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Girls: How to End a Show People Loved to Hate

From the moment Girls debuted in 2012 to when it ended in 2017, the HBO show was a constant source of controversy. Lena Dunham’s series won over plenty of fans with its raw, funny look at the lives of four twenty-something women living in New York City, but by the show’s finale, the big question seemed to be whether these characters should be redeemed for their privileged, narcissistic behavior—or punished. Dunham, along with her collaborators Jenni Konner and Judd Apatow, had spent six seasons both satirizing and celebrating its characters’ self-absorption. The finale raised the question of how to maintain that sense of empathy and realism, without betraying who these women fundamentally were. Here’s our Take on how the Girls finale allowed its characters to grow up just enough, how the backlash to the show influenced its evolution, and what the series ultimately said about the people it represented.

TRANSCRIPT

From the moment Girls debuted in 2012, to when it finally ended in 2017, the HBO show was a constant source of controversy. Lena Dunham’s series won over plenty of fans with its raw, funny look at the lives of four twenty-something women living in New York City. But it also inspired plenty of backlash about just how unlikeable they were.

By the show’s finale, the big question seemed to be whether these characters should be redeemed for their privileged, narcissistic behavior—or punished.

The Girls finale presented an interesting challenge for how to finish a series that a lot of people seemed to love to hate. Most stories about people fumbling through their twenties will see them coming of age, growing up, and learning hard truths on their way to a newfound sense of peace and security. But would that be true to the spirit of Girls? Dunham, along with her collaborators, Jenni Konner and Judd Apatow, had spent six seasons both satirizing and celebrating its characters’ self-absorption. So the finale raised the question of how to maintain that sense of empathy and realism, without betraying who these women fundamentally were.

Here’s our take on how the Girls finale allowed its characters to grow up just enough, how the backlash to the show influenced its evolution, and what the series ultimately said about the people it represented.

Girls Growing Up

The final episodes of Girls find Hannah taking a symbolic step into adulthood.

We first meet Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, as an aspiring writer living in New York City, who’s forced to quit her unpaid internship when her parents cut her off financially. In the Girls’ finale, Hannah has finally achieved her dream—sort of. She’s not a celebrated writer herself. But she has been hired to teach other young people how to write online, accepting a professorship at a college upstate. After six seasons of struggling through menial jobs as a secretary, a barista, a creator of sponsored content, and as an under-qualified substitute teacher, Hannah has a concrete win. She’s found some sort of writing career, and it comes with a stable income, health insurance, and a comfortable home.

Elijah: “What are you gonna do? You’re gonna leave? Teach? Write? Live in a house?”

Hannah: “I mean, literally all three of those things.” Girls, 6x09

This perpetual girl has also become a mother. In the final season, Hannah has a one-night stand with a surf instructor, learns she’s pregnant, then decides to raise the baby alone. This is a momentous decision for Hannah, who’s spent most of the series focused solely on herself, while often relying on other people to take care of her. Becoming a mom means putting someone else’s needs before hers, leaving New York City, and saying goodbye to her fantasies. Tellingly, it even motivates Hannah to finally end her tempestuous relationship with Adam, after both finally realize that it will never work out.

Most of these decisions have been made by Girls’ penultimate episode, “Goodbye Tour,” which also shows us where Hannah leaves her friends.

Hannah’s not the only one who’s turned a corner. Shoshanna has a fiance, a new group of friends, and a new life. Jessa seems to have found some kind of happiness with Adam,—and in “Goodbye Tour,” she reconciles with Hannah over dating Hannah’s ex.

Jessa: “I’m sorry for… for everything…”

Hannah: “You don’t have to be sorry, it’s OK. I mean, it’s not OK, but it’s like I don’t really know who’s supposed to be sorry for what.” Girls, 6x09

After almost giving up on acting, Elijah has finally landed a part in a Broadway musical. In the prior episode, we even see that Ray has found happiness with a new love connection.

Hannah is surprised to discover that she’s become so wrapped up in herself, she didn’t even know about Shoshanna’s engagement party—which her friends are all attending without her. This unexpected reunion finally forces Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna to confront just how far they’ve all drifted apart—and ultimately deciding that they’re better off.

Shoshanna: “I have come to realize how exhausting and narcissistic and ultimately boring this whole dynamic is. I think we should all just agree to call it. OK? Great.” Girls, 6x09

And in the climax of “Goodbye Tour,” we see the four main women letting go of all their resentments and dancing. Notably, the camera frames them separately, each of them finally happy on their own.

It’s a bittersweet moment that provides a sense of closure and finality to the show—but in true Girls fashion, things aren’t so simple. While many at the time noted that “Goodbye Tour” would have made a fine ending, the actual final episode, “Latching” jumps ahead to catch up with Hannah after the birth of her son, Grover. Hannah’s left everyone behind except Marnie, who’s moved in to help her with the baby.

The finale revolves around the very adult, very un-Girls-like conflict of Hannah having problems getting her son to breastfeed. The sense of peace and resolve that Hannah showed while leaving Brooklyn has given way to the stresses of early parenthood. And the maturity that Hannah appeared to have gained doesn’t seem to be enough to get her through this crisis.

Hannah: “You called my mother and told her to come here?”

Marnie: “Yeah, Hannah. You’re having a really hard time.” Girls, 6x10

As Dunham told The A.V. Club, this was Judd Apatow’s suggestion—to do a “finale that’s like a traditional finale [...] and then do the episode that sort of shows almost what the future would be.” And the show’s answer to “what’s next?” isn’t necessarily a happy one. Yes, Hannah is a mother with a good job and a nice house. Yet in many ways, she seems to have regressed. She’s living with Marnie again, just like we found her in the first season. At one point, she’s even seen walking around pants-less. Hannah may have passed several adult milestones, but her life hasn’t reached a satisfying resolution yet.

Emotionally, Hannah is still raw and unfinished—still consumed by her various anxieties, and now projecting them onto her son.

Hannah: “I isolate people, I’m a quitter. So what if that’s the kind of man I raise?” Girls, 6x10

She still needs her parents to support her—and she seems surprised that things haven’t just magically worked out for her. She seems to be longing for the life she left behind. Hannah is, in many ways, still behaving like a child, and still looking to avoid responsibility for her own life.

This leads to a blowout fight with her mother, who offers what feels like the definitive statement on Hannah Horvath’s selfish worldview. And this is paralleled by Hannah’s encounter with a half-dressed teenage girl who’s also fleeing her home. Hannah feels both an immediate kinship with the girl—and motherly concern. And after offering the girl her own pants and finding out she’s run away because her mom asked her to do homework, Hannah unloads on her for being immature, irresponsible, and ungrateful, in a speech that’s clearly directed to and about herself—as a mother and a daughter.

Hannah: “She has a million trillion things she’d rather be doing. Things she might want to experience. But she stays and tells you to do your homework ‘cause it’s what’s f***ing good for you.” Girls, 6x10

This is a small, but significant moment of growing up. Hannah remains selfish, mercurial, and stubborn to the end, but she also chooses to go home, to do the hard work of being a mom and an adult. It’s a small step, like Marnie’s own tentative, notably more down-to-earth plans for the future. When Hannah finally gets Grover to nurse, there’s a sense of relief and momentary peace—but it’s clear that this is just a respite, not a resolution. The show gives us less an ending than a new beginning.

A Millennial Answer to What?

Before it even premiered, Girls had been pegged as a millennial answer to Sex and the City, another HBO show about four single women making their way in New York. It was a comparison the show confronted head-on, winking at the influence Sex and the City would likely have had on its characters’ image of themselves.

Shoshanna: “Do you like the poster?”

Jessa: “Oh, um, you know, I’ve never seen that movie.”

Shoshanna: “Only the show?”

Jessa: “Is it a show?”

Shoshanna: “Oh, my God. You’re not serious.” Girls, 1x01

But as far as Dunham was concerned, “I knew that there was a connection because it’s women in New York, but it really felt like it was tackling a different subject matter.”

While both shows were about female friends dealing with sex, relationships, and their careers, Sex and the City was more aspirational, presenting a picture of poised, professional women who had largely figured themselves out. But the characters of Girls were incomplete. They were messy, flawed, and self-absorbed like young people can often be.

Hannah: “Do you think that I think this is the best use of my literary voice and my myriad talents?” Girls, 3x06

And while this made them relatable to a younger audience, to many it also made them unlikeable and frustrating. Fans have long debated whether they’re a “Rachel” or a “Monica,” a “Carrie” or a “Samantha.” With Girls, viewers would conceivably make a sport out of which character was the worst.

Girls was frequently cited as a show that inspires hate-watchingwatching a series you despise, solely to criticize or feel superior to it. Some of the criticisms lodged against it were legitimate. Most obviously, Girls was dinged early on for its overwhelming whiteness, a critique that Dunham says she took seriously.

Yet the show was also criticized for its response, adding people of color that were accused of being thinly sketched supporting characters, largely acting as inspirations or sounding boards for the main characters. And this controversy dogged the show right up until its finale, which cast a darker-skinned baby as Hannah’s biracial son. Some even suggested this was its clumsy attempt to atone for an overall lack of representation over the years.

Like Sex and the City and Friends before it, Girls was accused of being a show about white privilege, an insular portrait of New York City living that failed to reflect its diversity.

But Girls was most frequently slammed for its depictions of privilege, period. On the whole, Girls was more realistic than either Sex and the City or Friends, showing struggling twenty-somethings who lived with roommates in lousy apartments, working low-paying jobs or no-paying internships. But it also mined comedy out of its characters’ sense of entitlement—relying on their parents for financial support, while just expecting exciting opportunities to come their way. Whether it was Hannah’s aspirations to be a famous writer or Marnie’s dreams of being a singer, many of the characters seem convinced they should be successful, regardless of how much work they’d put into it or even their actual talent.

Girls quickly became a stand-in for the entire millennial generation, which had already become a cultural punching bag. As Jennifer Wright noted in The New York Post, the show “brilliantly tackled difficult issues from abortion to sexual assault . . . while also making an entire pack of millennials look like loathsome narcissists.” This especially rankled viewers who conflated the characters’ entitlement with Lena Dunham’s.

Hannah: “Yeah, but I’m like, no offense, just a writer writer. Not like a corporate advertising, working-for- the-man kind of writer.” Girls, 3x06

Before she developed Girls, Dunham had already earned significant buzz for her indie film debut, Tiny Furniture. Yet as she herself later admitted, it was partly her own white privilege that got her in the door, and she’d sold HBO on the show with little more than a one-page pitch—far less detailed than what other creators have to provide.

Public attitudes about Girls—and Dunham—were instantly cemented with a now-iconic line from the pilot, which appeared in the show’s earliest promos.

Hannah: “I think that I may be the voice of my generation, or at least a voice, of a generation.” Girls, 1x01

It was a moment mocking Hannah’s own inflated sense of self—and as Dunham would later say, “We so clearly thought that was a true, comic line, delivered by someone who just ingested a massive amount of opium… that is something I think about a lot, people’s inability to see it as the self-aware joke that it was.” Yet to many, it was never clear whether Dunham or the show actually did suffer from Hannah’s exaggerated sense of self-importance.

This confusion only deepened as the show went on—and as Dunham, herself became increasingly infamous for her occasionally tone-deaf public persona. As Vox’s Caroline Framke wrote in her review of the finale, “I could never quite tell when the show was being self-aware. I’d watch episodes through narrowed eyes, wondering if Dunham realized how truly awful Hannah could be, or if she wanted the character’s shtick to be charming.” Right up to the end, viewers seemed divided on whether Girls was meant to be condemning or condoning Hannah’s own selfish behavior. And it was expected that the finale would ultimately answer the question of what it—and we—thought these privileged, entitled, frustrating people really deserved. Should Hannah get everything she ever wanted? Or were we always meant to be hate-watching Girls?

Being Someone

Girls ends with Hannah getting yet another great new job from out of nowhere—one that, as critics were quick to point out, was a total fantasy. Even if Hannah were somehow qualified to get a professorship, in a made-up field, based on her ridiculously thin resume, they said, it certainly wouldn’t be enough to pay for a house, health insurance, child care, or any of the other things that ultimately convince Hannah to abandon her big-city dreams. In many ways, Girls gives Hannah a fairy-tale ending, instantly conferring on her the financial stability and the validation of her talents that she’s been seeking since Girls’ very first episode.

And yet, it’s not quite the New York fantasy she’d always been hoping for. Hannah doesn’t have a bestselling book, a great Manhattan apartment, or many handsome suitors. Hannah is not the voice of her generation—nor even a voice of a generation. Sure, she has security, a family, and even her best friend there to help her. But Hannah doesn’t seem particularly happy.

As much as some things about Hannah’s ending are totally ludicrous, Girls’ finale also realistically reflects the way the future can still feel tenuous, even as people move beyond those post-college years. Even with her privilege, even with her newfound success and stability, Hannah winds up feeling unprepared, unsure, and terrified.

Hannah: “I don’t know what I did to him besides grow him in my body for nine months. But he hates me.” Girls, 6x10

The point of “Latching” is that these feelings don’t just disappear with age or after becoming a parent. After all, Hannah’s mother doesn’t feel particularly settled or serene. Although Girls may have been pegged as a show by, about, and for millennials, any viewer can relate to that feeling of uncertainty or ennui about the future, regardless of any privilege.

Likewise, while Girls may have seemed like a next-generation Sex and the City about friends who are always there for each other, the finale was about them realizing that they shouldn’t be friends anymore. This is honest, too. Whatever unreal circumstances it might have placed them in, the show was always able to see its characters as genuine, complicated people. It might make fun of Marnie’s basic, privileged Marnie-ness, but it also allowed us to see how often people would take advantage of her, and just how limiting her world could be.

Marnie: “Currently living in my mom’s home gym, and my band broke up, but the thing is, I still have a lot to give.” Girls, 6x10

It could show us Jessa being selfish and cruel, but it also delved into the roots of her behavior, and the difficulty she had in coming to terms with herself. And while it often mocked Shoshanna for being painfully naive, it also revealed her to be uniquely perceptive—even turning her into a mouthpiece for the many criticisms of the show.

Shoshanna: “I’m talking about the fact that you’re a f***ing narcissist.” Girls, 3x04

Like the millennials it reflected, Girls received intense scrutiny and even scorn—some of it deserved, much of it not—and it often confronted those burdens of being a voice of a generation with raw self-awareness. It refused to give its characters a traditionally redemptive arc, echoing a generation whose future still feels unwritten. In the end, what’s compelling and frustrating about watching Girls can’t really be separated, any more than those qualities can be separated in real life.

Those comparisons between Girls and Sex and the City never really went away—even as it became clear that the shows were incredibly different. As Vulture’s Brian Moylan would point out, most Sex and the City episodes “end with the storylines tied in neat little bows and a sense of uplift. Week to week, season to season, we knew exactly what we’d get when tuning in.” But Girls was never interested in comforting the viewer with tidy resolutions or tidy characters. It was a frequently, pointedly exhausting show about how you never know what to expect from life, no matter what you thought it owed you. The fact that Girls was repeatedly held up against Sex and the City only proved just how impossible it was for the show to be accepted on its own terms.

That cycle would continue with the premiere of HBO’s Insecure, a show about two young black women in Los Angeles that, ironically, many critics reflexively compared to Girls. As Insecure’s creator Issa Rae would tell Vulture, “That’s the dumbest and laziest thing to do. It’s insulting to me and to her, especially to her. We’re not telling the same stories… I wish I could think of men on HBO—they don’t do that sh*t with them.” Rae’s comments echo Dunham’s own reflections on how the public opinion of Lena Dunham colored perceptions of her show. “‘It’s always a reminder to me how hard it is for people to separate women from their characters and their creations’ she said.” Just by being a show about flawed young women, that was created by one herself, Girls was made to answer for a lot of things. But in the end, it refused to provide easy answers at all.

Hannah: “We were all just doing our best.”

Jessa: “Our best was awful.”

Hannah: “Worst best.” Girls, 6x09

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