Lena Dunham is the new Larry David
With Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David has acclimated viewers to a perpetual onslaught of embarrassing and cringe-inducing moments: getting caught making out at Schindler’s List, having the spray of your urine be mistaken for one of Jesus’s tears. When Girls premiered, it was initially read as a generational statement: This is what the Millennial Generation is like. Lena Dunham’s series does indeed have much to say about a nation of college grads with ballooning debt and shrinking opportunities, but after three seasons, it makes more sense to understand Girls as a David-like portrait about slow-burn humiliation. Dunham is primarily interested in detailing her characters’ self-absorption and the consequences of their myopia: Marnie (Allison Williams) walking in on her coworkers chuckling over her music video cover of Edie Brickell’s “What I Am”; Jessa (Jemima Kirke) convincing herself she doesn’t have a drug problem; Hannah (Dunham) being cornered by her boyfriend’s ex and told to enjoy her “urine-soaked life.” An entire subset of viewers have devoted themselves to hate-watching Girls, but loathing these characters is as beside the point as despising George and Elaine.
Friends don’t always like their friends
It felt good — for us, at least — to let it all out. In perhaps the most memorable set piece of the entire season, the four main characters of Girls take a weekend trip in and exorcise three seasons’ worth of buried hostility and frenemy-dom. The episode (“Beach House”) cleverly acknowledged the central contradiction of the show: These four friends don’t seem to like each other very much. The resulting kitchen-counter circular firing squad is predictably gruesome — and compulsively watchable.
Hannah, in particular, is taken to task for her endless ability to tune out everything other than her own inner monologue. “I wanted to fall asleep in my own vomit all day listening to you talk about how you bruise more easily than other people,” the newly empowered (and newly unpleasant) Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) tells Hannah.
Marnie chimes in too, with a complaint of her own: “All you’ve done for the past couple of years is disappoint me.” “Well, then maybe you should lower your expectations,” Hannah suggests. Marnie has the perfect retort (one that, in ideal Girls fashion, indicts the speaker as much as the subject): “I can’t lower them any further.” This felt like a culminating moment for Girls — an acknowledgement that friendship, like love and success, is often fleeting.
It’s never too early for death
This season of Girls framed Hannah’s mirror-reflection preoccupations — with the fate of her eBook, with her delicate relationship with Adam (Adam Driver), with her career — against the specter of death. First, Hannah’s editor David (John Cameron Mitchell) unexpectedly dies, not long after punching out Ray (Alex Karpovsky) at a party. Hannah sits helplessly in his office on learning the news: “We had a meeting, and then he had to reschedule the meeting because he was dead.”
She continues to obsess over the eBook’s publication rather than mourn her friend’s death, getting booted from David’s memorial service after asking his widow for a reference. Ray also gives Hannah a severe talking-to: “Why don’t you place just one crumb of basic human compassion on this fat-free muffin of sociopathic detachment?” [The male characters on Girls, especially Ray and Adam, have become, surprisingly, far and away the most sympathetic figures on the show.]
In a later, standalone episode, “Flo,” Hannah joins her family at a bedside vigil for her dying grandmother (played by Nebraska‘s June Squibb). The episode is as much a furiously comic tête-à-tête with Hannah’s resentful cousin as a funereal interlude, but the message lingers. We may be too preoccupied to consider death, but death is not too preoccupied for us.
Be careful what you wish for
Girls has thrived on its characters’ fascinating mix of self-awareness and utter cluelessness, but it has taken some time for Girls’ subtext as a primer on the struggles of the starving creative class to fully emerge. Hannah scores a cushy job writing advertorial copy, only to flame out on seeing the extent of her coworkers’ degradation before the corporate beast. Marnie strikes out as a singer and pleads with a gallerist friend for a demeaning job as an assistant. Even the elderly artist that Jessa agrees to assist with committing suicide suddenly changes her mind at the last moment.
Their personal lives have hardly been different. Shosh wants her freedom from Ray, and ends up derailed as a result of an overdose of it. Marnie asks Ray for an honest assessment of her flaws, and then is taken aback when he tells her that “even when you try to connect and be sincere, it comes across as phony.” (It doesn’t stop her from sleeping with him. Nor does that stop him from telling her he’d prefer to “keep this on the DL.”)
Girls’ characters are consumed by the prospect of success — professional, romantic, economic. But the series is too crafty to allow success to come easily — or feel all that good.
Being an artist means being selfish
This season of Girls ended on a fascinatingly ambivalent note, with Hannah having possibly driven Adam away with her unthinking cruelty, sharing the news of her acceptance to graduate school in Iowa on his opening night. She comes home alone, and where we might expect her to burst into tears over her relationship, she smiles, cradling her acceptance letter to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. At the end of the first season, Hannah had been lost, waking up as her train pulled into Coney Island, far from home; at the end of the second, she had been desperate, needing to be saved by Adam. Now, hardly redeemed yet, she has taken a first step toward defining herself, on her own terms. Girls has never been entirely sure whether it is an ensemble series or a show about Hannah, but with this defiant closing gesture, it does Hannah the favor of granting her center stage, and of taking her winding path to artistic fulfillment seriously.