Why was this the best ‘Girls’ season in years?

When Girls began its fifth season, I feared it was struggling at least as much as its characters in the transition from carefree youth to mature adulthood. The early episodes had their moments, particularly our first glimpse of Shoshanna's new life in Japan, but the spark of the series' first few seasons wasn't quite there as Hannah and her friends fumbled around with new jobs, new relationships, and new responsibilities.

(Season spoilers coming up just as soon as there's a pretty picture of me in the Financial Times round-up of books of the year…)

But sometime around either the fifth episode (split between Hannah going on a spa retreat with her mom and another Shoshanna Tokyo interlude) or the sixth (which somehow made a spotlight on the usually loathsome Marnie into one of the show's best episodes ever), that newfound maturity turned out to be a feature, not a bug. Over the next several weeks – including last night's season finale double-feature – Girls embarked on one of its most engrossing and poetic creative streaks, going back at least to the end of the second season. The characters rarely intersected en masse – the wedding in the season premiere was the only time the full cast appeared together – but stories of them solo (say, Elijah professing his love to the boyfriend who saw him only as a superficial fling), or in groups of two or three (Shosh returning to New York to turn Ray's coffee shop into a mecca for hipster-haters), turned out to be incredibly potent, and also satisfying as they began to get their acts together. Even Hannah ended the season healthier than she started, thanks to a surprisingly healthy encounter with old frenemy Tally (Jenny Slate, last seen late in season 1), which prompted her to finally go back to writing, and to make peace with the realization that her best friend Jessa and ex-boyfriend Adam were dating.

By the end of the finale – the first episode directed by Jenni Konner, who has long run the show with Lena Dunham – I felt the same magic I did back in Girls' earliest days, when I and the rest of America's TV critics confused and/or annoyed a lot of the nation's TV viewers by lavishing this very small and extremely divisive show with so much praise.

Earlier today, I got on the phone with Konner to ask if she could explain what made this season so special. Along the way, we also discussed why Girls can't more frequently do single-character spotlights like the Marnie episode, what it was like for her to see her co-worker Adam Driver play a Star Wars villain, how she feels about the show's upcoming sixth and final season, and more. 

Not to diminish the last few seasons, but this felt like a really special year of the show.

Jenni Konner: That's okay. Keep telling us!

Going in, knowing that you only had two seasons of the show left, was there anything that you and Lena and Judd (Apatow) did differently in planning things out?

Jenni Konner: Knowing it was going to end, I'm sure informed our process, and gave us higher stakes: Speak now or forever hold your peace. And knowing the vague idea we had of the way everything was going to end affected everything. But that being said, everyone keeps saying that (this was a great year), and I couldn't be happier at everyone's reaction, but I certainly didn't see it coming. But I never see anything coming.

Beyond knowing where you have to go to get to the end, the characters are also a lot older than they were at the start, which is a big deal at this stage of their lives. How does that affect the storytelling and the kinds of mistakes the characters can and can't make at this point?

Jenni Konner: Again, the stakes go way up. They are now too old to blow everything off and go, “Well, I'm still trying to figure it out.” No, no, you're a grown-up. You have to think about it. You have to think about health insurance and not just talk about thinking about it. The job you have starts to define you more, and the floating isn't as charming. It makes people very anxious, not knowing exactly what they're doing. I think they're more careful about their choices – Hannah not as much as the others. But I do think when she broke up with Fran, that's sort of Hannah gets her groove back. That's how she gets back to writing. Hannah was making some choices based on how easy things were, and how Fran seemed like the kind of guy she should be dating. She was trying to get on track, having a normal job, and it just didn't work out for her.

Hannah going down on Ray in the middle of the coffee van was maybe not one of the smarter choices a character made this year.

Jenni Konner: A hundred percent, but I was surprised that people were more shocked by that than other things she did this year. She also flashed her boss in his office, she slept with the yoga instructor at the retreat, even though she's probably not gay. She made a lot of bad decisions. That's what I mean: Hannah, more than most, is still going for stuff that the others might not go for.

But how does that affect the storytelling, when you go from having four characters who are all screwing up to varying degrees at the same time, to the other three starting to get it together, and at least for most of the season, Hannah is still being Hannah and doing stupid things?

Jenni Konner: She's doing stupid things, but she's also, on paper, doing best. She's got this boyfriend, who's so great and so nice. And she's got an actual job, and she's good at teaching. So it became this idea for Hannah of the tension with her being, maybe the stupid choices are the better choices for Hannah.

Ray might disagree with that.

Jenni Konner: Ray would disagree with anything I'd say. 

All the characters are at the wedding together in the premiere, and that's the last we see of them in one location. They're getting to a place in their lives where, even beyond something like Jessa and Adam dating, these people wouldn't see each other as much. How did that change the storytelling when it's no longer this quartet of friends continually coming back together.

Jenni Konner: I would say that it kind of never was this quartet of friends. Even the first season, we didn't show them all together in the same room until episode 5. We rarely do that. I think we had them at brunch once. We've been trying to tell these stories in ways that felt real to us. They don't see each other that much. And as they get older and get more responsibility, they see each other less and less. And so Hannah, yes, has this good reason not to see Adam and Jessa for sure, even though they're so often forced to be in the same space. But in terms of the other ones, it's getting realer: this idea that no one has that kind of time anymore. You see your roommates, and maybe see someone else at one event, but for the most part, they're not going out to dinner altogether. All of their friendships are structured really differently. There's not really a basis to get together, aside from this unnatural bridesmaids thing, which is how every bridesmaid scenario is anyway. It's usually not a group of friends. It's four or five of the bride's friends, some of whom know each other, and a cousin, and…  That beginning was supposed to be, “Is this the craziest group of friends? Should they be friends?”

Two of the episodes that got very strong responses were the Marnie episode and the first of the Shosh in Japan episodes. Sometimes you do episodes where you're juggling the whole ensemble, and sometimes you do these single-character pieces. Is it easier to do those, or more satisfying to do those? Or is it more difficult if it's just going to be Allison Williams on camera for the whole half hour?

Jenni Konner: I think those are harder to write. It's a bigger responsibility to take on. But I always find as a viewer that it's really rewarding. It's a treat, like an Easter Egg in the middle of the show. I've always liked those episodes a lot. And they're really fun to make. We made a short film. That's what that Allison piece is. It doesn't even look or feel like Girls. It feels like a different short film that Richard (Shepard) directed, which Lena wrote in a fever dream like she did the Patrick Wilson episode.

I was going to bring up “One Man's Trash,” because that was the first time you really did that. Those always tend to get a big response – not always a positive response, because nothing you do ever gets 100 percent positive response.

Jenni Konner: (laughs) God, no!

But could that be the model for a season of a show? Or does it only work because you do it sparingly?

Jenni Konner: I don't think it could be the model for the season. I think it only works if you do it one or two times. That being said, it could be an anthology system for some other shows. But the truth is, Hannah is so defined by her friendships that it would have to be all-Hannah, and then a little of the others. I don't see how we'd do it.

And many of the ensemble episodes were great, too.

Jenni Konner: The other one that Richard directed, that Sarah Heyward wrote (“Hello Kitty”), was incredible. She spent so much time researching Kitty Genovese and writing the play and getting it all down.

When you're a polymath like Lena, you tend to get more credit for the writing or the directing, but what she does as an actress in that episode when Hannah realizes what's going on with Jessa and Adam is pretty spectacular.

Jenni Konner: I know. It's so great. I remember when they figured out how they were going to shoot it, I went, “I hope you guys can pull this off!” And they really did.

You directed your first episode of the show this year. How did that change the way you actually saw the show as you were preparing to do it?

Jenni Konner: It's funny. I started getting like our other directors are: really pushy about the script, even though I was one of the writers! I was like, “No, I want this scene to be this, and I want to shoot this here.” It was a lot of selfishly finding opportunities to be visual.

But there was nothing unusual that you hadn't realized about the show's visual style over the previous four years?

Jenni Konner: The thing I didn't realize was how much I would like it, to be honest. I thought I was doing all of the jobs in TV that I wanted to do, because I'm writing and I'm working close with the actors. You've seen us work before: we're in there all the time, giving suggestions and having performance notes. I thought, “Oh, that is completely satisfying to me. I'm already doing those things. And then when I actually did it, I realized how different it is to add the visual element. And I really enjoyed it. I really had fun thinking of it in that way. Like how we were going to shoot the fight scene, that was weeks of prep, and rehearsals, and figuring out how to shoot that. We landed on wanting to shoot it swinging back and forth like someone's filming it on their iPhone; that came out from us filming it on our iPhones during rehearsal.

That's the first time in a while we've seen Adam be dangerous. For a long time on the show, he's been eccentric but goofily lovable. How long had you been talking about the idea that the other guy was still underneath it all?

Jenni Konner: I thought, “Is there any way they don't wind up like Sid and Nancy?” They are both so self-destructive and so destructive. That scene was interesting, because it was working hard to find a balance where it could make you laugh and was kind of insane, and scary, but but you weren't scared of one more than the other. I wasn't worried Adam was going to hurt her, any more than I was worried she was going to hurt him. That was important for me, to find ways to make sure that she never seemed threatened more than he is.

Was this season shot before or after The Force Awakens came out?

Jenni Konner: Before.

So you haven't yet dealt with production featuring Star Wars star Adam Driver.

Jenni Konner:  Not only that, but he wouldn't tell us if he was a bad guy. He wouldn't tell us anything! We found out when you found out.

What it was it like watching the Adam you've known all these years be up on the screen Force-choking people?

Jenni Konner: First of all, it was easier for me than for my 9-year-old son, who did not take it easy. That was a tough transition for him. Literally, every performance I will ever see Adam do, I will always be surprised and excited, but never actually surprised that he can do anything in the world. If someone told me in a month that Adam Driver actually was the first human to fly, I would be like, “Yeah, okay, I buy it.” He just literally feels like he can do anything. His talent is so massive. Nothing surprises me about him in that way, but it's hysterical and so fun to see him in a whole other world.

I don't want to know how Girls is going to end, but in its broad strokes, what is this last season going to be about?

Jenni Konner: Today, we had our first table read. There were four scripts. it was very sweet and bittersweet, beginning of the end. Heartbreaking but lovely. I almost think of it as a continuation of season 5. It's like a two-part series finale that is two seasons, I think. It feels very organic. We always were talking about the end this entire year. When we plotted out season 5, we were talking about the end. And now as we plot out season 6, we're still talking about the end. It feels like 5 and 6 are very very deeply tied together.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com