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18 April 2017

Girls: How do you end a show about not growing up?

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?

By Anna Leszkiewicz

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 get 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.

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“You think you have a lot of friends, right? Whose 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 close. 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. Certainly, it’s black, working-class woman’s perspective on the cyclical nature of poverty 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 Tracey 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, and utterly permanent.


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

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