The fifth season of HBO’s Girls aired its two-part finale this past weekend, and rather than feeling like a show that had run its course, it demonstrated a renewed creative potential. Although Girls has remained a reliably interesting show for its duration, the last two seasons suffered from an occasional lack of direction. It wasn’t always clear what held the friends together aside from entropy, and the need to fit everyone into the story seemed strained. The triumph of Girls’s fifth season was realizing that this group of friends needs to be allowed to drift apart. Friendships end or are transmuted in real life, and the show reached a creative high when it committed to that reality.
The show’s protagonist, Hannah Horvath has been constantly evolving since the show’s inception. Originally hoping to be a writer (“a voice of a generation”), Hannah’s dream was scattered until a book deal forced actually forced her to focus. The stress of her new obligations led to a relapse of her mental health problems, but even after recovering, the deal was scuttled when her editor died unexpectedly. After that, Hannah lost focus, working in native advertising for a major men’s magazine, then trying to renew her talents at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, before giving up on her dream of writing and becoming a middle school teacher. Along with these creative and professional changes, Hannah started a relationship with Adam, broke up, got back together, broke up again, and then rejected his offer to get back together. Instead, she drifted toward her new colleague, the straight-laced Fran.
Hannah’s life runs on two different tracks, the professional and the personal. On the professional track, Hannah is constantly evolving, reassessing her strengths and abilities and trying out new careers until she gets closer to finding something that works for her. Hannah has been criticized for being stuck in a perpetual adolescence, but that’s an interpretation that completely ignores her professional life and focuses solely on her personal life. That personal track is much more convoluted. The Hannah of season one is naïve about the strength of her friendships and what it takes to be in a successful romantic relationship while still respecting herself. As the show progresses, Hannah often clings to friendships that seemed ill-suited to her personality. Her great passion with Adam easily turns to anger and disgust. Her personal life is mostly static, at least until the show’s excellent fifth season.
Unlike every previous career, Hannah actually seems to enjoy teaching. Along with her job is her relationship with fellow teacher Fran. Fran is the anti-Adam in almost every way: traditionally handsome, professional, respectful, square, and verbal. Fran initially seems like a flat character, but even he evolves as season five progresses. His professionalism and politeness give way to a judgmental mindset that looks unfavorably at every one of Hannah’s transgressions.
Season five also gives Hannah’s friends a chance to change in significant ways. All three girls are confronted with representations of their past and must choose between remaining suspended in time or moving forward. Shoshanna is introduced to a cartoonish version of Japan that mirrors her deepest fantasies, but she eventually chooses to return to the US and reality. In a standout episode, Marnie is confronted with her ex, Charlie. After toying with the idea of reuniting with him, she realizes that the person she once knew no longer exists. Jessa initially tries to appease Hannah’s most childish whims, but instead decides to focus on her own well-being and her new relationship with Adam. Even Elijah gets his moment of evolution; he dares to hope for a more stable future with his anchorman boyfriend and tries to leave his fun-loving ways behind, only to be rejected in a surprisingly poignant scene.
Another strength of Girls’s past season was the integration of comedic and dramatic moments. In past seasons, dramatic and comedic scenes have been completely discrete; when the show decided to get serious it tended to seem abrupt and half-baked. For example, Hannah’s mental illness in season two was one of the show’s most affecting storylines, but even though there had been references to earlier episodes of mental illness, the development was tonally inconsistent with the first two-thirds of the season. Hannah’s breakup with Adam at the end of season four also seemed abrupt, especially coming so soon after the comedy of Hannah’s stint in Iowa. By season five, moments of drama and comedy were able to coexist and alternate effortlessly. The show also displayed a knack for broader bits of comedy, thanks in large part Marnie’s husband Desi and Hannah’s nemesis/friend Tally Schifrin. The season’s penultimate episode nearly reached Broad City levels of stoned comedy.
When HBO announced that Girls would end after one more season, I initially greeted the news with disappointment. Even in its less inspired seasons, the show has always been interesting television and displayed an uncommon level of craftsmanship. But after seeing the new level of quality Girls rose to in season five, I’m not so worried anymore. I would love for there to be ten more seasons of the show, but season five proved that Girls isn’t interested in endlessly meandering through its characters’ twenties and thirties. Lena Dunham and her collaborators have shown that they have a vision for how Girls should end, and I’m excited to see where they will go.