Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers.
Whether you love HBO’s series Girls or hate it, you’re probably sick of the glut of media attention that infinitesimally examines each and every moment of each and every episode, each and every week. I happen to be one of the show’s fans, but even I am tired of the way every episode is picked to death the Monday morning after it airs. How could one show, one half-hour each week, have that much packed into it? As the kids are saying these days, how could it have that many feels?
And yet every week, creator and star Lena Dunham and her talented fellow writers and actors ask millennial audiences some of the big questions about their lives, from what constitutes consent to how one goes about being fully oneself. Yes, the characters all fall somewhere on the spectrum between navel-gazing and moderately annoying to not just insufferable but possibly evil. But even as they live their narrow lives, the show’s implications are arguably far reaching, touching on timeless topics like the meaning of friendship, the making of art, and the havoc we all wreak in the lives of the people we love.
This season has been messier than last, and so it was with some trepidation that I tuned in for last night’s season finale. After last week’s episode in which Adam pretty clearly (though this, of course, has been argued to death on the internet) raped his new girlfriend, Natalia, and Hannah spiraled further out of control (dissuading me from ever using a Q-Tip again), I wondered, basically: “How can this possibly turn out OK?”
And it didn’t, exactly. What it did do, though, was something that, for me, briefly elevated it to the annals of great TV. It asked a big, big question and answered it in a variety of beautiful, messy, heartrending, confusing ways. What, the episode asked, does it mean to love and be loved?
Each storyline, each scene, even, seemed to revolve around this question. When Hannah talked to her father on the phone, we saw the complications of loving a child so much that you want to make everything better, but knowing that helping her means letting her find her own way. Between Hannah and Jessa (or Jessa’s smug voicemail), we saw two selfish people who tried to love each other as best they could for as long as they could, but ultimately had to fail. Even Hannah and her ex-junkie neighbor Laird resolved their brief, weird, arrested “love” story when Laird told Hannah off (is it just me, or was that one of the most satisfying speeches in the show’s short history?)
And then, of course, we have the three main couples. Marnie and Charlie, the most conventional, got the most conventional ending, a pat but satisfying answer. For them, love will probably mean what we think and hope it means for most of us: Finding a person, choosing that person (as Charlie so beautifully put it last season), and having that person choose you back. Their reunion felt a little un-edgy, a little rom-com, for Girls, but it also showed one possible path for love: the path of least resistance.
Shoshanna and Ray, for my money one of the best and most interesting couples on TV, gave us another narrative: The one where loving someone butts up against the impossibility of spending your life with that person. In their narrative, sadly, the love was not the right love, or was maybe the right love at the wrong time. For those of us in our 20s, this is the most likely course our current relationships will chart. Things will be right until they are wrong. Loving someone will become too hard. Being loved will become a burden. And, like Shoshanna, and I like to think Ray, we will move on.
And then of course, we have Hannah and Adam, the show’s will-they-or-won’t-they pair, borderline-sociopath style. I have to confess, it’s hard to know what to say about these two. What is the lesson here? They are horrible people. They are dark, and they are untrustworthy, and they are totally insane, and they are twinned in a way that would be beautiful if they weren’t both so monstrous. And in their way, they answer the question of what it means to love best of all, because in them, Dunham and company have created an unlovable pair. Adam sort of continues to make a go of it with Natalia for a minute, but that is clearly doomed to fail because she is normal and competent and he is crass and manic and has violated her in an unforgivable way. Hannah has at this point pushed away every love that could possibly come her way, even that from Marnie, from whom she literally hides under the bed rather than submit to being cared for. Where have they to turn, but to each other?
Here, perhaps, lies the most glittering, the most cock-eyed optimistic statement this complicated show has ever made: Somewhere, sometime, all of us, even at our worst, have the capacity and the right to be loved. Hannah has the right, despite totally ruining everything in her life, for Adam to run through the streets of Brooklyn shirtless so save her from herself. She has the right to the moment that ends the season, in which he cradles her in his arms and briefly soothes the searing pain that is living inside her own head.
There are complications here, and I doubt the show can ever account for them. Do we, as viewers, forgive someone like Adam? Do we cheer on a couple like this one, a couple we find odious, a pair of people who have nothing and no one but each other? Where do we go from here?