The one question I’ve never quite been able to answer about Girls is also one of the most crucial: Is the show sharp and self-aware, or oblivious and self-indulgent?
Since Lena Dunham’s brainchild premiered on HBO in 2012, I’ve considered each possibility in just about every other episode. And now, as the show begins its sixth and final season, I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is — well, both.
When we first met Dunham’s Hannah Horvath, she was an aspiring writer living off her parents’ money, renting a place with her type-A college friend Marnie (Allison Williams) and playing sex games with Adam, a strapping carpenter (the now-ubiquitous Adam Driver) whose instability rivaled her own.
When this final season premieres, Hannah has just published an essay in the New York Times’s Modern Love column — her first work to appear in print — about how Adam and her best friend Jessa (Jemima Kirke) found each other. She quickly leverages that accomplishment, landing reported assignments for feminist blogs across this great wide internet. And after watching her stumble with a stubbornness approaching active determination for so long, seeing Hannah take new steps toward self-improvement — small and stuttering though they are — comes as a relief.
Hannah has always been the embodiment of a very specific kind of person: a 20-something white woman who, though smart, is so absorbed in her own myopic shit that it takes truly seismic events to get through to her. She’s infuriating — a fact Girls is well aware of but indulges with fondness.
For example: In the second episode of season six, Hannah stumbles into an antiques shop and gushes to a woman of color behind the counter (Joy Bryant) that she’s never wanted to “Instagram a stranger” so badly. The woman smiles affectionately, and eventually offers Hannah a tea set on the house.
But as season six reminds us at just about every turn, this is the final season of Girls. Hannah’s story, and those of everyone around her, is building toward a real end, or at least the ending of one stage of life and the beginning of the next (i.e., their 30s). Accordingly, the first three episodes — each written by Dunham — make a point of trying to answer some of the questions that’ve surrounded Girls since the very beginning, like “What does Hannah actually want?” and “Why are these people still friends, anyway?”
The final season of Girls calls back to its own history, for better and for worse
Each of season six’s first three episodes contains echoes of moments from earlier in the series. The first, “All I Ever Wanted,” sends Hannah, fresh off her Modern Love victory, to report on an all-female surf camp in the Hamptons — in part because her editor believes that sending a pudgy indoor kid out to surf will inevitably be hilarious.
But Hannah quickly puts her own dysfunctional spin on the adventure, flirting with the earnest surf instructor (The Night Of’s Riz Ahmed), slurping five too many alcoholic smoothies, and eventually letting herself relax enough to drink lukewarm beer on the beach with her temporary new boyfriend. Watching her take a deep breath on a salty shore feels like the inverse of the season one finale, when a forlorn Hannah ate the world’s saddest piece of cake at Coney Island.
At 42 minutes, “All I Ever Wanted” — directed by Dunham — feels more like a short film than a season premiere. But that’s not altogether unusual for Girls, which has been more and more willing to break with its episodic format as it’s aged, as it did in the stunning season five chapter “The Panic in Central Park.”
And even though “All I Ever Wanted” is a brief escape from Hannah’s grimy life in New York City, the specter of her anxieties is never far away. In the final shot of the episode, as Hannah and her new beach bum friends melt into the sand while a campfire flickers, Dunham gives a Graduate-esque performance, her face going from warm delight to quiet devastation. For once, she knows just as well as we do that this moment won’t last.
The next two episodes are a study in contrasts. Episode two, “Hostage Situation,” again removes Hannah from the city, but this time she’s playing reluctant chaperone to Marnie and her emotionally volatile ex-husband Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) as they indulge an ill-advised — and quickly devolving — affair. Eventually, it feels as if the show decided to remake season three’s “Beach House,” but as a horror movie. Meanwhile, Jessa crashes a networking opportunity that her ambitious cousin Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) pointedly didn’t invite her to, at which point shenanigans obviously ensue.
“Hostage Situation” is a much messier episode than the premiere, but still contains some startling moments that blaze with the kind of honesty that’s made Girls hard to look away from, even when its characters’ behavior is so frustrating that they’re practically daring you to slam the door in their face. It’s scattered and it’s mean, mixing up a classic Girls cocktail of narcissism and forced reflection that leads to unexpected — if not totally believable — breakthroughs.
Episode three — “American Bitch” — is just as focused as “Hostage Situation” is chaotic. It’s also the one that will inevitably spark the most discussion in season six’s early going. Similar to season two’s landmark (and controversial) episode “One Man’s Trash,” it’s essentially a two-person play between Hannah and an older man (then Patrick Wilson, now The Americans’ Matthew Rhys). It even calls on the same creative team as “One Man’s Trash,” with a script from Dunham and meticulous direction from Richard Shepard (though “American Bitch” never really hits the same creative peaks as that episode did).
As acclaimed novelist Chuck Palmer, Rhys is all insecurities, self-pity, and coiled frustration. It’s a combination Hannah can relate to, much though she tries not to, given the circumstances that bring her to his apartment: an article she wrote about multiple women saying Chuck coerced them into sex, an accusation he now wants to deny to her face.
The two circle each other, ferocious and steadfast in their opinions, each trying to chip away at each other’s resolve. Hannah tries to stay firm about believing women first and always, even while expressing real confusion about a complex situation in the presence of his perpetual “please don’t hate me” face. And thanks in large part to Rhys’s performance, the episode manages to toe the line between sympathizing outright with Chuck and vilifying him completely.
“American Bitch” is ambitious, tense, spiky, and strange. By the end, it’s unclear what either Chuck or Hannah has learned, if anything — but there’s never a doubt that only Girls could or would have approached the subject in quite the same way.
The sixth season of Girls premieres Sunday, February 12, at 10 pm on HBO. The rest of the series is currently available to stream on HBO Go and HBO Now.