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3 February 2017

“In perpetuity”: decoding Hannah’s note to Adam and Jessa in the Girls season finale

As the final, sixth season of Girls approaches, we unpick the last episode of season five.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

The sixth and final series of Girls returns to HBO this month, and so, too, does the flurry of online criticism, from oral histories to reflections on its contributions to thinkpiece culture.

But regardless of where you stand on Girls, for me, by far the best storyline in the show over the last five years has been Hannah’s uncovering of the affair between her ex-boyfriend and best friend, Adam and Jessa. So, with new episodes on the horizon, I’d like to take the opportunity to go back to the last scene of the last season.

Adam (Adam Driver) has long been figured as the epitome of desirable masculinity in Girls: he’s enormous, handsome, good with his hands, independent, an artist. The first season posits him as more of a sex addict using Hannah for kicks than a loving boyfriend: still, he’s so magnetic that Hannah (Lena Dunham) can’t resist going back to him for more and more. He’s both sexualised and hypersexual.

So, too, is Jessa (Jemima Kirke). She’s an impossible sex symbol in Hannah’s mind: she’s free, impulsive, and, of course, ridiculously beautiful. (As Hannah says in the series finale, “This is the best friend who I would say looks like Brigitte Bardot had a baby with a mermaid.”) Adam and Jessa are both addicts who struggle with impulse control. They are gorgeous, unpredictable, flighty, occasionally emotionally explosive, and yet infuriatingly cool.

So, here we have two characters who are, for Hannah, the very incarnation of what it is to feel desire, and be desired. Perhaps a result, they are also the two people in her life Hannah seems to crave attention from most, with the greatest potential to make her feel insecure. Over the course of the show, Adam and Jessa are the two characters who Hannah spends a significant amount of time chasing, emotionally and literally, desperately trying to pin them down (or at least get them to reply to her texts). Their embrace of each other is painful because it is a rejection of her, confirming Hannah’s deep sense of her own incontrovertible unlovableness.

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At the end of “I Love You Baby”, the final episode of the season, Hannah delivers a fruit basket to the couple, with a note attached. It’s a move that many critics observed as a mark of the maturing of Hannah’s character: Entertainment Weekly said the episode showed Hannah was “no longer trapped in adolescence” and “finally growing up”, while The AV Club said it revealed “she is changing, and maybe for the better”. Flavourwire said it “demonstrated why TV is such a perfect medium for stories about growing up”.

The note is polite, friendly, and wishes them the best: it probably does reveal a more traditionally “adult” form of behaviour. But there’s also a power dynamic at play here, one that feels especially pointed in the context of the Girls world. So, I want to analyse this nine-word letter in a lot of detail.

Here it is, as we hear Hannah later dictate it:

Good luck. I mean that sincerely. In perpetuity, Hannah.

Let’s start with the context. Since they started their affair, Adam and Jessa have expected Hannah to explode in horror when she discovered their relationship. “Oh, God,” Hannah imagines them thinking. “Hannah’s freaking out. She’s gonna kill a cat and she’s gonna nail it to our door. She’s going to cry so hard that all of Greenpoint fills with tears and it’s like fuckin’ Waterworld.”

But she doesn’t do that. Instead, she becomes increasingly polite. “I just spend all my time trying not to sink to their level, which is really hard,” Hannah explains to her mother early on in the episode. “When I saw them last, I said, ‘Good day, sirs and misses,’ like I was a fucking Newsy.”

This is not what either Jessa or Adam expected, and it hurts Jessa. “Last time we saw Hannah, she called me ‘miss’ and you ‘sir’. Didn’t that upset you?” In the Girls world, brutal honesty (to the point of direct meanness) is the foundation of intimacy; politeness (even friendliness) its cold opposite. This is even more exaggerated in Jessa and Hannah’s relationship. When Adam rails at Jessa “Hannah fucking hates you!”, she responds: “Welcome to having a friend, something you would know nothing about, you fucking dumbfuck goat-faced fuck!”

So Hannah goes to Adam’s place, and “deliver[s] a very nice and not at all cheap fruit basket to his door”. A fruit basket. Is there anything more passive-aggressive than a fruit basket sent to a dear friend? It’s something you might send your boss or your doctor or your mother-in-law, not your partner or your friend. It says “thank you”, “congratulations”, or “my sympathies”, but it does so at arm’s length.

For Hannah, it’s the opposite of unrestrained feeling, clear from her comparison between “whether I, you know, start a new nuclear missile crisis with my emotions, or just sit back and chill and give someone a fruit basket”.

It’s also ostentatious, a kind of performative generosity, the kind of gift that screams LOOK AT THIS NICE GIFT more than it offers anything substantial, thoughtful or individual. With the fruit basket, Hannah is both putting distance between herself and Adam and Jessa, and declaring her own kindness, actively performing a lack of bitterness, resentment or jealousy.

To the note itself. Hannah delivers it to Adam’s house, but it’s not specifically addressed to him. Is it intended for him, Jessa – or the pair of them as a couple? The vagueness here elides the specific, intimate relationships Hannah has built with each of them over many years.

Instead of an address, the note simply begins, “Good luck.” A fairly standard, pleasant wish. But again, in the show’s context, this brand of self-conscious warmth comes off aloof and brisk. There are a whole bunch of passive-aggressive variants of “good luck”, not least in Girls. “Good luck with your hit album,” is Hannah’s sarcastic “fuck you” to Marnie when she refuses to pick her up two episodes previously (“Homeward Bound”). When Shoshanna and her ex Scott bump into each other in a Japanese restaurant in the same episode, she tells him he has a “sake gut”. He shoots back, “You know what? Have a great life. I hope everything works out for you. Good luck, Shosh.” She is infuriated. “Oh, no, no. Don’t you ‘good luck’ me. That is, like, the meanest thing that you could ever say to anybody.”

These bitter, sarcastic uses of the phrase are pointed because they also say, “I’m done. I’m out of your life.” But Hannah is keen to insist that there is no sarcasm to her “good luck”.

The note continues, “I mean that sincerely.” She genuinely wishes them the best, a fact further emphasised by the effort she’s made to write the note out by hand. (Fran says of his brother in the episode “Homeward Bound”, “He fucking handwrote a letter […] That’s how much he meant it!”)

But does that lessen the phrase’s potential to wound? Hannah clearly doesn’t mean it when she wishes Marnie “good luck” (any viewer knows they’ll be talking again soon, probably within the episode) so it can’t really hurt her. But if she really means what she says to Adam and Jessa, does that also make it a real farewell?

This plays on one of Jessa’s greatest fears. As she tells Adam, “Hannah is my dearest friend. She will always come first. We may not be talking right now, and I hope to God that that changes. So, you saying that she’s not in our lives anymore doesn’t work for me.” The formality of Hannah’s tone (the word “sincerely”, instead of something more colloquial, adds connotations of formal farewells due to its use in letter-writing) only sharpens the blade.

She signs off with “In perpetuity, Hannah”. Because, “That’s the fact, you know? I’m Hannah forever.” Again Hannah has picked up on one of Adam and Jessa’s greatest fears for their relationship. Jessa speaks in eternities when she talks of her relationship with Hannah: Hannah “always” comes first, and so she can “never” forgive Adam for coming between them. “We will never be done with her!” she screams at Adam. “We could die in the same bed and I will never forgive you.” Meanwhile, Adam yells that “Hannah is a c**t whether she’s around or not,” and that he’ll “run her over with [his] car” to try and get rid of her. Their fear for their relationship is that even if Hannah’s not present, she will always be there. In perpetuity.

So, even if it is meant as a farewell, the fruit basket reminds them of Hannah’s perpetual presence. The lack of address on the basket will also hint that Hannah actually was physically there, in their hallway, delivering the basket during their fight. “Hannah” is the only name on the note, speaking louder than Adam and Jessa’s own absent names. In the final shot we see of the couple, Hannah’s name seems to echo in the silence as they lie naked on the floor of Adam’s apartment, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” the ironically triumphant score, the fruit basket waiting undiscovered outside.

Leaving behind this marker of herself gives Hannah a sense of triumph, and the episode ends with a victorious freeze-frame like something out of Rocky or The Breakfast Club. She feels “free” because, as she explains, “when I showed up, I heard screaming and I heard my name and I heard madness”.

Her sense of satisfaction comes from their anger: her fear was that Adam and Jessa would be calm and happy, and she would be alone, weeping and screaming their names, but, to her delight, the opposite has happened. She feels like the one with the upper hand, with silent power over them, refusing to submit to their power over her. For me, this isn’t a sign of Hannah’s maturity. It’s simply a sign of her power, and her discovery of her ability to use it over others.

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