Much has been made of the fact that “Goodbye Tour” functioned well as a series finale, with its nod to friendships past, and its final scenes of Hannah moving triumphantly into her Hudson Valley house. So the question is, why bother with an episode like “Latching” at all? Konner told The Hollywood Reporter that the flash-forward was Apatow’s idea, and that the writing team struggled with it. Hannah’s conversation with the bratty, pants-less teenager (a thumpingly obvious Ghost of Hannah Past) was apparently one of “maybe 14 different moments” the writers drafted to force Hannah into some kind of acceptance of her new role as a mother, and it showed.

For one thing, the show had offered a sense throughout Season 6 that its finale would be characteristically original. In “What Will We Do This Time About Adam?” Girls showed the happy ending it could have manufactured, with Adam and Hannah raising Grover together in connubial hipster bliss. The decision to have Hannah’s story end with motherhood felt like such a predictable turn of events for a defiantly unpredictable show that it was tempting to see it as a feint for Girls to do something truly daring. But, in the end, that was it. Hannah had a baby, moved to the suburbs, and threw an extravagant tantrum about her emotional pain as a new mother, after which a convenient stranger ex machina (another reliable trope for the show) showed her how ridiculous she was being.

In this sense, Girls was being truthful: Stories tend to demand tidy resolution, while life has a maddening habit of continuing, until it doesn’t. And the episode was studded with the show’s brilliantly weird one-liners. (“Every time you say ‘nipple,’ a fairy dies.”) “Latching” also offered an oddly gratifying end for Marnie, overcoming her narcissism to help a friend in trouble, having phone sex with a very nice personal trainer from Weehawken, indulging her love for music and fine cheeses at jazz night, and considering law school. Loreen’s description of her friend Judge Patricia DiMango, who she says goes on five Christian Mingle dates a week and has a spray tan and a big diamond in her upper-ear cartilage, felt like as apt a vision of Future Marnie as we’ll ever get. (I particularly loved Marnie’s change of outfit from lingerie to Victorian full-length pajamas after Loreen caught her indulging in erotic role-playing.)

But when it came to Hannah, who’d been the focus of so much of Season 6, the finale was a letdown. Both the show and the character seem to have really believed all this time that Hannah might be a compelling voice for her generation, despite continual roadblocks, professional failures, and naysayers bringing her down. And as this last season progressed, thanks to Hannah’s insightful conversation with Chuck Palmer, it was even something viewers could start to buy into. So to end with Hannah’s most petulant self on display, capped by a totally grandfathered-in come-to-Jesus moment that found her making peace with motherhood, feels like short change for one of television’s most influential characters. In the end, Girls just couldn’t manufacture a conclusion that did this strange and frequently glorious show justice.

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