On their last, long publicity lap, the cast and producers of HBO’s “Girls,” which airs its final episode Sunday night after six seasons, stuck to a clear and unified message about the show: These were fictional characters, never meant to be likable — and, anyhow, likability is an old and often sexist construct applied to female characters, an unfair burden in today’s TV, which thrives on telling stories about difficult and morally shifty protagonists.
So if there were things you didn’t like about Hannah Horvath (played by the show’s creator, Lena Dunham), Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams), Shoshanna Shapiro (Zosia Mamet) or Jessa Johansson (Jemima Kirke), then that was the intent all along. They were never meant to speak for all millennials, or even most millennials who happen to live in New York. They weren’t supposed to represent a new feminism (or the old one). They weren’t role models. To talk about “Girls” from start to finish was to enter an odd conversation about what the characters aren’t and what the show isn’t. Many viewers made peace with “Girls” by receiving it as a guide for how not to live, rather than how to live.
But for those still watching, the show has reached a sustainable tone as a work of entertainment and topical comment. It took the entire six seasons, but “Girls” is going out as the one thing it only ever wanted to be: a good TV show.
And already it feels like an artifact, very much belonging to its time, a ready-made segment in some future nostalgia trip back to the 2010s, serving as a segue from the gilded “Sex and the City” era to a more complicated, less glamorous depiction of four women making their way in a New York of missed opportunities and resources that were sucked dry by previous generations.
Opening in 2012 on a Great Recession note of millennial drift and demographic claustrophobia, “Girls” was saddled with representational duties on behalf of all overeducated, underemployed, mostly white urban hipsters in their 20s. Unfairly (yet memorably), the show was greeted more as a documentary than a fictional dramedy, affirming so many stereotypes about millennials (self-absorbed, entitled, poor-mouthing, despicable, hypersensitive snowflakes) that it became a favorite hate-watch. Dunham, along with her writers and her superb cast, so fully depicted this world and its inconsistencies that she and her producers were immediately put in the position of defending it, explaining it.
“Girls” quickly joined a select few shows that cause great heaps of writing simply by existing — thousands and thousands of words of analysis piled up about the show, written not just by TV critics, but also by scholars and experts of all stripes who, for a long while, fretted and fussed over Dunham’s nude scenes and the idea that we were being provoked into a conversation about body types and body-shaming.
What should have been a positive message against inhibition turned into a constant distraction, and the number of articles written about “Girls” was often way out of proportion to the number of viewers reported to be watching it — an audience that dwindled to the mere hundreds of thousands captured by official ratings, rather than the many millions you’d expect for all that buzz. (Not counting all the 20-somethings who might have been watching it online, courtesy of their parents’ HBO Go password.)
Ratings hit or not, “Girls” always had cultural cachet to spare, and it could have easily ended its story last year at the end of Season 5’s upbeat and fleetingly mature walk-off, with Hannah delivering a triumphant Moth monologue about getting over her ex-boyfriend, Adam (Adam Driver), who was now in a relationship with her former friend Jessa.
It was enough to know that Hannah would probably grow up after all, and that Jessa and Adam would be suitably miserable together. The season also delivered one of the show’s best episodes, in which the emotionally peripatetic Marnie briefly reconnected with an old boyfriend who had become a heroin addict. Season 6, therefore, started off feeling like an unnecessary backslide into old habits and story lines. Yet, after a few episodes, including one in which Hannah discovers she’s pregnant, it stopped being an afterthought and took on the shape of a fine and worthy conclusion. Friendships are ending naturally; other doors are opening. The writing and acting have achieved a consistent comfort level; loyal viewers are arguing less and enjoying more.
Though the show’s timeline has kept itself within the general boundaries of a couple years (Hannah started off at 24 and ends up at 27), these last few episodes have ably flipped some of its signature tropes. Hannah’s parents, Tad and Loreen Horvath (Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker), started out as baffled boomers always urging their daughter to support herself and recalibrate her ambition to a living wage. Since then, the Horvaths’ marriage has imploded, after Tad came out of the closet and left Loreen for a man, an act that is at once necessary and yet comes across as selfish. Last we saw Loreen, she was wallowing in self-pity and barfing up Chinese dumplings after indulging in THC-laced candy. This isn’t the most dignified portrayal of one’s forbears, but it’s an important role-reversal in “Girls” and a subliminal, if deserving, dig at the boomer generation.
What we’re seeing, at last, is that everyone gets to the shores of adulthood on their own schedule, in their own way, but parts of us remain forever vulnerable and unprepared for life. As seen last week in the series’ penultimate episode, Hannah is leaving the city to teach writing at a college upstate and raise her child as a single mom. Knowing everything we know about her (including her initial fast flameout in academia at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop), there are all sorts of reasons to imagine that it won’t work out. The remarkable achievement of “Girls” is that we can now worry about Hannah rather than judge her.
Girls (30 minutes), the series finale, airs Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO.