I’ve been sick this week, so I’ve mostly been camped out on the couch trying to make it through a book. But eventually, my throbbing sinus headache forced me to give up and watch TV instead. I started watching Girls years ago, but I haven’t had the motivation to make it through the last two seasons until now. And… wow. I’ve loved this series throughout, despite the heavy dose of criticism it and Lena Dunham have received, but I was even more impressed with the ending.
I know that this show (or perhaps Dunham specifically) has been controversial, so I did a Google search for reviews on the last episode. It was then I came across Richard Lawson’s article for Vanity Fair entitled “Why Did the Groundbreaking Girls Have Such a Disappointingly Conventional Ending?” Did we even watch the same episode? I wondered.
Lawson claims that the show’s finale ended with Hannah in a “dismayingly conventional place: normalized by a baby subject to the same woes of parenthood that we’ve seen iterated time and time again…” and that he wished the show would have ended with the “lovely ninth episode, with its dancing and happy poeticism.” But what could be more conventional than that? In the ninth episode, Hannah makes her rounds revisiting many of the show’s most important characters, and the episode ends with Hannah and Jessa making up and the friends dancing along to feel-good music at a Brooklyn house party.
Is that what we, as viewers, should want? It’s a relatively neat ending, for sure: friends dancing, moving into a new part of their lives together, things changing but looking up, new beginnings. The only way it could be worse is if the four main characters all made up after the bathroom scene and ended in one of those chain group hugs that leaves everyone’s face open to the camera, smiling and laughing à la Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
The complaint that Hannah’s life turns out too conventional is a complaint about life itself. It iterates a fear all too common for millennials: that, despite our attempts to change the world, we are going to end up just like our parents and their parents before them. The existence of the internet is not the shuffling in of a new era in which it is possible to stay young and hopeful forever. Our insistence that we can reject the biology of gender has made us believe we can reject the biology of age. But just because our tattoos look great in our sepia-toned pregnancy announcements doesn’t mean that the realities of childrearing—or life in general—will drastically change for our generation. We’re all getting older, and life isn’t getting any easier. But wasn’t it supposed to?
That’s what Lawson seems to want: a hopeful message about a “groundbreaking” generation. Or just any message that tells us we’re going in a different direction. He says that Girls was an “indelible portrait of a small corner of Obama-era America” but that it “outlived that era by a few months and was forced to end under a very different political temper.” Lawson also laments that “the show never grappled with race or, really, privilege in any distinct or worthwhile way.” But I think it’s a problem that this is now what we expect every show to do. That every story has to reflect our current sociopolitical situation and make a comment on the hot topics of the day.
This is a different story; one that is perhaps less specific to our times than we have come to expect from today’s TV series but more universal. The message of the final season and, particularly, the final episode, might be cliché, but it is realistic. We don’t know the solutions to our world’s problems, and life is going to continue to get harder. We’re going to age. We are going to make decisions that we may end up regretting, and every stage of life has its challenges; Grover, Hannah, and Loreen all have their struggles to overcome.
It’s an ending both comforting and horrifying, heartbreaking and heartfelt, scary and sad and hopeful all at once. It’s a snapshot of what life feels like for all of us without having to look like everyone’s lives at once.
In my opinion, Girls was a success because of the quality of the character development. The characters are highly reflective of real people, even if not every type of real person is represented. It might be satisfying when characters overcome their limitations and flaws to become better people. This is the story we want for ourselves. But all too often, real people make the same mistakes over and over again, and they can’t go back and fix them before it’s too late. We are all stuck with the consequences of our actions; we may miss a shot at fame, regret having a child, marry the wrong person. But life is going to continue on, regardless, impervious to our feelings about our decisions. But still not void of beauty.
That we should want every show to come to a neat close and cover the same themes and ideas is a reflection of the fact that our generation is not significantly more open than past generations. We have our own biases and our own ideas about the way the world works and should work. Our ideas will become outdated, and so will we. What we are left with are lives like every generation before us, just with more important questions to grapple with than ever.
Hannah could’ve ended the show as a single writer living in Brooklyn with her friends. Or she could’ve gotten back together with Adam. Or she could’ve ended up as a single mom in suburbia in upstate New York facing the realities of new motherhood. We’ve seen all of these endings so many times; it can be argued that they are all conventional in different ways. But that is just our generation’s reality. We have not created a revolution. We do not have new ways to end our stories. So, a neat and clean wrap-up imbued with a false sense of “groundbreaking” hopefulness may be what we want, but it’s certainly not what we’re going to get. Not from Girls and not from real life.