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Goodbye Girls: Redeeming An Irredeemable Character

"This is reality! It's happening now! And you suck at it!" - Hannah, S6, Ep 10, "Latching"

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The series finale of HBO’s Girls aired last night, marking the end of a six-year journey for a group of female millennials in New York City. The show wasn’t necessarily everyone’s cup of tea. When the pilot aired six years ago, I didn’t think it would be mine. [SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched the finale yet, and care about being spoiled on Girls.]

Hannah: We were just doing our best, so…

Jessa: Our best was awful.

Hannah: Worst ‘best.” 

– S6, Ep 9, “Goodbye Tour”

When I watched the pilot back in the day, I wasn’t sure I was going to keep watching the show.  Hannah (Lena Dunham) is hugely selfish, and watching her make shitty life choice after shitty life choice is hard to watch. Yet, watch I did. Like its spiritual (and network) predecessor, Sex and the City, it was a constant push-pull between eye-rolling entitlement, fantasy fulfillment, and unexpected moments of real insight and relatability.

And even though the show has basically had fewer than a handful of people of color on it its entire run, and even though I’m slightly older than the four main characters, and even though despite sometimes being “broke” each of them experience a class privilege I’ve never had in my whole life (not only have I been broke, but my parents weren’t doing great financially either, so there was no “Moving back in with Mom and Dad” if things didn’t work out), I found myself identifying with each of them at various times.

The finale ends the series in an interesting way: five months into the future with a pregnant Hannah finally having given birth. She takes a teaching job at a university upstate, and moves out of New York City. Marnie (Allison Williams), who has absolutely zero going on in her own dumpster fire of a life, insists on moving in with Hannah in her too-big new home to help her raise her son.

For a brief moment in time, this works. However, when Hannah has trouble breastfeeding her son Grover, it triggers her mental illnesses, not to mention some additional post-partum depression, and makes her freak out, causing her to give up on her son and be insufferable to Marnie (who’s pretty insufferable herself) and her mother Loreen (Becky Ann Baker), who’s been summoned by a frantic Marnie to come up and help.

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Elijah: (sarcastic) What are you gonna do? Teach? Write? Live in a house

Hannah: Literally all of those things. 

– S6, Ep 9, “Goodbye Tour”

The finale wasn’t perfectto be honest, it was boring in placesbut it was exactly the right finale for this show and this protagonist. Hannah has a long history of aspiring. Of always thinking she deserves better without expecting that she’ll have to change anything about herself to achieve better. Of seeing the problems in everyone but herself, despite bringing much of her hardship on herself through very conscious choices.

For a protagonist with little self-awareness and tons of entitlement, the most poignant and positive ending they can have is one in which they finally accept their lives exactly as they are. Where they accept the choices they’ve made, along with all their consequences. Where they discover the ways in which they can give, so that they can receive more easily, and receive better.

There are two brilliant moments in the finale. One, in which Loreen lets Hannah have it about her entitlement in a hugely cathartic way. The other, where Hannah comes face to face with a bratty high school girl who basically mirrors her back to herself, and she finally understands how selfish she’s been. While I was disappointed that Hannah’s mother didn’t seem to take Hannah’s mental illness or the possibility of post-partum depression into account before ripping her a new asshole (and Hannah already has a line about looking forward to the day when her asshole and her vagina will feel like two holes again), she certainly told her things she needed to hear.

It was especially poignant since, in saying those things to Hannah, she was acknowledging failures on her own part, both as a parent and as a woman. Hannah has turned out this way, because her mother was this way, and just as that high school girl was a mirror for Hannah, Hannah was a mirror for her mother. Meanwhile, Hannah got to lay some harsh truths at Marnie’s feet, too, calling her out for insisting on helping with the baby, then being disappointed that the entire experience wasn’t a “Laura Ashley catalog.”

And in the end, despite some misguided horribleness toward each other, the three women accept each other warts and all. Ultimately, that’s what love is. Even if someone is being a jerk, you let them return to you shoeless and pantsless and sit down next to you so that you can hand them a glass of wine. (Don’t ask) I think that it’s this unconditional love that Hannah receives from her mom and from Marnie that teaches her how to be with her baby, and in the final shot of the episode, allows her to win her breastfeeding battle and finally find some peace.

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I was having a conversation with friends the other day about the reasons why it might be that male protagonists (your Walter Whites, Don Drapers, and Tony Sopranos) get to be huge douchebags (even outright criminals and murderers) while still being considered “sympathetic” and “complex,” but a female protagonist who’s “unlikable” is enough to make many people not watch a show.

What I came to understand as I watched six seasons of Girls, was that each of these characters are me at various points in my life, and usually on my worst day. They’re the “me” I hide from people. They’re the “me” I try to cover up, usually with other over-compensating character flaws. They make me cringe, not only because they feel real, but because they feel relatable in a way I don’t like. I suspect that may be true for a lot of people.

And so, while Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) was really harsh and catty about it, I ultimately understood her need to pull away from the group to set her own boundaries, because that’s the only way she could grow into the person she wanted to be. I understood Jessa’s (Jemima Kirke) need to be forgiven by her friends once she finally looked at herself in the mirror and realized all of her mistakes, and that even though she’d always posed as the “Worldly One,” she actually understands very little. I understood Marnie’s rootlessness, even after making life decisions she was so sure about at the time, because I too am someone who has meandered down different life paths that feel so right, until suddenly, they don’t.

Most of all, I understood Hannah: a storyteller who’s still figuring out her own story. A woman who sometimes mistakes her skill at observing human nature for self-awareness. A woman who confuses bad choices with “adventure.” There’s so much about Hannah that I didn’t like. They’re many of the same things I haven’t liked about myself. Here’s to both of us finding peace and continually learning how to be better people.

Goodbye, Girls. Here’s to being Women in all our nuanced brilliance and fucked-up-ness.

(images: HBO)

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