When “Girls” premiered in April 2012, I watched the famous first episode while recuperating from a cold at my boyfriend’s apartment. Almost exactly four years later I watched one of the final episodes of season five from a hospital bed with my now-husband by my side—while our 2-day-old daughter was monitored in the NICU. That was last April.
Last Sunday, I watched the final episode with my husband, again, by my side; this time on our couch in Brooklyn as our healthy 1-year old slept peacefully in her room.
Motherhood means I have less time for just about everything that I used to enjoy, including quality television. But even though Sunday night dinner and HBO viewing parties are a thing of the past, taking 30 minutes to watch “Girls” is a pleasure I am happy to sneak in to my schedule. From the start, I was predisposed to enjoy “Girls” because it was created by and for women. While its insular world is not exactly the Brooklyn of my twenties, its look at the ways in which women cling to one another long after the expiration date of their friendships struck a chord.
Note, I said women, not girls. That’s even though, throughout the show, the four main characters struggle to accept their new responsibility as adults. Their behavior, which ranged from cringe-worthy to sociopathic, could be difficult to stomach. But over the course of six seasons, Lena Dunham and her crew demanded that viewers take seriously the flawed hopes and aspirations of young women who were far from heroic. Their messy lives were exactly the point. You don’t need to be a perky stereotype to deserve screen time. Love or hate the show, Dunham’s success with “Girls” helped pave the way for other stories (Issa Rae’s “Insecure” and Jill Soloway’s “Transparent” spring first to mind). Television has changed dramatically since 2012; so has society. But as “Girls’” final season unspooled, and I reflected on how much my own life had changed, I wondered if these solipsistic women would ever really change, too.
Then came the final plot twist: Hannah’s pregnancy. With hot tea in hand, I texted my friends who used to drink Malbec by my side as we watched early seasons of the show. “How are they going to play THIS out?” I asked. Watching Hannah take charge of her pregnancy and her career, I remembered how it felt to measure my life in weeks. I’d ride the subway to meetings wondering if I should reveal that I was going to be a mother. It was hard to keep the news a secret—my life was about to change forever—but learning I was pregnant made me recognize how important my career was to me.
Like Hannah, I hustled toward every opportunity that came my way. Watching her take charge of her future as she explained and defended her choice to keep her baby, I remembered how empowering and terrifying that time was. Seeing her take the job upstate (as unrealistic as it is to imagine that a writer with no book or graduate degree would land a full-time university job with benefits), I saw in her the same fearlessness that I tapped into during my pregnancy. When your life’s about to be turned inside out, why not say “yes” to choices that seem wildly out of character?
But what kept coming back to me again and again was how alone Hannah was. Leaving aside the obvious void created by the disinterest of her child’s father, Hannah had to carve out a new life for herself without any empathetic sounding board. With each episode, her alienation from her friends, her family, former lovers, even New York, expanded until she was left exactly the way she started. In bed with Marnie, stuck in a brittle, played-out friendship that neither could abandon.
In the finale, “Latching,” Marnie and Hannah were the last “girls” left, exiled up the Hudson with a baby. What echoed for me long after the episode ended was the ways in which communication had completely broken down. Maybe not to the degree experienced by this commune of three (defeated Hannah, terrifying would-be doula Marnie, and newborn Grover), but incoherence is a hallmark of the world of new motherhood. I cringed when Hannah’s doctor parroted answers that in no way addressed Hannah’s underlying concerns, because that aspect is so real for so many new moms.
The final episode hinges on breastfeeding. When Hannah talks about her anxiety about Grover’s inability to latch, her fears are dismissed by her doctor. Where, I wondered, was the other mom, the wise friend, reassuring Hannah that this chaos is normal in the newborn stage? A baby that nurses for six weeks then strikes is not uncommon! Rather than merely encourage her to keep pumping and keep trying to nurse, I wished someone would sit poor Hannah down and really talk to her.
But Marnie is not that person. The cracks in her polished veneer have grown, and Marnie’s behavior has shifted from petulant to unacceptable and now, simply sad. They are both unable to see past themselves. When Hannah interrupts Marnie’s lingerie selfie photo shoot to thrust a crying Grover into her arms, she isn’t even looking at her best friend. By that same token, Marnie can only hear herself as she sings along to Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” even as Hannah repeatedly asks her to stop. Even outside the ambition and noise of New York City, none of these characters can make themselves heard.
Enter Hannah’s mother. Becky Ann Baker as Loreen (am I the only one who forgot that Hannah’s mother had a name… and then felt awful when she realized that?) is a voice of reason and the episode began to turn around once she arrives in the girls’ enormous, sad house. By forcing Hannah to face her issues, she drives Hannah out of the house, where she has a memorable run-in with a pants-less teen (Do teenagers still wear Abercrombie and Fitch?).
For me, this confrontation fell flat. I found myself antsy, thinking that this moment could have been used to tie up the show’s loose ends: FaceTime with Elijah, meeting Hannah’s new colleagues, a visit from Laird and Sample, the delivery of frenemy Tally’s new book. Instead we were subjected to a meta conversation about when to wear one’s big girl pants, and when to hand them over to someone else—a flat epiphany about motherhood.
Yet ultimately, I was glad that the series ended, alone, with Hannah beginning to come to terms with motherhood. Even if it did feel somewhat pat—the baby latches at last!—early motherhood’s zeniths are really like that. For me, pregnancy was a nine-month lesson in patience, while new motherhood became a practice of celebrating the small victories, whether they were hard-fought or flukes.
So it was moving to see Hannah experience such a victory, too. I’d like to hope that after this moment, Hannah starts to listen to herself, rather than the competitive voices in her mind, holding onto her confidence between victories. In a way, I loved that in the end Marnie gave her the lullaby that might have done the trick. Like their friendship, the show was flawed and sometimes awful, but it had transcendent, generous moments.