Critic's Notebook: 'Girls' Season Finale Ends With Hope (But Don't Expect It to Last)

A great 'Girls' season wraps with new hope for Hannah, new awfulness from Marnie and fantastic performances from Andrew Rannells and Lena Dunham.
Courtesy of Craig Blankenhorn/HBO
[This article discusses the season 5 finale (that aired April 17) of HBO's Girls and, predictably, includes spoilers.]
 
She's gonna make it after all?
 
While I'm not convinced it was actually an improvement over recent seasons — I didn't think the show had a glaring need for improvement — the current season of Girls has experienced something of a re-evaluation or re-appreciation in certain circles. I've already written my "Girls Never Stopped Being Good" analysis, but I think part of the reason for the adulation of this season has to do with our perception that, with a closing season on the horizon, Lena Dunham, Jenni Konner and company are beginning to push their characters in the direction of growth and change, the absence of which was a source of frustration among some viewers. 
 
Had Sunday's two-episode season conclusion been a series finale, aspects of it surely would have been satisfying for devoted fans. 
 
 
In particular, "I Love You Baby" gave at least the illusion that Hannah Horvath had course-corrected her life and was back on track. Having realized, with the help of Jenny Slate's Tally Shifrin, that insecurity and instability were as much an illusion for the seemingly successful as the seemingly misdirected, Hannah returned to the writing she'd abandoned for her brief run as a teacher and seemingly found success at a The Moth event, telling the story of her internal reconciliation with Adam and Jessa being together. We didn't see how the judges scored her, but the one-shot depiction of Hannah's "confession" was presented to make us think that it was an achievement. (Plus, while Hannah has always been prone to delusion and self-rationalization, at least the surface of this story was true, since she really did leave Jessa and Adam a fruit basket.) The episode closed with Hannah jogging, possibly the least Hannah thing previously imaginable, and finishing in a freeze-frame with a determined expression.
 
Are Dunham and finale director Konner nodding to the frozen-but-smiling images of Diana Prince that ended nearly every episode of Wonder Woman or the triumphant, hat-tossing Mary Richards at the conclusion of The Mary Tyler Moore Show? Either one seems a possible option for the hope that we're supposed to be leaving Hannah with, the empowerment of a single woman ready to take on a city. We've left seasons with Hannah seemingly happier than usual or more adjusted than usual, but we can absolutely choose to believe that this time Hannah has come to the right conclusions about her past behavior and her future.
 
Perhaps Hannah had her moment of realization talking to Tally about Adam and Jessa and saying, "I could do what my instinct is, which is run around and destroy things and scream and try to throw myself in front of a van to make a point, but at the end of the day that would just be me fulfilling all their expectations of me, and I would love to surprise someone sometime."
 
"Someone," of course, can mean the audience as much as anybody else. With one season left, there's no guarantee that Hannah has turned any corner permanently, and why would we want or expect her to? After all, Hannah is only two episodes removed from causing an accident by giving Ray a "Thanks for picking me up" blow job and only one episode removed from a brief fling with bicycle-stealing larceny. Somebody also should point out that Hannah was actually good at being a teacher, and that the hollowness she felt from that experience still says something about her. She's likely to backslide or revert, but in these moments at the end of the season, Hannah surprised us.
 
 
It's worth noting here how frequently surprising Dunham was this season, perhaps because our perception of her as a writing-directing-producing wunderkind maybe upstaged her Emmy-nominated performance. When somebody does as many things as Dunham, we tend to put them in the Jerry Seinfeld/Ray Romano/Woody Allen camp of "Oh, they're really playing themselves and they're not really actors," which then lets us be surprised by how good Romano has been on Men of a Certain Age and Vinyl, or how great Dunham was this season on Girls. The finale and also the key moment in "Hello Kitty," in which Hannah realized the truth about her best friend and her ex, were probably Dunham's finest acting to date: understated and, as Hannah would hope for, surprising. 
 

If Hannah got the finale treatment suggesting life at a transitional point, she wasn't the only one.
 
Shoshanna, returned from Japan, found a surprising way to utilize her marketing skills and helped swiftly transform Ray's into the anti-hipster alternative to the rousingly successful and nauseating Helvetica. Earlier episodes in Japan also showed Shosh advancing from the childlike comic relief of earlier seasons into a fully realized human. Does this seem permanent? Unclear. Shosh is unable to differentiate between affectations and a point at which a lack of affectation becomes an affectation in itself. Even if she compares the Helvetica brand of hipsterism to the Westboro Baptist Church, her anti-hipsterism is just worshipping at a parallel church, especially when compared to Hermie (Colin Quinn)'s more genuine nativism. Shosh also thinks her Orientalist remnants of her Japanese experience are genuine, even as the show seems to be chiding her. Still, it's good to see Shosh moving forward.
 
After "The Panic in Central Park," many viewers felt like Marnie had turned her own corner, but the Marnie who recruits Ray to serve as her tour roadie/ungratifying sex doll based on a "love dream" (in contrast to a sex dream) isn't that far from the Marnie who has always been the best at being the worst. She can't orgasm with Ray because she doesn't hate him, and her greatest fantasy seems to involve brushing the hair of a girl-Ray who may or may not be their daughter. Is Marnie's use of Ray any better than Desi's use of the adoring blogger who loved him from Charmed? Plus, being with Marnie is keeping Ray from his elected responsibilities and also allowing him to be usurped by Shosh at his place of business. If anybody was fooled into rooting for Marnie after "Central Park," the finale suggested rooting for Marnie is rooting for the destruction of Ray, and I'm not ready to root for the destruction of Ray yet. But kudos to Girls for joining Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in bookending what may someday be known as The Week TV Decided to Talk About UTIs.
 
 
That leaves Jessa, poor Jessa, who had her own "I would love to surprise someone sometime" eye-opener in ranting to Adam, "You know people hate me. I'm a hate-able kind of person. I don't know why. I can't help it. Maybe it's because I have a big ass and good hair," before saying that her only previous high ground was at least she didn't steal people's boyfriends, and that she'd never forgive him for turning her into a woman who did that. The volatile Jessa/Adam relationship came to a head with lamp-smashing, bicycle-tossing, door-destroying rage that saw Adam Driver brilliantly channel both Kylo Ren and Jack Torrance from The Shining. Having both Jessa and Hannah reference the importance of their friendship was good, even if you may have to go back to the third season "Truth or Dare" rehab-rescue episode to truly remember that relationship playing out. And leaving Jessa and Adam post-coital, laid emotionally and physically bare on the floor of his ruined apartment, was...a choice.
 
I've made it this far without even getting to the MVP of the season-ending hour, Andrew Rannells. I've always thought Elijah was funny, and starting with his Iowa arc last season, I even began to believe he was an important part of the show as a regular presence. But "Love Stories," Sunday's penultimate episode, was the first time I really came away astonished by Rannells. Elijah's grand pronouncement to Corey Stoll's Dill played like a Shoshanna speech in that I believed Elijah believed it even if I didn't buy it as a viewer from the outside, right down to the winking joke about Dill not looking better with a shaved head. Dill's response simultaneously crediting Elijah for making him realize he deserved somebody special but also telling Elijah that somebody wasn't him was devastating, especially as the camera trained in on Rannells' beautiful response. 
 
Dill accused Elijah of being aimless, but Elijah was doubly an enabler this episode. First, he helped Dill see he deserved a boyfriend, and then, in another great Rannells scene, he helped Hannah's dad see the light. "I just feel like giving up. Don't you?" Elijah sighed after staggering home from a multi-day bender. But after brief consideration, Tad noted, "No. I feel like I'm just starting." This led Tad to end the episode at the apartment of the man he fled from earlier in the season, possibly now ready for his chance at happiness. 
 
To me, that conversation felt like a reminder that we're not supposed to expect closure in life at 25 or 30, just like we shouldn't expect closure and resolution from a show about characters in that age range. This season finale could have been a series finale for Girls, and it would have left some characters giving the impression of maturation and new-found concentration and would have left us satisfied. But that doesn't mean we should expect what was resolved here to remain so neat next season, nor for additional resolution to be imposed on Hannah, Shosh, Jessa, Marnie and Elijah. Girls never promised it would end as Women. But, hey, maybe Hannah's still gonna make it after all.
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