Girls just concluded its six-year run on HBO. I reviewed the finale here, and I got to speak with Lena Dunham and her co-showrunner Jenni Konner about the conclusion, why bathrooms were such an important part of the show, why everyone but them hates Marnie, and a lot more, coming up just as soon as I keep a room like in the movie Room…
How did you decide on the way you were going to end the series, and how many other ideas did you have over the years before you landed on this one?
Dunham: Not a lot. I would not say we were swimming in them.
Konner: No. And Lena always wanted to get Hannah knocked up at the end.
Dunham: I was pretty focused on it, and everyone was like, “Okay.”
Why did you want Hannah to be pregnant at the end?
Dunham: Honestly, it was probably from an early reading of The Heidi Chronicles, if I really have to examine it. But it felt to me, always, like there was some kind of maturation that wasn’t going to come necessarily from work or a romantic relationship that was going to find Hannah. It felt like it was part of the grande lineage of a certain kind of writing, once again pointing to The Heidi Chronicles. You have a woman who hasn’t been able to figure out these certain areas of her life, yet still takes on this incredible challenge is something that’s really appealing and it also doesn’t have to be neat and tidy. A pregnancy is only tidy and rom-com-ready if you let it be that way but it’s actually the messiest thing in the world, and so it gave us so much for other characters to respond to and it gave us such a clear insight into her fears and where she situates herself.
Konner: I also think that, there’s been so much of like, are Hannah’s stakes real? How high are they really? The job, the boyfriend, whatever. And all of a sudden, it’s something you can’t take back. You can’t quit that job. And so it’s putting Hannah into her first super grown-up situation.
I like that the show is bookended: the first scene of the series is her with her parents being immature and complaining about them cutting her off, and the last real scene is her telling the girl who she runs into that this is what a parent is supposed to do. After all this time, she understands what the job is.
Dunham: I know. And we really struggled in that last episode with coming up with how you’re gonna show that she learned something in a way that’s not completely clunky and completely like an Afterschool Special. I can’t think of how many drafts we did of whatever version of Hannah’s away from the house encounter she was gonna have.
Konner: There were so many iterations. Like, there were naked hippies in a lake.
Dunham: I remember Judd (Apatow) just wrote back like, “Nudists? Really?” He was just like, “No.”
Konner: Yeah. We were just trying to find the vaguely elegant way to show that transition for her. But in the end, that girl we cast was so great and she was like some weird Paul Thomas Anderson find.
Was there ever a point where the two of you and Judd considered the idea that Hannah and Adam might actually get back together for real?
Dunham: No, we really didn’t. From the second season we were like, “I can’t believe everybody thinks they’re supposed to be together. Is it not clear to everybody else that this is a really, really bad idea?” That these people have mostly caused each other (pain). I mean every relationship that you’re obsessive about has it’s moments, and it’s actually because of that weird mix of bitterness and connection. But the fact is is that they were always hurting each other and we also just never felt that Hannah’s end was like, “I finally got the guy who was my fuck buddy when I was 23!” That doesn’t feel super self-actualized, so it would be funny because the audience would be like, “Hanna and Adam are my one true pair, that’s my platonic ideal of love,” and I would be like, “I want to get together with you and talk this trough with you.”
In that episode, the actual breakup, almost all of it is done in silence. Lena, do you think that’s something you could have pulled off as an actress at the start of the series?
Dunham: Fuck no. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to pull that off. Judd wrote that. That was a full Judd. He sat down, he explained it. I remember saying to him, “That’s beautiful, and I have absolutely no idea if I’m capable of it.” And that’s one of the most exciting and scary things that can happen to you when you’re acting, it’s like really until it was happening and until the scene was done, I had no idea whether it was going to happen and whether it was going to read. I just had to trust the process and trust that once I was in the place and once I was looking at Adam, and Adam is such an expressive actor that I have a very emotional reaction to watching him when I’m not in a scene with him, so just trying to tap into that. But I just remember Jenni being very, you know, sensitive and quiet and coming over.
Konner: Everyone, the whole crew that night was so moved. We knew it worked from that moment.
Dunham: And I remember, Jenni, you’d never given me such quiet notes. Not like she can’t control the volume of her voice but, like, these were just really sensitive, quiet notes.
Konner: I’m a big yeller.
People bring this expectation to the show: it’s the four girls in the poster, it’s this group of four friends. But the four of them are almost never in scenes together, and you get to this moment in the penultimate episode where they’re in the bathroom one last time and it’s obvious that none of them really want anything to do with one another. How did you decide that this is where you were going to bring the group for their one last stand?
Konner: It’s funny actually because that was scripted in the middle of the party and we were blocking it that way. And that bathroom, by the way, is a fucking nightmare to shoot in. It is the space of a tiny New York bathroom, we didn’t build it big to shoot it small. You would be upset if that was your bathroom in your apartment. We’ve had more scenes in bathrooms I’d like to say than like any show ever, except for maybe a home renovation show, and even then they don’t like to stick in the bathroom much. And we were like, “You know what, we have to set this in the bathroom. It just is so poetic for us because so much of Girls has taken place in bathrooms.”
Dunham: It was funny: the day before, we shot the moment where Marnie was like ”we’re all going to have a chat.’ And we weren’t sure if shooting in the bathroom was going to work, and we thought it could honestly be too much of a disaster, it might be too small. So we shot two versions, one where Marnie was like “we’re all going into the bathroom,” and one where she was like “we’re gonna stand right here in the living room.”
Have you even kept track of how many scenes over the years featured all four of them together?
Dunham: I’m pretty sure it’s 12. And I know that because I have OCD and I don’t care for the number 12, so I was like, does it have to be 12? But I think it’s 12 and I think that shocked the bejesus out of all of us. Especially considering the level of intimacy of the relationships that we’ve all developed as actors. The idea that we’ve only had 12 scenes where we were all, like, truly a posse is pretty insane.
Konner: They’re not even in the same place the first season until episode 5.
Dunham: Yeah. It takes a long time.
How did you decide that it would be Marnie in this last episode going upstate with Hannah, as opposed to any of the others?
Konner: We always said that they were the real love story.
Dunham: Yeah, if anyone’s gonna try to pull something insane like that off, it’s gonna be the two of them. For better or worse, their love is obsessive and true.
Konner: And Shoshanna doesn’t even really like any of them, so that wasn’t gonna happen.
Dunham: Episode nine is really about Hannah realizing that none of these friendships are really friendships anymore. And then there’s that monologue, which made us laugh so hard where, where Allison’s just like “I win, I win friendship. It’s me. I did it.” It’s a really, really weird metric for what relationships are, but I remember when Jenni was directing that and she basically told Allison to act more like she’s just won the Olympics.
Would you say Marnie is the most misunderstood character on the show by the audience, or is it someone else? Jenni, you’ve passionately defended Marnie on a number of occasions, on Twitter and elsewhere.
Konner: I know. I love her. I love Marnie. I don’t know how people feel about her, but I guess she’s pretty misunderstood. But, hopefully this season is pretty redeeming. People were really, really moved, on Twitter at least, by her finally taking responsibility when she calls Desi and says, “You don’t owe me anything, this is my thing, I’m moving in with my mom, I’m taking responsibility for my own life’, and I think that was a very positive Marnie moment.
Dunham: Yeah, but Allison does tell me she gets a lot of people being like, “I hate you, you’re the worst, I hate to look at you.” But the reason people have such a passionate response to Marnie is because like, we all have a terrible fear of being the Marnie, which is the person who thinks they’re doing the loving thing, thinks they’re doing the helpful thing and is actually isolating the people around us. And I think you would be hard pressed to find somebody who didn’t have a secret and terrifying sense that that was themselves.
Konner: I definitely have never thought I was the Marnie, but I don’t want to break your vision.
Dunham: Actually, you know what, you would be the one person who I think would not have that. Okay, here’s how I’ll phrase it, and you may disagree with this. A big fear for me, and I think for a lot of people I know, but maybe not Jenni cause she’s no fool, is there being just a massive gap between how you see yourself and how other people see you. It’s uncomfortable to watch.
Konner: Right. But Hannah has that too.
Dunham: Hannah does, but she’s also just like, when she finds out how people see her, she’s like, “Cool!” She doesn’t care. If Marnie were to find out what the audience thinks about Marnie, there might actually be a suicide.
While we’re on the subject of sort of how people react, this may be shocking news to you, but people have very divisive feelings about your show.
Konner: Oh my God.
Konner: We wake up every morning to bouquets of flowers from America.
Are there ways in which the phenomenon of Girls overwhelmed the actual show that Girls was, in terms of the show that you were making as opposed to, “Is this really the voice of a generation?” or “What does what Lena Dunham said mean for X, Y and Z?”
Konner: We really tried to tune it out. That was the thing Judd always told us to do: don’t be tortured by what people’s response is. I always say Lena’s gravestone’s gonna say, “She read the comments.”
Dunham: It’s literally something I only do when I’m feeling extreme self-hatred. Like, I’m already having the worst day in the world, what can I do? Oh, I guess google myself or search myself on Twitter. I’s a shocking move when I do it. But I also think we have this amazing thing where, by the time that people started reacting to one season, we were always deep at work on the next. And so the fact that we have this constant relationship to the work really insulated us in this nice way. By the time people were having some strong and enraged feeling about Hannah, we were off doing something else with her. And also, Jenni’s always said that she just felt lucky that the show stayed in the conversation. She was like, “Isn’t it kind of a miraculous thing that at no point over six years had been like, ‘That show’s still on?’” It’s a pretty amazing thing when it stays that vibrant.
And when you make an episode like the Matthew Rhys one for this year, is there a part of you knowing that there will be twelve dozen think pieces about this on Monday morning?
Konner: I think the Matthew Rhys one is the closest I’ve ever come to actually thinking that people will have opinions about this, because I’m usually so off on the things that people get upset about. But I certainly did not expect the reaction it got. That was one of the times I felt so lucky. We are in our final season, it’s the third episode and people really want to talk about it and that felt incredibly flattering.
The Matthew Rhys episode was followed by the return of Patrick Wilson as Joshua. And Carolyn comes back near the end. Was there anyone you wanted to bring back over the course of this final year who you weren’t able to?
Konner: Just everybody, theoretically. We would have loved to bring back everyone.
Dunham: We had fantasies about a way to weave in every single character who wasn’t dead.
Konner: We also didn’t want it to be like The Great Muppet Caper, just cameo after cameo after cameo. But Joshua made so much sense because we had this reason which was, what’s the worst way she could find out she was pregnant? It made story sense. But we definitely talked about who could naturally be hanging out on the streets of New York — that was something that we really wanted. And it was so beautiful because at our premiere, so many people who had done the show, second season, third season, showed up and still felt a relationship and a kinship to having been on the show and it was so nice to see that people felt like graduates of a weirdo high school that all wanted to come back to the reunion.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org