400 Blowies: "Girls'" Coming of Age, Finally
By Phillip MaciakApril 22, 2016
I WANT TO GET to how Girls is a little bit like The 400 Blows, but before that: a trip down memory lane. The first words we ever wrote as Dear Television were about the first season of Girls. Those were the days when our column was just a hastily designed Wordpress and LARB itself was just a hastily designed Tumblr, rather than the mind-boggling feat of digital wizardry it has become today. But Girls is where this started for us, and so, as we come to the end of a triumphant fifth season and look to the upcoming final run of this show, I have been looking back at our own relationship to it. Because it is a relationship. I was just lecturing a roomful of undergraduates — who are in the midst of watching The Wire for my intro media studies course — sounding half-crazed, I think, about how television series like these are important if only because they constitute an actual part of our lives. Because of their seriality, because of the attention they demand, because of the commitment we give to the best of them, they end up constituting an element, however small, of the way we live our lives day to day — and that’s whether we watch week to week or binge to catch up. More so than most other art forms, TV is the one we integrate into our existence.
So the five seasons of Girls — two extraordinary, two good, one actively bad, with individual episodes of insane brilliance scattered pretty evenly throughout — are an inextricable part of my past four years. Same as Mad Men, same as Parks and Recreation, same as The Bachelor, same as everything else. And maybe it’s because of the confessional tone of the show, or maybe it’s because of my relative closeness in age to Lena Dunham, or maybe it’s because the premiere of this show is the reason Dear Television started and so also the inciting incident of the thousands and thousands of words I’ve written over that period, but I feel pretty close to Girls. I don’t identify with these characters — for any number of reasons, I think identification is probably the wrong way to engage Girls, or at least not a particularly helpful one — but I identify with the show, if that makes sense. I want it to succeed. I want it, in the words of Principal Toby, to find what it’s looking for.
Not to bury the lede, but this fifth season, which ended in a hurry this week to make room for Game of Thrones, is maybe the best the show has ever made. It’s hard to match the snotty confidence of that amazing first season — we’ll never meet Adam Driver for the first time again, and Lena Dunham’s naked physical comedy will never have quite the same charge of discomfort — and, as great as this season’s bottle and semi-bottle episodes were, I don’t think Dunham has topped “One Man’s Trash” as a perfect episode. But this fifth season has a depth and, more importantly, a high-wire evenness to it that other seasons haven’t had. In other words, this season tried a lot of high-degree-of-difficulty moves (pairing Adam and Jessa, giving us an entire episode alone with Marnie, leaving the country, doing another wedding episode) and pulled most of them off. It’s possible that the decision to end after six refocused Dunham and Jenni Konner, reminded them that the show needed to be going somewhere. It’s also possible that the occasionally aimless-seeming plot contortions of the past few seasons just organically and accidentally led back to better imaginative real estate for these characters and their writers. Either way, Girls is something again.
And I want to talk about that, but — channeling Hannah Horvath — I also want to talk about me. (Is that guy from The Walrus still here? Is it safe?) Every series has down seasons. Sometimes those seasons are arranged such that the narrative is one of lapse. Writing weekly about Mad Men, for instance, I don’t know that I felt that the show’s difficult (though not irredeemable or indefensible) sixth season was a harbinger of doom so much as an unpleasant aberration. I didn’t worry that the series had lost its edge so much that I hoped it would readjust the levels in the following season. Sometimes the narrative is sophomore slump — the Landry murder subplot in the second season of Friday Night Lights is perhaps the greatest example of this. Sometimes, it feels as though the show has gone off the rails. Keeping Brody alive for the second season of Homeland, for instance, was almost an admission on the part of the showrunners that they had no idea what made their show good in the first place. But, more often than not, especially if a show can kick out two strong seasons to start, the narrative is one of decline. And this is where we’ve been with Girls since its third season.
What’s it like to identify with a show that’s in decline? How do you continue to justify the way that that show is a part of your life? What is loyalty to a television program? Girls has never “gone off the rails,” so to speak, but it has maybe stalled on the tracks a couple of times, giving us fairly substantial plot turns followed by resets followed by plot turns followed by resets. True to its protagonist, Girls has occasionally looked lost, uncertain of its identity as a television series, uncertain about when to take risks. At its worst, in seasons three and four, Girls has been boring. But then, near the end of the fourth season last year, there was a sharp moment of horror, and the show felt somehow alive again. (Lili claimed, way back at our beginning, that Hannah is a “monster” — she’s still right.) Lena Dunham hurt Judd Apatow’s daughter Maude on television, and she asked us to watch. More specifically, Dunham showed us a long close-up shot of Maude Apatow — or her stand-in — getting her frenulum pierced. And it’s just the worst. We see the entire act, gilded with blood and spit and shrieks of pain. It’s a violation, but it’s also a prototypical Girls moment. The frenulum piercing, Hannah puncturing her ear-drum with a Q-tip, Adam ejaculating on his humiliated girlfriend — the socially awkward beats of ordinary cringe comedy jaggedly transmogrify from embarrassment to violence, from mortification to mortification.
I don’t know if everybody read this as a moment of defiance, of clawing out of the grave, but I sure did. Even as the fourth season ended on another bum note, the horror of this scene — true story: I almost puked watching it — felt like Dunham had recaptured something about her show, and it made me excited for the endgame. This was the twentieth hour of my life that I’d given to her, to her show, and, for the first time in a couple of seasons, it didn’t feel like I was voluntarily remaining on a sinking ship.
And that’s what’s been so thrilling about seeing Girls working at such a high-level again. It’s not faith rewarded, and it’s not about patience and satisfaction; it’s about seeing a narrative resisted. The conversations about Girls’ allegedly flimsy claims for universality are old, but they are not gone. Even as the series has seemingly gone out of its way to argue that its limited point of view is a feature not a bug — that it’s the show’s subject — the criticism that the show is myopic or venal or worse has hung in the air around it. Since the moment Hannah Horvath said she was “a voice of a generation” and everyone instead heard Lena Dunham say she was “the voice of her generation,” it’s been over. And since the (very very legitimate) critique of the show’s non-existent approach to diversity can easily turn into principled dismissal of what the show does manage to represent, it’s been hard not to perceive the show’s musing as indulgent. The aforementioned aimlessness of the past two seasons hasn’t helped.
But to see this show act with purpose again is a good thing, regardless of where you stand. I don’t know that I know what that purpose is — though I don’t think it’s inseparable from whatever “coming-of-age” we’ve begun to see this season — but there is intention again here, hard strokes made confidently. The Jessa and Adam relationship, for instance, not only takes advantage of the tremendous chemistry of two incredibly unusual actors and justifies the continued presence of Adam Driver on the show, it introduces actual stakes to Hannah and Jessa’s friendship. For some time, this is a show that’s kept a small set of characters improbably in touch — this is parodied to some extent when Desi only seems to have one non-regular cast member in his wedding party — and, rather than opening that out, Dunham and Konner have managed to turn that insularity in on itself.
Similarly, moving Shoshanna out of the U.S. allowed us to focus more on one of the show’s most stealthily great performances in Zosia Mamet. The Japan set-pieces could tend a little to the Coppolaesque, and the satire of Japanese culture has as much sting or reason than the show’s satire of American culture. But Mamet is underrated here, and her character has too often felt like unnecessarily shallow comic relief. Her performance especially in the “Queen for Two Days” episode is wonderful. Watching Mamet modulate her flibbertigibbet cartoon into a kind of manic-depressive collapse transformed Shosh into something like a naturalist heroine. As her ex points out, she is still a being of extreme privilege, but Mamet’s performance of Shosh’s decline gives that character a soul the show was not always too concerned with giving her.
There have been a series of terrific moments — Elijah’s tearful speech to Dill, the strangely moving Bowie cover at the end of “Queen for Two Days,” the rise of Becky Ann Baker into the frame, the electric one-episode performance of Jenny Slate, Adam and Jessa’s carnival date — but the most important development has happened at the level of this show’s broadest arc. This week’s finale features a long, slow zoom on Hannah as she tells a story — the story of the season, of Jessa and Adam — to the crowd at The Moth. It’s set up as a kind of victorious moment, her return to her dream, her effort to be true to herself, etc. But, as it was happening, I kept thinking: is this story any good? Or, maybe more importantly, are we supposed to think this is any good?
And those questions made me realize that this isn’t the first time I’ve asked them, the first time we’ve asked them. In June of 2012, Evan asked us about whether or not we’re supposed to take the art on the show seriously. The show, he suggested, had a problem with “how to depict performance/artistic expression without mocking or minimizing it.” Here’s what I wrote in response, as a little baby TV critic:
One of the more underplayed jokes in the pilot is that the manuscript [Hannah] hands to her parents could not be more than 30 pages long; the story topics we occasionally hear referenced (about her hoarder boyfriend, for instance) seem designed by Dunham to be laughed at; Marnie is tolerant, at best, of her friend’s prose; and we never, ever, see Hannah working on the book that is, presumably, her prime occupation. The only people who compliment her on it are her father, who loves her unconditionally, and Professor Christopher Moltisanti, who, as Marnie points out, may just be macking on her.
Hannah’s book is a classic problem for a show about the creative process. Do we read the book? Do we hear what she writes? That approach worked for The Larry Sanders Show because The Larry Sanders Show within The Larry Sanders Show was great. It didn’t work for Studio 60 because the show within the show was hot garbage. But Dunham doesn’t let us see her book. She shows us the ripples it makes, the way that it functions as a placeholder for any number of other issues in her life. Hannah talking about her book is Hannah talking about herself. And this is partially what throws Marnie over the edge: Hannah’s ability to make everything, including Marnie sometimes, a metonym for herself. The book is about her life, Marnie’s heartbreak is about her newfound romance, Tally’s recognition is about her lack of recognition. This has the unique function of allowing Hannah to always be talking about herself, but it also functions to alienate everyone with whom she is close. When is the last time Hannah was in a scene with anyone other than Marnie or Adam for more than a minute?
Despite the fact that both Hannah and the show usually treat her book as a plot device or emotional trigger, Dunham is continuing to pursue the idea of Hannah as an actual writer by having her go to the reading. And I’m confused. Is Hannah really a writer? Or, rather, are we supposed to take Hannah’s writing seriously, or is it a smokescreen? The way I see it, the fight at the end of this episode (spurred by Hannah’s anguish about the reading) exposes Hannah’s writing for what it is: a pretense for every situation and human being in her life to be funneled into a narrative that is about her. From the hotel room in the pilot to her showdown with Chris Eigeman to this episode’s various refusals, Hannah’s writing is no longer winning her the support it used to. If her old prof really is just trying to get in her pants, then that leaves nobody supporting her art. Is Hannah really a writer, or is she, as the phenomenal Kathryn Hahn tells Jessa, “doing it to distract [herself] from becoming the person [she’s] meant to be”?
I’m quoting myself at length here not because I think I was super-right or because I like reading my old writing or because I’m trying to gin up traffic for our only slightly less hastily designed current Wordpress blog. I’m quoting myself at length because it’s eerie how much of this could be written about this current season. (Are we supposed to laugh at the scripted jokes in Hannah’s story? Do we find this aesthetically, structurally pleasing? Are we supposed to perceive that these are real, clear-headed insights about her own life? Good art? Bad art? Somebody get this kid a podcast?) And that’s not because the show has stagnated. I think, instead, that it’s looping back on itself to return to the initial questions and problems that made the show seem vital in the first place. It’s no coincidence that Tally (Jenny Slate) shows up here at the end of season five. She’s appeared — as Hannah’s college friend and literary nemesis — only twice in the series: in this episode from June 2012 that spurred our conversation and in this week’s penultimate episode. She represents the crisis of Hannah’s life as an artist, and we’re considering that question anew, and with greater depth.
The whole season, it seems, has been leading us to reconsider these original conundrums. Hannah and Tally re-enact the iconic “Dancing on My Own” scene from season one to “Feeling Myself.” Is there a difference between the love and shared understanding Hannah perceived with Marnie back then and what she perceives with Tally now? Are these vestigial friendships actual lived relationships or comfort blankets? Dunham brings Charlie back, gone since early in the series, in the phenomenal Marnie bottle episode “The Panic in Central Park” in order to return to a site of rupture and ask what kind of human being are we supposed to imagine Marnie to be, to ask what kind of time has elapsed as we’ve been rocking back and forth with the same problems for four years. And we end the season finale with Adam once again literally destroying his world, becoming wild and violent. The question of Adam’s violence, the question of abuse, is one that was really important to this show’s early episodes but that has shifted out of focus as Driver has become such a likable screen presence. Not anymore. Where is his violence going? What is it, ultimately? Is he dangerous or dumb or neither?
Twice in these last episodes, a character — Elijah and Tally — makes reference to the value of really being seen by another person. I think this return to beginnings prompts us to ask what and who Lena Dunham sees. Moving up on a sixth and final season, the question remains: is every story of Hannah Horvath and company really just a story about Lena Dunham? Is Dunham, the genius of this show, also its monster, devouring every element of it with her own personality? Or is this a show about a group of characters, a world that has become a part of our world, my world, over four years? And is Girls so good again because it’s finally “becoming the [show] it’s meant to be,” whatever that is?
Girls is hoping this can be true, that it can start moving again after what feels like a long pause. In the season finale, our final shot is a striking one of Hannah running toward the camera, smiling, making occasional eye contact, with a freeze frame of her face mid-stride. One obvious reference here is to the freeze-frame that ends the Mary Tyler Moore Show opening credits. You’re gonna make it after all. Ok. Got it. But I also think this is a not-exactly-subtle nod to Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows, the French New Wave’s most iconic coming of age tale. At the end of that film, Antoine, the boy protagonist, escapes his restrictive school on foot, and we get a long, long tracking shot of him running to a faraway beach. Once there, he turns to approach the camera, we freeze, and we zoom in. This is a beginning, a coming of age without a clear endpoint or result. It’s as ambivalent and worried as it is triumphant. It signals a desire for freedom and adulthood even as it shows us a boy trapped by his school, his parents, his friends, and his very age. Is Hannah Horvath a good artist? I don’t know, but I think Lena Dunham is.
It’s a work-in-progress, as it is for everybody, I would say, big and small,
Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in Slate, The New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.
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