How do you solve a problem like Hannah Horvath? As ‘Girls’ comes to an end on April 17, the answer is pretty clear: you can’t, and you should stop asking. Her creator Lena Dunham knows female characters are not puzzles to complete with a neatly cut piece for a happy ending. And the finale will bring it all to a close not with a bang but with a shrug: Hannah’s pregnant and leaving New York to move upstate, as she’s landed a job in a liberal arts college (much like Oberlin, the one Dunham attended). The problematic friendship quad of Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shosh that hooked us in during 2012 has more or less disbanded.
‘Female characters are not puzzles to complete’
Hannah’s ‘surprise’ series six pregnancy rubbed many up the wrong way, and for good reason. The show prided itself on avoiding conventional female TV stories; the kind then-23-year-old Dunham told HBO she ‘couldn’t see herself or her friends in’ when first pitching ‘Girls’. And yet here we are in the go-to plot twist for the female storyline arc: perfect for a cliffhanger (‘Friends’), movie plot (‘Bridget Jones’), finale (‘Gilmore Girls’) or even a whole series (‘Jane the Virgin’). Pregnancy is an important part of many women’s stories. But it’s not the only story. And it doesn’t feel like Hannah’s. Still, Dunham writes it so well that you still want to hear it. She invites the audience to cast judgement along with Hannah’s friends.
The series has been losing steam for the past two seasons, but in a world of ‘Broad City’, ‘Veep’, ‘Insecure’, ‘Atlanta’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘Catastrophe’, we forget how electric the show seemed when it first aired. These four women, overeducated and underemployed, captured millennial confusion and privilege in a way we’d never seen before. Every single one of them (with the exception of Shosh) had dreams of an artful job, but weren’t necessarily willing to work for it (‘I think I just feel how everyone feels, which is that I have three or four really great folk albums in me’ – Hannah). Or worse, were too scared to put the work in, and maybe discover they weren’t as talented as they’d thought. For five years we’ve watched them wrestle with their own deflated aspirations, and wonder when it’ll be the time to throw in the towel and get a ‘normal’ life.
‘Seeing a normal, naked human woman on TV felt revolutionary’
It was called the ‘show that launched a thousand thinkpieces’. Every episode was picked to the bone. Whatever the angle, the comment would always circle back to Hannah Horvath’s (aka Lena Dunham’s) body. Yes, seeing a normal, naked human woman on TV felt revolutionary, but it was more than that. It was THE WAY she used her body on screen. She threw herself into uncomfortable situations, playing ping pong topless in over-washed underwear, squeezing her cleavage together for a ‘sexy’ picture she’d rather not take. And in the ‘Girls’ sex scenes, no character was saved by dappled lighting or a carefully placed vase. Sex in the world of ‘Girls’ is stop-start, awkward, unsettling and sticky. Socks stayed on, skirts were clumsily hitched up. It touched on the darker nuances too; for these characters sex could be a humiliating exploration one moment, a boring obligation the next. Hannah contracted HPV, an infection that affects around 50% of sexually active people, and yet it was the first time I saw it discussed candidly on TV.
And few TV couples captured the bone-chilling horror of an early-20s relationship that’s run its course better than Marnie and Charlie in the episode ‘Hard Being Easy’ when he begs ‘stay close to my face’ over and over. You can see the last ounce of attraction drift from her eyes before blurting out ‘I want to break up’.
‘“Girls” captured millennial confusion and privilege in a way we’d never seen before’
But it’s far from a progressive all-rounder. Race was a trickier ground to tread. Like many privileged white writers, Dunham fictionalised her own life, and the story of ‘four white girls’ spewed forth. ‘Girls’ was understandably called out for its stark lack of diversity. Responding to criticism, they made an effort to cast actors of colour with Sandy (Donald Glover) as Hannah’s Republican boyfriend, and later the criminally underused Jessica Williams as her GQ co-worker. It told us what we already know but is rarely acted on: that we need more writers of colour, not black supporting characters on the sidelines in an all-white show.
Whatever you think of Dunham, her writing has a way of capturing evolving moments in popular culture and working them into her script without ever letting them go out of date. She knows the pretentious New York arts scene inside out, and she knows how to use it. She even managed to make Adam’s new girlfriend Mimi Rose seem believable (seeing an ex’s new girlfriend killing it at a TEDx Talk-style keynote? Very 2015). And in season five, Hannah regained her confidence in a triumphant moment on stage at The Moth Story Slam, just as everyone I knew seemed to be obsessing over confessional podcasts. Dunham ‘gets’ opinion-piece culture, and wilfully satirises it in her work. At times, those online conversations fuel her: the ‘American Bitch’ episode tackled the notion of consent, and the power struggles that exist between young women and older, inspiring men who use their reputations against them. The episode is rumination; it felt like Hannah had disappeared to let her creator step in and hash out her thoughts on the subject. It ended abruptly, played out by Rihanna’s ‘Desperado’. There’s no doubt as to who holds the reins on ‘Girls’. It’s a Dunham operation.
So many unlikable and painfully honest male bildungsroman stories are fed into this world as universal thought. Meanwhile, the ‘female story’ is sold in one direction, to other women. ‘Girls’ is one of the few shows to break that pattern. Though it was closely watched and feminised in its critique, nobody could deny they were watching a unique millennial write her generation in a way others had failed to do – and that voice happened to be female.
In the first series, Hannah tells Adam that she got herself into a bad situation, ‘for the story’. ‘Girls’ wasn’t flawless, but Dunham spent the last five years mining her own life ‘for the story’, growing in the public eye, making mistakes, some bigger than others. But she made something real, and turned a short film into an HBO series that gritted the path for intelligent shows like ‘Fleabag’, ‘Broad City’ and ‘Master of None’. ‘Girls’ was an imperfect, complex mess that did its best to grow up. Just like the rest of us.
The final episode of ‘Girls’ airs on Mon 17 Apr on Sky Atlantic.
In other news, we spoke to the feminist director who is making audiences faint, here are all the best new Netflix series coming soon and you can watch the final episode of ‘Broadchurch’ in UK cinemas