I WENT TO SLEEP and when I woke up, Girls was a romantic comedy. A romantic comedy on crack, running through the streets in its underwear holding its skirt over its head, wondering if a Ray will come.
We’ve talked before about romantic comedies and the weird experiment the culture has accidentally conducted on the generation of women who grew up on them before everyone decided that Romantic Comedies Are The Worst.
Here’s what I said then, which I feel like I have to confess again to account for what follows:
...many women have been hard-wired to be genuinely moved by storylines that we have also, much later, been taught to regard as stupid. The result is that the genuine emotions that arise in response to a romantic comedy come with feelings of shame. Some of us try to keep our responsiveness to these storylines secret, since it privately confirms our schlockiness and bad taste.
When Hannah’s father accuses her of manipulating him, she asks how she can be manipulative if she doesn’t know she’s doing it. He cites multiple instances where she’s turned a blind eye to her own motivations; Hannah has a lifelong habit of unconscious manipulation.
In this episode, I felt unconsciously manipulated. Like, HARDCORE. If Girls is usually in an aggressive tug-of-war with its viewers and critics, in this episode the rope went slack. The finale was a startling capitulation to everything those of us raised on romantic comedies think we want. Since Girls began, we’ve seen what happens when Hannah gets what she wants, and when Adam gets what he wants, and when Marnie gets what she wants. Now, in the season finale, we finally get what we want: as straightforward a tale of humiliation, darkness, and redemption through love as you’re likely to find. And — like Hannah, Adam, and Marnie — we ultimately don’t feel very good about how getting what we want turned out.
I’ve been binging lately on Maria Bamford, whose weird performances of femininity are equal parts disturbing, accurate, affectionate, and barbed. A lot of her material is based on her own OCD (one episode of the Maria Bamford show is actually called Oh CD), but this episode of Girls reminded me most of this brilliant Bamford sketch (start at 1:04):
If you can’t watch it, Bamford’s bombing in front of her family and some acquaintances with her usual off-kilter stuff, so she code-switches into Generic Female Comic. “Ladies!!” she screeches, and goes into a bit about dating and men wanting the remote control. The audience eats it up. “The funny part is that we do things in a similar way and then have the same exact reaction to them!“ Maria says, eventually abandoning the jokes altogether. “I love how we’re all the same!” shrieks one audience member. A jock hoots, “that is SO part of the paradigm that I understand! GODDAMNIT!” Maria’s character eventually turns on her audience. “Don’t you guys get it?” she says. “That wasn’t me! You only like me when I’m not being myself.”
This episode is the Generic Female Comic, and Girls is Maria Bamford conducting a love-test. To put it another way, this is an episode where Girls (the show) and Hannah (the character) are on opposite arcs: as Hannah’s ability to bullshit fails and she spirals down to her most naked and uncontrolled self, the show spackles itself up in rom-com drag and does the routine it knows we love. The episode hits all the right buttons, right down to the chase scene with a manufactured sense of urgency. There was Marnie and Charlie’s fantasy reunion; the boner-killing power imbalance is fixed now that Charlie’s rich and good in bed and Marnie’s been taken down a peg. Marnie’s speech steals from the end of When Harry Met Sally with the genders reversed. And Charlie’s “that’s all I ever wanted to hear” is a gender-reversed “you had me at hello.” Boom.
(It’s weird that the rom-com ending comes halfway through the episode, but never mind.)
As for the Natalia-Adam nightmare from last week? It’s been recalibrated or maybe even retconned, to steal a term from Molly Lambert. A pleasant amnesiac film descends on the world as we know it, and Adam’s past as a stalker and quasi-rapist fades into irrelevance. Now Adam is the victimized party getting bossed around by Natalia, who insists that an erotic encounter doesn’t have to be built on insults and lack of consent. “I can like your cock without being a whore,” she says firmly, and to our shock we find that something in this scene — is it the camera angles? the dialogue? Natalia’s tone? — is making us take Adam’s side. What a shrew, wanting to be sexual without being degraded, we find ourselves thinking.
WHAT’S GOING ON. What buttons are these that are getting pushed and how do we stop them? Who’s manipulating us and how? These are the TV moments I find most interesting — the ones when I realize I’ve somehow been snookered into sympathizing with the wrong person against my will.
Phil, remember when you thought Natalia was adding a much-needed element to the show?
She’s sexual and sexy, willing to do things, but knows and is willing to say the things she doesn’t want. And she is apparently willing to contemplate leaving a relationship when she feels disrespected in it. I think it’s very possible that Lena Dunham has shown us a character who has her shit together.
Never mind all that. Shit together or not, Natalia’s been downgraded into that useful rom-com ingredient — the hotter girl who has everything together who in the end just isn’t as good as the flawed, damaged but sympathetic party (cf. Bridget Jones’ Diary).
And that ending! Adam kicks in the door, gently pulls the covers off Hannah, sees her at her most abject, ugly, and raw, and picks her up like the sweet, tender superhero he is and kisses her.
As the credits rolled, I felt much like Hannah’s mother did during the phone call at the end of “Video Games”: touched at first by the show’s act of love, this effort to make me feel good, then more and more suspicious as the show kept narrating itself to itself. And then I heard the lyrics of the closing song, and that was the last straw. “Nothing up my sleeve?” HA! (As Bamford says, if the guy says, “Babe, I want you to know I’d never hit you,” get out, cuz there’s a beatdown on its way.) If this show tells you it’s got nothing up its sleeve, grab those sleeves and check ‘em good.
Girls might just be cheating — trying to get the feel-goodery of the rom-com and ignoring all the obvious obstacles to love rom-coms frequently ignore (hello, You’ve Got Mail!) — while positioning itself as better than the genre it’s aping. But I think there’s more to it than that. This is the only line Hannah managed to write during this episode: “A friendship between college girls is grander and more dramatic than any romance.” If we take that seriously, and I think we should — as I said, I think Hannah’s lost her ability to bullshit in this episode, which lets us trust what she writes — then this episode was a tragedy: Jessa didn’t answer the phone. Marnie didn’t look under the bed. It wasn’t a happy ending after all.
There’s a slightly different version of the Bamford sketch I linked to earlier. When she does this bit in her standup, the Female Comic makes a joke about dating and then says, in exactly the same sorority-sister gush, “I’m dead inside!” That’s what this episode was.
That’s what Marnie looks like in that shot with Charlie where he’s wearing a suit and tie. As for Hannah and Adam, it’s surely no coincidence that Adam, whose darkness scans as erotic and powerful (instead of scared and plagued by addiction), calls Siri “Shiri.” Shiri might be Adam’s way back to Hannah, but that’s not great — whether Shiri is a phone (Hannah should have gotten Forbid) or the actress playing a woman who doesn’t find sexual degradation hot. But the Female Comic is funny sometimes, and I’d be lying if I didn’t get a rush when Adam ran to Hannah and kicked down the door to save her from herself. Adam Driver breaks your heart when he says “I was always here.” On the other hand, there’s no way to hear him say “I was always here” without remembering “It’s Back,” the episode where Adam and OCD return. It’s no coincidence that Marnie, just as Jessa did after marrying Thomas-John, wants to talk about how she and Charlie are at her happy ending. And it’s no coincidence that the real relationships of the show — Hannah with Jessa and Hannah with Marnie — end on a sad note of irresolution.
There’s something genuinely scary about watching Bamford do the Hot Female Comic because it’s such a complete erasure of her entire sensibility. There’s something just as scary about watching Girls go save-me-sweet. We get it, Girls. You think we only like you when you’re not yourself. Do we pass the love test?
Grander and more dramatic than any romance,
I THINK LILI’S absolutely right that the final moments of the season finale well and truly jumped the shark. It’s hard to argue that this ending — Adam running shirtless through Brooklyn, busting down the door, and cradling Hannah in his arms — wasn’t a mistake, a miscalculation. And I won’t. I’ve watched it a few times now, and I find it impossible to experience anything other than profound disappointment. Let’s not beat around the bush: it was a failure.
But I’m not sure I completely agree with Lili’s assessment as to why this failure happened — why Lena Dunham let it happen, you might say. What interests me is the tension between the almost unbearably tense opening of the episode — which was much more in keeping with the dread-filled “On All Fours” — and its retconned romcom closing. The episode begins with a horrible whooshing noise like something out of a David Lynch movie, and introduces a scene in which Hannah anxiously searches WebMD for information about increasingly terrifying symptoms. The scene on the other side of the title card is even scarier (at least for writers): Hannah’s editor David, played by John Cameron Mitchell (who we first see inexplicably quoting E.E. Cummings while browsing a gossip website), calls Hannah to harass her: “What gives with the pages?” What’s clear is that Hannah is failing to make good on her promise in the pilot to be “a voice of a generation”: “I’m leaning on you, I’m dependent on you, because you are the future I guess!” David yells. After getting off the phone with him, Hannah lies in bed and chants to herself in a singsong cadence: “I’m going to write a whole book in a day. I’m going to write a full book in one day.”
The thing is, as viewers, we’re with David. After the degree of chutzpah Hannah’s shown about her writing talent up to this point, we’re not about to let her cop out now. She signed a contract; she owes us a story. Given the expectations the show has set up, there’s no way not to see what happens at the end of “Together” as a colossal failure: Hannah fails to finish her book, leans on her dad and Laird and finally Adam for support, and is finally bailed out. But (and here’s my point) everything about the episode directs us to that failure. The sudden turn to romantic melodrama in the last minutes — the music cue that begins the final sequence is particularly jarring — is the only way Dunham could fail us as completely as Hannah is failing herself.
At Salon, Willa Paskin suggests we see Season 2 of Girls as an extended “reaction to the intense vitriol and passion directed at the first season,” which I think is right, and I would go further and say that “Together” was a reaction to the gun-to-the-head pressure that even the expectations of the show’s admirers must impose on its creator. Paskin thinks Hannah has gotten too crazy, and that this reflects a failure of nerve on the part of the show, which has “made itself over into the type of story our culture is comfortable seeing 20-something women appear in — the catastrophe memoir.” Other critics, similarly, have noted that Hannah’s downward spiral over the past couple of episodes sets up the episode’s questionable Big Rescue Scene: “Between this and Silver Linings Playbook,” Molly Lambert acutely notes over at Grantland, “it's been an unstoppable year for romanticizing mental illness with happy endings that pretend you will be magically fixed as soon as you just find someone to love you.” But Hannah’s craziness, if you want to call it that, also thematizes the anxiety that attends the end of a TV season: not only will the story have to be brought to an end somehow, but all of the narrative promises that haven’t been made good will come back to haunt the storyteller.
We may have been too distracted by its recent stylistic inconsistencies to notice, but Girls has now completely reset to where it was at the start of the first season: the show’s two primary couples (Hannah and Adam, and Marnie and Charlie) are back together; and the never-entirely-convincing union of Ray and Shoshanna has been (thankfully) voided. Jessa is AWOL again, presumably to mysteriously reappear at the beginning of Season 3, as she did in each of the two previous; her only appearance in the finale is via her outgoing voicemail message. When Marnie enters Hannah’s bedroom to check on her, she sees the single sentence Hannah has managed to produce: “A friendship between college girls is grander and more dramatic than any romance.” She smiles, but then leaves, underlining the point that Hannah has failed to tell this story, in part because she’s failed to maintain the friendship. The return of the central couples, too, signals (guiltily, as it were) that the show has abandoned this theme, or mislaid it. Paskin points out that the last time even three of the four girls were in a single scene together was in episode 4; when they do get together, it seems, the topic of conversation is frequently Adam or Charlie. Is Girls failing the Bechdel test?
One of the frustrating things about the show all along has been the way it relentlessly regresses, undoing any change or growth its characters seem to have come by. One could say that this brings it closer to a traditional sitcom than the long-arc dramatic shows that HBO is famous for and that Girls is usually compared to and classed with. Maybe development is not the point? “Together” was not a particularly terrible episode of Girls — for me, all of the episodes Dunham has directed stand head and shoulders over those directed by others, and this one was no exception — but it was a disaster as a season finale. And the fact that it was such a disaster was probably the most interesting thing about it. The sense of culmination that the simple fact of a hiatus imposes makes it hard not to judge it more harshly, more coldly. Dunham must know that. In context, taking into account both the opening of the episode and the series as a whole up to this point, I have to think that she wants us to keep it in mind.
How does your body know not to stop breathing?
SEASON FINALES can’t but make one think of season arcs — how did it start, how did it end, what happened in the middle — and to consider the narrative trajectory of Girls Season 2 is to make oneself dizzy. As Lili begins in her insightful post on the end of this season — “I went to sleep and when I woke up Girls was a romantic comedy” — the show has been if anything sporadic with its storyline, not to mention how it toggles between different genre codes. But genre dictates story, and the romcom ending of “Together” means heterosexual lovers partnering up, female friendships be damned. Was this finale a failure, as Evan explains?
“Together” might as well have been “Back Together” or “Together Again” (or even “Together, Again?”) and something about the title suggests stasis, but what we saw on screen was unsettling. I suspect that “Together” was so unnerving because its attempt to reach equilibrium was so aggressive as to send us, as Evan notes, back to where we were in Season 1. Girls has been testing its audience’s confidence this season, but it has always been in the direction of disavowing traditional form, of pushing forward, even if sometimes in strained and impatient jolts. (Lili’s comment about the romcom ending happening in the middle of the finale episode reminds me that “One Man’s Trash” — the bottle episode in aesthetic imitation of a Nancy Meyers film where Hannah lives out her romcom fantasy — is the fifth episode of this ten-episode season.) I would call the fantasy in “One Man’s Trash” traditional in a sense — except for its ending, not to mention how the episode doesn’t end the season either. Evan is right, I think, to place different weight on the failure and collapse of “Together” because it is the finale; and it has the drive of not just a season finale, but that of a series finale. Here is the classic together again ending, just in the nick of time, mounting orchestral soundtrack and all — except, how exactly is time measured here (if all the real deadlines, Hannah’s draft and all, have already been deserted)? With Adam’s sweaty self lunging through Brooklyn, the whole scene seems literally orchestrated to give a sense of urgency that might be dramatic, yes, but not melodramatic — because it's lacking that necessary melodramatic element of being too late, of retrospective pathos. In this finale ending, nothing really feels saved — “I was always here,” says Adam; we as viewers know that, and casual FaceTimer Hannah probably did too — and even the drama feels manufactured, as the camera pulls back and Adam’s back stands framed in Hannah’s bedroom.
How does this sit with us? If Girls was working toward a kind of emotional ending that gutted us past all the winking surrounding it, I’m not sure it passed my love test. I was left increasingly skeptical; Adam hulking around in his apartment not far from my mind when he scooped Hannah up in an act of utter masculine protection.
There is something in Hannah’s voice that comes out when she wants to be babied that I’ve noticed since “The Return” episode from the first season, when she approaches her parents at the airport. Her voice rises in pitch and becomes almost cutesy, you might even say manipulative, whether you find it obvious or not. For a while I debated whether this was Dunham’s uneven acting, or whether Girls was just being on the nose about Hannah’s intonations when she’s in helpless or pleading mode. This episode, she does it not only with her dad, but also with Laird — who, from the first (headless) appearance, I initially mistook to be Hannah’s dad because of their similar green shirts.
To Laird, Hannah says in her most babyish voice while lying on the floor: “I’m sorry, and I didn’t think of you as a person, and I understand now that was wrong.” As Hannah closes her eyes, hugs herself, and turns her head to the side as though to sleep (how unconfrontational!), Laird responds, in a very level, very adult-like way, “Well, thank you, apology accepted.” And scene. Lesson learned?
Hannah’s cooing voice comes back during FaceTime with Adam and even their kiss (that we barely see, Adam’s bare back is in the way) that concludes the finale couldn’t erase the image of “Adam, Manly” cradling a Hannah that can barely move from her bed. It might be a romcom ending, of sorts (the fun. song certainly doesn’t help), but it’s also one of such regression — “Together, Again” — that it wasn’t romantic or erotic (the haircut doesn’t help), but desperate.
That isn’t to say that I see Hannah’s need, and cry, for help as illegitimate, irresponsible, manipulative, or even childish, per se, as she’s had a pretty rough few days and is spiraling, as she says, out of control to the point that grasping at straws like Adam-as-hero seem wholly believable. She’s already reached out to her parents, to Laird — someone she thought she had the upper hand over — as well as to Jessa (perhaps knowing that she wouldn’t respond, and so could throw a tantrum at without fear of reciprocal criticism; regardless, I loved the rage over “anorexic Marnie” and “fucking Shoshanna” safely transmitted to a recording database that will never be opened). On the other hand, the look of delight as she tells Adam “you really don’t have to do this” when he’s sprinting toward her apartment is clear, and also suggests just how much Hannah wants a hero — a male one, a romantic one, specifically — at this moment. As the music indicates, the euphoria of this union is just that — a moment — and will only sustain a girl so far, as last season’s finale, and I think this season’s as well, suggests. Perhaps it’s because Adam will embrace Hannah without judgment, but during this scene I kept thinking of an earlier one where Hannah rejected Marnie’s help. Did Marnie want to do as Adam did and remove the covers, to take that extra step and coax her out of hiding? When it comes to Hannah, maybe looking under the bed isn’t so ridiculous.
Trying to become a fully formed human,
ON SUNDAY, Lena Dunham tweeted that her boyfriend’s band (the omnipresent fun.) would be providing the song that would end that night’s season finale. Seeing this news, I immediately posted on Facebook that, if Sunday’s episode ended with the anthem “We Are Young,” I quit. What I meant by that is that, knowing what I knew about the themes/innovations/stumbles/preoccupations/plotlines of Girls’ second season, if it ended on the note of fun.’s life-affirming, shout-out-loud, crescendo about seizing every moment and mentally Instagramming all your memories and hugging the shit out of every mistake because, no matter how you feel today, these are the best days of your lives, I would not be interested in the show anymore. Now, don’t get me wrong, “We Are Young” is an excellent, if overplayed, song. And far be it from me to stop anyone from being life-affirming.
It’s not that I have a problem with fun. or fun.’s message — though, now, from the perspective of a Microsoft Word user, the capitalization and punctuation of their band name creates some vexing challenges — it’s that Girls is not fun. If Lena Dunham had tweeted that a fun. song would be used to end a season of How I Met Your Mother, I would have posted nothing on Facebook. Tonally, that show supports it. But Girls is not life-affirming — at least not in the Eggersian sincere register that a fun. song would denote — and I posted that statement because there was no way I could imagine a show that had turned as dark, opened as many wounds, erected so many rickety relationships, broken so bad as Girls this season could possibly, within the space of one episode, earn the operatic catharsis of literally any fun. song. Honestly, I’m not sure it could have even earned a repeat of “Dancing on my Own” from the first season. Girls spent nine episodes stripping the skin from every one of its characters, and the notion that Dunham might be planning to put them all back together in one finale struck me as an act of Horvathian procrastination. No way that could be the plan. No way!
Luckily for those of us here at Dear Television, Dunham got off on a technicality. No “We Are Young,” but my worst fears were — as has been elaborately and incisively demonstrated by Lili, Evan, and Jane — confirmed. Lili captured what I think is the crux of what felt so wrong about this finale when she said: “…this is an episode where Girls (the show) and Hannah (the character) are on opposite arcs.” Evan’s argument that this was a strategic failure was heartening to my desperate soul. And then Jane quickly dashed that glimmer of hope by pointing out how much Hannah — and possibly Dunham — seems to really, really desire even a false sense of melodramatic resolution.
That, combined with the ill-fitting resonance of fun. at episode’s end, leads me to think that, fundamentally, this was an episode at odds with itself. If this season has stretched time with the bottle episodes in the middle or contracted it when returning to regularly scheduled programming, it has never felt like a world fundamentally broken by these experiments. The fabric of Girls felt pulled and pocked but never torn. Even and especially in “One Man’s Trash” — in retrospect, probably my favorite episode this season — we felt spatially and temporally outside of the diegesis, but, whether we believe it’s a dream or a vacation, it still felt like a coherent part of the world of the show. Whether it’s Hannah’s subconscious or simply a hidden pocket of Brooklyn, that brownstone was a part of Girls.
Despite all the trappings of home and all of our favorite or least favorite characters shuttling around, this final episode felt more foreign to me than that brownstone or Staten Island or even Manitou. If this were on NBC or CBS, we might say, The Network forced Dunham to slap a happy ending onto it. But we know that’s not HBO — though the recent cancellation of Enlightened might be testing our faith in that organization. And no matter how many Gawker articles try to show us the paunchy or wrinkled dudes who are really pulling the strings at Girls, I am reluctant to pass this off as Apatow’s influence (though he did co-write the episode). Let’s remember that Apatow also co-wrote Hannah’s return to Michigan last season, which was unsettling an episode as I can imagine, and, simply as a principle, if we’re resisting the urge to attribute every good thing that Girls does to the middle-aged man in charge, I think we ought to let Dunham accept the blame for the show’s mistakes too.
Anyway, this episode didn’t have OCD, it had split personality, and, like Jane, I’m perfectly willing to believe both personalities belong to Lena Dunham. And, because, as I noted in a recent Questionnaire, I love critical listing, I’ve decided to catalog elements of this episode that belong to the two halves: Girls and fun. Girls.
In summation, I don’t think this episode was a cohesive failure. I think it made a number of strong moves, and even, in Laird’s speech, some brave ones. It failed, rather, to live up to the show’s own standard of mercy. And, by that, I mean that it showed mercy at all. The elements of an episode we would have been happy with exist on film, yet each of these elements was progressively drowned out by a rising musical score and bullying montages and Mindy Project levels of artifice. This season has experimented formally, but it hadn’t brought the foundation of the show into question in this way. If the point is for all of these romcom clichés to work as an alienation effect, then huzzah, you’ve done it. But the troubling thing is that this doesn’t feel aggro-, it doesn’t feel radical. It feels boring, and disappointing, and somehow, deep down, what everybody wants.