'Girls': Good to the Last
Maybe Girls could never live up to the hype that preceded it. If writer/director/star Lena Dunham went too funny, or too smart or too serious, the weight of the blog-verse would come squarely down on the one she chose, and howl bitterly about the one she excluded. (And it has. Often.) But that's maybe the lot of a hot young writer; wherever they are, they're not. Surely they must be too young to deserve it and too inexperienced to be telling us anything that matters.
But Dunham does deserve it, and she has a few things that do matter. This season of Girls has mined some good territory about expectations. And the finale takes some smart u-turns that show literary cunning and a commitment to move the Girls characters into some hard change.
Up to this point, Dunham's character Hannah has moved closer to her oddball boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver). Marnie (Allison Williams) has moved out of the apartment she has shared with Hannah, and clearly wants to be free from friends and boyfriends steeped in their own neediness and anxiety. Femme fatale Jessa (Jemima Kirke) has a trail of wrecked relationships behind her. And Zoisa Mamet's stilted Shoshanna continues to grapple with being unsure of herself, in New York and being a virgin.
There's not much about the finale to give away without spoilers, but Jessa invites the other three to a mystery party, and all four land in very different places than where they were last week. And with some very unexpected people.
The knock against Dunham and Girls has been its premise of aimless and restless youth not knowing what to do with themselves, and not knowing much else beyond their own self-absorption and their Twittering, hipster irony.
But as neurotic and perhaps as bitter as the girls of Girls have been, the urban humiliations are no more shallow and self-indulgent as those of Woody Allen or Louis C.K. — or any thinner than those explored by the middle-aged in Men of a Certain Age or by the mature women of Desperate Housewives.
Those writers and those shows have gone deeply into smallness and fecklessness as a matter of unpeeling, to descend into some core revelations — hard-won personal truths. The comic, metaphysical fire-drills of Girls aren't unique to youth, and are worth excavating at any age. Like those other shows, Dunham's is often a cringe-y, squirmy thing to witness, but there are payoffs to be had, and Dunham has achieved them with some great comic timing along the way.
As critical as some of the press has been about Girls self-important slackerism, it is none other than Dunham herself who has reserved some of the harshest criticism for Hannah, a young writer whose main thing is clever essays about herself. In last week's episode, "Leave Me Alone," Hannah's boss Ray (Alex Karpovsky) sneers when she tells him she might use an essay at a reading that evening, one about an old boyfriend who was a low-level hoarder:
"Isn't there anything real to write about?" he asks her scoldingly. "How about cultural criticism … how about years of neglected abuse? How about acid rain? How about the plight of the giant Panda Bear? How about racial profiling? How about urban sprawl? How about divorce? How about death? How about death?? Death is the most fucking real. You should write about death."
And it is earlier in that same episode that Dunham shows Hannah at her most petty, envious of the success of a former classmate who has invited Hanna to her book release party. There, she complains casually, if not for the classmate's boyfriend's suicide, her friend wouldn't have had something so life-altering to write about and get published. It's an off-putting moment that shows someone at Hannah's age at their most unformed, frustrated and spiteful.
And Hannah isn't the only target, either. Dunham fires away equally at the manipulative Jessa, when her ex-employer Kathryn comes to see her, asking her to come back to work babysitting for her. Jessa left after some compromising situations with Kathryn's husband Jeff:
"Look I'm just going to say this. I bet you get into these dramas all the time. Like with Jeff and me. Where you cause all this trouble, and you've no idea why. In my opinion, you're doing it to distract yourself from the person you're meant to be. She might not be what you pictured when you were sixteen. Her job might not be cool. Her hair might not be flowing like a mermaid. And she might be really serious about something. Or someone. And she might be a lot happier than you are right now."
There were posts on message boards by some who didn't care for how Jessa was being lectured. But those were Dunham's words. They confront what we're all responsible for: our own expectations. Somewhere, as these kids were getting their self-esteem protected, they also were sold the idea that they're entitled to amazing, fortunate lives.
But it's the everyday, lurching, accidental life where it's harder for the Girls, and for us, to find and learn grace, equanimity and humility. At any age, and wherever we are (in Hannah's case, that would be Gumpy's Coffee Shop), it just doesn't seem good enough.
But maybe it should be.
Far from being a hipster-comedy with a lot of zinging punch lines, Girls has come to its own brand of winning moments this season, such as when Hannah's boyfriend Adam emerges as sort of an awkward savant of ethics, or when Shoshanna makes a mangled chain of media references that, somehow, make curious sense.
And the girls might just turn out to want something more than witty banter, fun outfits, and endless chat about their favorite subjects — themselves.
Dunham was given the opportunity, and said yes, to the offer of a lifetime — her own HBO series — one that could have failed, and sullied her chances for anything similar, ever again. That may say more about her character than her obvious wit or her literary punch. It says a lot about the amount of courage to put yourself willingly into the center of a critical storm at the age of 25.
And it worked. HBO renewed the series for a second season.
Good for her. Good for Girls.