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The final episode of Girls revealed Hannah Horvath's two most important relationships

The penultimate episode of Girls, which saw the quartet in one room for the twelfth and last time, was what many viewers expected. The true ending - focusing on Marnie and New York - was more surprising. 

A girl’s foot hooks over another girl’s leg. A thigh wrapped round hips. In a soft pink bedroom, the camera pans up to reveal Hannah spooning Marnie, who is wearing soft pink pyjamas, her lip caught on her bulky mouth-guard. After the cold open and the show’s iconic title card, this is the first peek we got into the lives of the women on Girls. If the title alone wasn’t enough, this visual introduction makes it clear that these are women stuck in a state of semi-adolescence, plaits and all.

As the show rolled on, the fact that Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna failed to break out of this stasis kept viewers both hooked and frustrated. There were new jobs, new men and new homes; birthdays weddings, and divorces; yet despite some character development (Jessa sobering up, Shoshanna finding self-confidence, Hannah making it through a breakdown in her mental health), the four main women seemed to keep disappointing each other, and falling short of responsible adulthood. So how do you satisfactorily end a show dependent on collective arrested development?

Perhaps you end it with a group of four women finally accepting the extent of their differences, agreeing, through the odd tear, to move on with their own lives, before dancing carelessly together, as though they’d only just met. The penultimate episode of Girls, which saw Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna in one room for the twelfth and last time, was close to what viewers might expect from this bittersweet programme. Where was left to go from here?

The final episode, “Latching” opens with a call-back to its beginnings with that familiar tracking shot panning over Hannah lying in bed with a sleeping companion. In the pilot, it was Marnie, but we’ve also seen the same shot open seasons two and three, with Elijah and Adam respectively spooning Hannah, her main emotional supports in each of those seasons. In “Latching”, we’re back with Marnie, who is spooning Hannah in a mirror image of that first spooning shot. “We always said Marnie and Hannah were the true love story of the show,” executive producer Jenni Konner told EW after the finale aired. “I think you really see how much they love each other,” Dunham agreed.

Marnie makes a powerful case for being Hannah’s crutch as she tries to bring up her baby – something both Elijah and Adam offered to do, but essentially failed to follow through on. “Well this is just like Adam’s pitch and that didn’t work out so great,” Hannah says.

“You think you have a lot of friends, right? Who's here? Elijah’s not here,” Marnie insists, “Adam isn’t here.” She pushes on. “Who’s here? I’m here. I win. I’m your best friend. I’m the best at being your friend. I love you the most.”

Despite this self-referential set up, “Latching” never feels truly full-circle. It takes Hannah’s new home in upstate New York for its setting, and the strange, semi-suburban atmosphere and familial dramas are something we’ve only seen before in diversions from Girls’s main narrative, in bottle episodes “The Return”, “Video Games” and “Flo”. The result is something that, as Dunham herself acknowledges, feels more like an epilogue than a finale, as we see Hannah struggling with the first few months of motherhood, impossibly frustrated by her son’s sudden refusal to breastfeed.

But epilogues are somehow more final, truly more of an ending, than a more traditional and immediate closer. An epilogue fundamentally refuses the viewer the opportunity to imagine the same patterns continuing just out of shot, in the way that say, The Office (UK) encourages (Tim: If you turn the camera off, it’s not an ending is it? I‘m still here.) Instead, in forcing the viewer to really see the next stage in a character’s life, it puts the previous stage fully to bed.

Ending a show about not growing up was always going to be a challenge, and choosing a glimpse of Hannah’s motherhood was a risky choice for Girls. It’s one that many have found disappointing. “It’s a TV show called Girls. I suppose it’s unsurprising that it would include this most easy delineator between girlhood and womanhood,” Kathryn VanArendonk writes at Vulture, adding, “It’s frustrating that this particular plotline has become such a dominate way of measuring maturity and growth in female characters, as though no other life choices can compare as a meaningful way to determine adulthood.”

I watched the final with an uncomfortable sadness. In moving away from New York, and therefore Jessa, Elijah, Shoshanna, Adam, and Ray, this episode drilled home that the majority of those relationships are over, whether off-screen, in the show’s implied narrative, or on. And despite Hannah’s selfish outbursts while trying to raise Grover, this episode made it clear that these characters really have grown and changed.

Hannah and Marnie’s argument in the car has all the hallmarks of their usual edgy conversations: Marnie frustratingly superior, Hannah overly dramatic and sullen. “Promise me you’re not going to give up, okay, there’s a reason they call breastmilk ‘liquid gold’”, Marnie preaches from the front seat. “Well, if you really felt like that, I think you’d agree to taste mine,” Hannah sulks, as Marnie sighs, “Hannah, you have to stop asking me to do that.” Full of friction, challenges of intimacy and clearly a great deal of love, it reminds me of their conversation in the bathtub in Girls’s pilot: “Are you going to leave your towel on?” Hannah asks, protesting. “But I never see you naked, and you always see me naked, when it should actually be the other way around.” But as they squabbled, it dawned on me that this is the first time we’ve seen the two friends argue over something, or someone, other than themselves. I welled up, not out of pride for the characters but the realisation that their infuriating, compelling 20s really were almost over.

The episode ends with Hannah finally getting Grover to latch. Her eyes widen with the joy of the surprise, and the screen cuts to black. As the credits roll, we hear Hannah brokenly singing “Fast Car” to her son.

Many critics have commented on the strange choice of “Fast Car” as the song that would end Girls. It’s a black, working-class woman’s perspective on the cyclical nature of poverty, which seems like it has little application to Hannah’s privileged life. But there are specific lines about the comfort of recurring patterns of dependency in an urban setting that seem to relate to the way Girls has repeatedly presented Hannah’s experience of New York: “City lights lay out before us / And your arm felt nice wrapped ‘round my shoulder / And I had a feeling that I belonged / I had a feeling I could be someone”.

That feeling of belonging swept in and out of Hannah’s life and in and with New York: one day she’d be up, dancing alone in her apartment or running over Brooklyn Bridge with elation, the next down, hiding from the outside world under her blanket, desperately hoping someone would save her from herself. As Tracy Chapman sings, “We gotta make a decision: leave tonight, or live and die this way.”

Hannah left the city, and her cycles of belonging and alienation, for something new.

***

Now listen to a discussion of Girls on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear