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'Girls' Was a Great Show About Failure

The HBO series ended its run by emphasizing how much the four main characters struggle.

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold
17 April 2017, 1:45pm

Failure is the bread and butter of HBO's Girls. Other TV programs about women and friendship— Broad City, Sex and the City, even Orange Is the New Black—tend toward cheer and optimism, even when the subject matter is painful. But Girls had a bleak world view. There are plenty of "dark" HBO joints, but nothing hit home quite like Lena Dunham's creation. The Leftovers is apocalyptic; Game of Thrones, an overblown fantasy. Girls, by contrast, is horrifyingly mundane, not escapist or otherworldly (if frequently absurd), and never aspirational in the slightest. The series suggests ordinary friendships and ideals die continually, especially when you're young and still transitioning into a full-fledged person.

Millennials famously flail where their parents saw success. They earn less than baby boomers did, despite having more education. They are less likely to own homes, more likely to be crippled by student debt. In Dunham's original pitch to HBO, she wrote: "Between adolescence and adulthood is an uncomfortable middle-ground, when women are ejected from college and into a world with neither glamour nor structure." Dunham felt Sex and the City encompassed ripe womanhood, and Gossip Girl nailed bitter teenage rivalries, but the awkward in-between stage was undersold. Girls presented 20-something characters who were underemployed and overeducated, rarely found appropriate romantic partners, and probably wouldn't buy a nice home until the age of 60 because they couldn't afford it.

The ladies of Girls never strove for likability, which is the basis of their charm. Carrie Bradshaw and her gal pals were shrill, materialistic, or judgmental by turn, but they were also nice women who loved one another. They had good, satisfying sex with men, dumping boyfriends who didn't measure up (pun intended—they did not approve of tiny penises). The Girls girls, by contrast, never did anything we'd have liked them to. They stuck with loser guys for years, suffered through unpleasant intercourse, and grew to despise one another. Many viewers cringed to watch their messy lives unfold.

It wasn't cute-messy, like the stoner nonchalance Abbi and Ilana of Broad City exude, slogging through dead-end jobs with good humor because they have each other. Abbi and Ilana are static and predictable where the Girls characters are more convincingly erratic. Abbi and Ilana don't technically thrive, but everything always works out for them—whereas when the Girls girls falter, it's devastating. Their mistakes are nasty ones, like betraying someone who loves them or realizing they don't have the talent to pursue a passion long term. Hannah Horvath and her cohorts share more with Larry David or Louis CK—neurotic, narcissistic, socially bumbling, with a personal mantra of "I should have done better."

Girls emphasized its heroines' professional defeats. Marnie began as a curator but couldn't stay employed in the field. She flailed for a long time before starting a tepid musical duo with Desi. Jessa worked at a kid's clothing shop and played personal assistant to Beedie until she almost assisted in her suicide. Finally she seemed on track, announcing plans to become a therapist—but confesses in the show's penultimate episode that she dropped out of therapy school. "It turns out I wasn't as ready to help people as I thought," she admits to Hannah. Shoshanna was a student for several seasons, then went on dud interviews post-graduation and felt worthless, got work in Japan but was downsized. She rebranded Ray's coffee shop toward the end of season five but now seems intent on no further aspiration. And Hannah, of course, has failed many times as a writer: Her e-book wasn't published, she hated working at GQ, she left Iowa Writer's Workshop disgraced. She enjoyed teaching but wasn't well-suited to high school, to put it mildly. (Before quitting, she flashed the principal her vagina.)

Though the show's first season began with friendships intact or blooming, as the years wore on the connections wilted into acquaintances maintained out of shared history. Ever since the trainwreck Long Island getaway of season three, the foursome's mutual contempt has been apparent. Marnie and Hannah were best friends in college and roommates at the start, but now they have nothing in common. Jessa and Hannah were like sisters, but Jessa is dating Adam, so that tie has been severed. Shoshanna never had a profound connection with any of them (though she still hangs out with Elijah—who wouldn't?).

These women are doing no better on the romance front. Marnie never synced up with Charlie, Ray, or Desi, and she was continuously unfaithful or helping someone else to cheat. Jessa deceived her private ethical code by getting together with her friend's ex-lover. Hannah enjoys the platonic company of Elijah far more than she does any heterosexual partnership.

In the final few episodes of Girls, Dunham refused to mend irreparable wounds. She's written a story of millennial melancholy in gory detail: Friendships end. Careers don't pan out. Unlike the final episode of Sex and the City, in which the women promise to remain close, the core four of Girls are splitting up. Shoshanna is marrying a man she met too recently at a cupcake vending machine and has chosen her new pals based on their "purses and nice personalities." Jessa looks in the mirror and doesn't like the person staring back. Hannah watches as two fresh-out-of-college besties peruse candles in a shop, moving to New York with nothing but their bond as cushion, and she's sentimental, observing a new generation of girls who believe friendship lasts forever. Hannah knows better. Marnie is the lone soldier standing, hoping to remain Hannah's close friend and simultaneously fill the gaping hole in her own life. She moves upstate to help with Hannah's baby, as her singing career has gone bust—but then, in the finale, Marnie realizes she must find her own way elsewhere, and is once again left at an ambiguous crossroads.

Hannah has abandoned her ideals this season. Until now, she wanted to be interesting, strange, respected, published—but a mother? Old Hannah would shrug. While Carrie Bradshaw returned to New York from Paris to close out Sex and the City, Hannah drives away from New York while listening to Banks's dirge "Crowded Places." She's rebelled against her city-sensibility, her snobbery toward people who don't live difficult, artistic lives. And she's reconciled herself to a quiet rural path she never expected. She claims the city never made her happy, it's too hard to make a living, her baby needs peace. It all seems pretty sensible.

Will Hannah fail as a nurturer, too? That's the nice thing about motherhood: Nobody does it quite right. There's no turning back and scant opportunity for resignation. Flailing and penny pinching and being uncertain about a next paycheck is hard, though if you're alone it can sometimes seem romantic, or at the very least a good learning experience. But a state of joblessness, friendlessness, or hopelessness with a child depending on you is a nightmare. With motherhood, responsibilities morph and broaden. Last night's finale felt cautiously optimistic about Hannah's abilities: She struggles to get her baby breastfeeding, and a miniature triumph occurs at the episode's conclusion when the kid finally latches onto her breast. Little Grover doesn't "hate" Hannah, as she's foolishly assumed in the frustrating weeks pre-latching. He trusts her.

She might at long last be well-equipped for the adult life she's avoided, the one she glimpsed at Joshua's brownstone in season two's "One Man's Trash." No matter what, these characters continue trying, and tasting minuscule crumbs of victory. Hannah writes, Marnie sings (even if it's only in the car to Tracy Chapman), Adam and Jessa stay sober.

Failure is important because it destroys our childish notions of what life will be. This hurts, to be sure, but it also leads to other things—not necessarily bigger or better—but other. Girls celebrates that unknown other. Baby boomers may roll their eyes and hope millennials grow up more quickly, but Girls has normalized our regressive, dastardly inclinations. We'll get to growing up when we're good and ready.