As the series finale of HBO’s “Girls” begins at 10 p.m. Sunday, Hannah (Lena Dunham) has a teaching job at an upstate college; Marnie (Allison Williams) has an online therapist; Jessa (Jemima Kirke) has quit school, and presumably Adam (Adam Driver); Shosh (Zosia Mamet) is engaged; Elijah (Andrew Rannells) got a part in “White Men Can’t Jump”; Ray (Alex Karpovsky) is sorting through his unexpected inheritance; and Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) is, well, who knows where Desi is?
“I am so confused.”
That was Hannah speaking in the April 2 episode, “What Will We Do This Time About Adam?,” but she might as well have been speaking for loyal fans, too. What are we supposed to do with her? Confused and pregnant, she was juggling friends, emotions, hormones, her past, present and future. In other words, actual problems about actual life, to borrow another Hannah line.
For starters, watch her finale. She’s come this far, and we, too. Time for closure, time for reflection. But after six tumultuous seasons – on-screen and off – it’s obvious that confusion was always the inspiration for “Girls.” Confusion is funnier than clarity and the cousin of farce. To be occasionally confused is human. To be confused at an especially vulnerable point in your life – when you’re young and your dreams are taunting you – is intensely human, and the pretext for this series. Goodbye to all that on Sunday.
Goodbye to so much else. Besides TV history, there’s some cultural history ending as well. Even before the show’s 2012 launch, Dunham (then 25), was hyped as the millennial who would explain millennials to themselves. On the show, she body shamed Hollywood and the rest of the female-body-exploiting establishment with her naked body. She had suddenly emerged as a voice for feminists, too.
Because “Girls” was essentially a bildungsroman, or the story of Dunham, the subsequent backlash engulfed both: “Girls” was too privileged, narcissistic, insular, even too white. Lots of millennials said the show didn’t “represent” them. Some aggrieved Brooklynites said the same for their gentrified borough, which to the rest of the world had become “Girls.”
An over-sharer to begin with, Dunham didn’t help matters. Her 2014 memoir recalled a childhood incident about touching her sister that set off a furor. She set off another when she told Howard Stern, “I’m not super thin, but I’m thin, for like, Detroit.”
The backlash cost the show Emmys – only Peter Scolari (Tad) got one – and cred, but mostly obscured that “Girls” was a finely crafted, deeply felt series. The cast was terrific, their characters a refraction of Hannah, yet each utterly unique unto themselves. Judd Apatow, who codeveloped “Girls,” almost seemed to set it in the same universe as his classic ’90s series, “Freaks and Geeks.” By way of homage, Becky Ann Baker, the mom in “Freaks,” also played Hannah’s mom.
In Dunham, Apatow found his perfect partner, and vice versa. Both were interested in the socially inept, the loner, the misfit – society’s freaks and geeks, who are infinitely funnier than society’s conformists. In “Girls,” they found common ground with another creative obsession, on the ephemeral part of life when a person is neither a child nor an adult, to whom the future is a fog and the past a blur. In “Girls,” older adults were sellouts, parents were sad, sex was debasing, boyfriends were feckless, girlfriends were faithless. Careers and emotional stability were out of reach. A Harper Simon song with the line “there are more wishes than stars” closed out the pilot. That seemed about right.
“Girls” was about love, loss, alienation and friendship, but mostly about being young, confused and conflicted – and how all these emotions had been dumped into a blender in Brooklyn. When someone looked beyond his or her own suffocating narcissism, they found only more confusion and conflict. Another rap on “Girls” in fact was that narcissism. Were millennials really this bad? In fact, narcissism was the whole joke. “I am busy trying to become who I am,” Hannah said in the pilot. That was the tip-off: “Girls” was too smart and self-aware to fall into a trap of its own making. Sure, some millennials were this bad, but these millennials were just taking a cue from their own self-absorbed parents, those once-despised boomers. What goes around, comes around. The joke was also on them.
Goodbye, Hannah. It’s been a fun ride.