Discipline and Punish




IT’S A CURIOSITY of Lena Dunham’s work that Girls, which initially seemed like one of the great ensemble shows, turned out to be the best version of itself in bottle episodes — isolating a character in a context that kneecaps whatever its aggressively generational version of Brooklyn regards as normal. I’ll go further: this was never going to be the millennial Sex and the City. Girls can be kind of awful when the old gang is all together.

But that does upset our expectations. This series has steadfastly refused to discipline or punish. It seemed from the outset that Lena Dunham was determined not to instruct her protagonists, but to let them be messy and flawed and to keep on living. While the critiques — and auto-critiques — have been extensive, the show has pointedly refused to register anything as boring as improvement.

It’s interesting, then — despite that programmatic refusal to progress — to think about how the characters have changed. “Dear Television” started back in 2012 with this post Jane wrote about Hannah’s propensity for inserting drama into scripts that don’t need any. When Charlie broke a table he’d made during a fight with Marnie, Hannah shouted, “That’s the kind of thing you do right before you hit us! Don’t hit us!”

“This living room scene begins to feel like a full-on stage play,” Jane writes. “Charlie (who I’m having trouble imagine hitting anyone) is on his way out the door, but Hannah needs to play up the scene for full dramatic effect.”

That need to manufacture drama had us wondering whether anything bad would ever happen to the girls — they seemed bizarrely immune to consequences in ways that have been chalked up to privilege.

But by its fifth season, Girls came a lot closer to something like a consequence-based reality. Who’d have guessed we’d see Charlie back again in season five as a heroin addict, talking in a weird accent? Or that Hannah would intervene in yet another Marnie fight with a partner — Desi — this one legitimately close to the violence Hannah introduced absurdly into the scene above? The most dramatic violence belongs, of course, to Adam and Jessa, who destroy an apartment during their fight over Hannah. Things are getting real. These characters are closer to tearing things up than they’ve been, maybe ever.

Is that what we wanted? This show has always been, at least in part, a test of our moralizing storytelling instincts. How badly do we need to see the girls punished? What do we want out of a season six? “What if nightmares and dreams never come true?” Phil wrote when we started thinking about this show. He was talking about Hannah’s dreams of making it as a writer, but that’s still basically the question the show poses — not to its protagonists, but to its viewers.

Back in 2012, I wrote about the show’s odd relation to nightmares and horror — Hannah’s trip to her hometown felt Lynchian, but wasn’t: everything turned out to be more or less what it seemed, or less. The question was always whether Hannah would discover stories of her own that aren’t artifacts of her own anxiety. I think that the answer might be yes, but that even that answer is usefully riddled (as Girls often is) with terrible ambiguity.

¤

Lili Loofbourow is the culture critic at TheWeek.com.


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