There’s a scene in the season-five finale of Girls — a finale that has been universally praised in the 48-plus hours since it aired — that serves as not only the most important moment in that episode, but maybe the most important moment of the series so far.
It happens when Hannah Horvath, the smart, self-absorbed mess of a twenty-something played by Lena Dunham, shares a tale of personal jealousy during one of The Moth’s story slams. She starts to speak about her recent realization that her friend Jessa (Jemima Kirke), has been sleeping with her ex-boyfriend, Adam (Adam Driver), and it becomes apparent instantly that Hannah — in front of all those people, with a microphone amplifying the voice she once declared the voice of her generation — is in her happy place. Hannah has a cocoon-to-butterfly metamorphosis on that stage, demonstrating a capacity to be many things she has not been during this fifth season and throughout the entire course of Girls.
She is confident and in control, despite the fact that she’s working without any notes to guide her. She sounds self-aware, noting that anyone who met her would never mistake her for being a chill girl: “You would be like, ‘Has she snorted Adderall in the last 60 minutes?’” But considering that it’s Hannah Horvath we’re talking about here, the most shocking thing she demonstrates is a desire to put her own bitterness on the back burner and do the thing that a bigger person — let’s say a grown woman, as opposed to a girl — would do. She reveals that instead of going ballistic on the friends who betrayed her, she left a fruit basket for Adam with a note attached that says, “Good luck. I mean it sincerely. In perpetuity, Hannah.” A short time later, we see that fruit basket sitting outside Adam’s door, so we know she’s not lying for maximum Moth effect: Hannah actually took hold of her own emotions and put someone else’s feelings ahead of them. This is what’s known, in common parlance, as growing up and — while it may sound obvious — it’s core to what Girls has always been about even though critics, social media and even the show itself have occasionally gotten derailed from that.
Since it debuted on HBO four years and five seasons ago, Girls has been story-slammed, in a manner of speaking, by naysayers for all kinds of reasons. Its portrayal of New York is too white and homogeneous. Its portrayal of sex is excessively gratuitous. Its characters, especially Dunham’s Hannah, are too whiny and narcissistic. The hunger to characterize Girls as Something, with a capital S — a window into the millennial mindset, a next-generation Sex and the City, an example of everything that’s wrong with gentrifying NYC — has sometimes distracted us from what it is and has been this whole time: a classic coming-of-age story. Hannah Horvath is a tree and finally, with only one more season of Girls to go, she’s actually growing in Brooklyn.
There are a lot of reasons why Girls’ bildungsroman qualities have been overshadowed, but one big one is that its characters have often felt stuck in the same emotional mud. When people say the characters on Girls are annoying, what they really mean is that they keep falling into the same traps and repeating the same patterns of inconsiderateness and self-involvement. Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna and Jessa may be getting older but they’ve often been stubbornly resistant to change. You can’t come of age if you’re not willing to engage in at least some movement.
As the show’s protagonist and altar ego of its creator, Hannah has historically been the worst offender in this department. Consider some of the things that Hannah has done: She picked a fight with her boyfriend Fran and put the students both of them were trying to teach in the middle of it; she flashed her vagina at her boss; she stole a bicycle; she yelled at the leaders of a cell-phone-free yoga retreat for asking her to stop using her cell phone; she bailed on a planned vacation with Fran then ran away from him at a rest stop; she got pissed at her friends who refused to drive all the way to said rest stop to pick her up; when Ray finally agreed to pick her up, she insisted on performing oral sex on him while he was driving and caused him to wreck his extremely expensive food truck. And these are only things that happened this season, guys! Every time Hannah appears to take a step forward in terms of maturity, she falls 87 steps backward, usually while assuming an awkward position and being at least partially naked.
But with one more season to go and just a handful of episodes left to finish the Hannah Horvath arc, Girls has felt more purposeful and clearer in its storytelling, particularly in the installments that closed out season five. In that Moth scene, for example, co-show runner Jenni Konner, who directed the episode, initially frames Hannah’s speech in a wide shot. Then very slowly, almost imperceptibly, Konner moves the camera closer and closer to Hannah until she’s taking up almost the entire frame. This magnifies the significance of the moment, and, perhaps, emphasizes that even at her most selfless, Hannah will always have a need for self-gratification (“I’m Hannah forever,” she says at one point during her story). It also brings us back to what has always been the center of the show — one young woman’s struggle to understand herself and her place in the world — while doing the opposite of what Girls has done narratively over the course of its run.
Even though the series has always been primarily about Hannah, it has slowly pulled back its camera over five seasons and explored characters beyond the four core women, showing us there are other people in Hannah’s orbit — Adam, Ray, Elijah, Hannah’s parents, even Laird and Caroline — who have complicated, worthwhile stories to tell. This is what you learn when you grow up: that life isn’t just about you and that other people’s problems weigh just as much as yours’. Again, this is classic coming-of-age stuff. With the last chapter of Girls a year away, we now know that, while she hasn’t changed and probably never will completely, Hannah has finally stared to evolve the way all characters in those kinds of stories do.
As weird as this sounds, that note Hannah leaves on Adam’s fruit basket made me flashback to a moment from another coming-of-age TV classic: The Wonder Years. For many, many reasons that should be obvious to anyone with a passing knowledge of the sitcom about young Kevin Arnold, The Wonder Years was a radically different show from Girls. (That said, if someone told me that Olivia D’Abo’s Karen Arnold is distantly related to Jemima Kirke’s Jessa, it would make total sense to me.) Nevertheless: in the season two holiday episode, there’s a moment when Kevin, who is starting to understand that the world is much larger than himself and his own needs, opens a gift from Winnie Cooper, the junior high love of his life. Inside the box, he finds a single four-leaf clover while the voiceover, provided by Older Kevin, says: “I learned from Winnie that in a world that changes too fast, the best we can do is wish each other merry Christmas, and good luck.”
In a less heavy-handed way, the season five finale of Girls shows us Hannah learning that same lesson. Sure, she’s much older than Kevin Arnold, and Daniel Stern isn’t narrating it all for us. But that good luck epiphany confirms that Girls has done something more enduring than merely giving us a portrait of millennial angst or a modern take on making it in a big city overrun with mobile phones and man buns. What it’s really been showing us are Hannah Horvath’s wonder years.