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.
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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 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.