APRIL 24, 2017
This week on Dear Television: Jane Hu, Lili Loofbourow, Phil Maciak, and (soon) Evan Kindley discuss “Latching,” the series finale of HBO’s Girls.
by Phil Maciak
Thank you, Lili, Jane, and Evan, for joining me here in this bathroom to write about the final episode of Girls ever. This show was our first subject as a TV club, and it seemed fitting that we get the band back together—our live jazz quadrangle—to say goodbye to this intermittently wonderful, intermittently awful television program. So, here we go!
I’ve watched this whole season with a sense of foreboding. I’m on record that I thought the most recent season of the show had been a really serious return to form, and that that late boost of energy and creativity and focus was a good sign heading into the final season. Two of the series’ best standalone episodes—the one with Marnie and her ex-boyfriend Charlie and the one with Hannah and her ex-nemesis Tally—came in the back half of the fifth season, so it was with optimism that I approached this year’s final batch. And the first couple of episodes of season six were likewise strong. The opener with Riz Ahmed was good even if it seemed a little like an unrehearsed cover version of some of the show’s more solid bottle episodes; the second leaned a little too heavily on an ill-advised oxy-addiction storyline, but it gave Ebon Moss-Bachrach (easily the best caricaturist among the cast) a worthy showcase; and then the third episode was the now-infamous “American Bitch,” which certainly earned all of its acclaim for being a canny internal rhyme with the second season’s now-legendary “One Man’s Trash” and for being an unusually direct and nimble engagement with a swirling contemporary issue.
Then we found out Hannah was pregnant.
I cannot overstate how not-on-board I am/have-been/forever-will-be with this plot twist. I have read the interviews that say Dunham had planned this ending for a while, and I am aware of the potential for a show that has been committed to Girls’ style of radical bodily exhibitionism to really take “pregnancy” and run with it. But it didn’t. It does, admittedly, make a certain amount of sense to end a show like Girls with a meditation on the concept and practice of latching. It pulls together a lot of the show’s favorite themes—dependence, co-dependence, independence, out-of-control bodily functions, physical discomfort, emotional discomfort, the uneasy boundary between physical and emotional discomfort, the tension between the biological fact of “growing up” and the psychological inability to do so, mothers and children, the idea of care and the reality of care work, Lena Dunham’s breasts—and so I get it. But, from the first announcement of Hannah’s blessed event, I had a lurking sense that the show was not built for it.
There’s been a tentativeness about the way Girls has handled Hannah’s pregnancy that I don’t associate with even the show’s worst episodes. This is a show that featured a cum shot, several borderline sexual assaults, a close-up frenulum piercing, a punctured ear drum, an ass-eating—Girls is not afraid of showing and embracing bodily extremes. Indeed, this is one of its most redeeming, if discomfiting, features, as Maria San Filippo recently argued on this site. And yet the extremes it went to with this pregnancy didn’t feel that much more surprising or insightful or even extreme than the ones that could be found in any PG-13 new-mom rom-com. We didn’t encounter anything in Girls’ final season that we couldn’t have encountered in Knocked Up or What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Hannah is sweaty in her apartment, her hormones are acting up, it’s awkward to have sex, a character in the finale says, “Nobody said this would be easy; nobody guaranteed this would be fun.” Really? Did Coldplay write this episode? Even the finale, with its depiction of what might have otherwise been seen as post-partum depression, dodges any actual engagement with that subject by explaining it all via Hannah’s already-existing neuroses.
That isn’t to say that media representations of pregnancy need to feature a Miracle of Life-level of graphic detail or some kind of blistering unheard-of wisdom, but it is to say that it seemed like Girls did not bring its trademark brazenness about bodies to bear here. Every joke and observation telegraphed a kind of conceptual uneasiness, or at the very least, alienation from the topic at hand. Lena Dunham never played Hannah Horvath as anything other than performatively pregnant; Girls has never seemed as though it were anything more than metaphorically interested in pregnancy. For an actress and a show so historically committed to bodily investment, this storyline felt strangely uninhabited.
But maybe that’s the actual problem: storyline. Or, rather, the problem is that this season is so encumbered by story at all. There’s a reason that the best of this show’s episodes are bottle episodes or episodes that break the serial structure of the show or, at the very least, episodes that strand a few characters somewhere. I have some quibbles with some of Kathryn VanArendonk’s picks in her ranking of Girls episodes, as any fan would, but her top ten is pretty spot on. And I think it’s worth noting that the top four are all bottle episodes, followed by five episodes (and the pilot) that all function, in various ways, as standalones. Girls has always been a stunningly good vignette show—we often compared it to Louie in the early Dear TV days—nestled within a profoundly mediocre serialized romantic comedy.
But maybe it needed that padding in order to reach its heights. Another way of saying this is that Girls has always always always been at its best when it pauses, when it steps out of whatever plot it’s got working. (Alison Herman makes a similar observation at The Ringer.) The show is, conversely, at its worst when it’s working through a THING THAT IS HAPPENING. There exists, in some parallel dimension, a version of this show in which Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner never pressured themselves into trying to come up with stories to tell across episodes, in which the plot never really twists, in which we spend time, every episode, with some arrangement of our available characters in the course of living their lives. There is a version of this final season that embraced Dunham and Konner’s extraordinary dexterity with the standalone episode format, that simply devoted one self-contained episode apiece to each of its regular characters—Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, Shoshanna, Adam, Ray, Elijah, Tad, Loreen, and then one last one back on Hannah—instead of trying to unfold a valedictory story. As good as Girls has been, that version of Girls is better, I bet.
The irony is that this final episode, “Latching,” is one of those standalone episodes (almost a bottle, but for Hannah’s brief visit to the doctor and her long pantsless sojourn into the night). And this makes its awkward execution all the more conspicuous. If you’d told me a year ago that the final episode of Girls was going to be Marnie, Loreen, and Hannah secluded in a house in upstate New York, I would have been thrilled. But, by the time we got there, the episode was so bogged down with the weight of this plotline, so stuffed full of expectation, so explicitly the payoff to a set-up rather than a payoff in and of itself that it never had a chance. Maybe what made those earlier bottles so good is that they had the kinetic energy of a movement away from plot, and that their insights could hang over the rest of the events of the season after time-out was called. There isn’t a lot of precedent on this show for such a bottle to be so crucially interwoven into the plot. And it feels less like a radical departure than a strategic mistake.
Not everything in the episode was bad. Loreen’s secondary conversations with Marnie (“I hate my best friend now”; “big diamond in her upper ear cartilage”) were gem-like Hannah’s mom moments, but everything the episode tried to do, every conversation freighted with final meaning fell flat to me. I’ve already alluded to the argument between Loreen and Hannah. This was a substantially more complex conversation than its Chris Martinesque pull-quotes would suggest, but, again, it didn’t feel specific enough to the show, or maybe it felt too specific to Dunham/Konner/Apatow’s disappointingly shallow reading of their own show. Have we traveled such a short distance from this series’ opening scene that this argument about selfishness, support, and motherhood is still the horizon of insight for Girls? Is the Teen of Christmases Past that appears later really the most revealing interlocutor the series could provide for Late Hannah? The depth of these conversations felt familiar because they’re the same ones these characters have been having for four years, and the implication that Hannah had achieved some insight from them is either fanciful or creepily, Judd-ly, biologically determinist. Hannah just had to ACHIEVE MOTHERHOOD in order to finally hear what characters have been saying to her with serial regularity since season one? This finale felt less like it was working through the issues of these characters as they’ve developed over time than that we were seeing a series still insecure about its own premise.
A lot has happened on this show, and, while a lot of it was amazing, I leave it now feeling fairly convinced that this show’s creators never fully exploited what they set up for themselves, that, like so many other series from Homeland to Lost, Girls’ writers had a fundamentally different understanding of what their show did well than their viewers did. That Girls ended with such a botched bottle episode seems fitting for a show that, like its protagonist, was always trying to figure out exactly what it was.
Things’ll get so much harder you won’t even remember this,
The Hannah Show
by Lili Loofbourow
I’ll always be grateful to Girls for being the original object we gathered round. It feels good to be back together mulling the deeper meaning of another cliffhanger of an ending—remember how hard we thought about that rom-com ending between Hannah and Adam in season two? The question then was: whoa, was this genre-defying show actually a romantic comedy the whole time? Now, it’s did the milk come out? It’s a final puzzle I’m not especially eager to solve. Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner have said they left what happens at nipple-level in the finale ambiguous on purpose, but, well … why? Unlike that chase scene with the fun. song in “Together,” which raised a million questions, this seems like a choice that lacks the pressure to sustain multiple readings.
As final scenes go, this one was sweet but a little deflating. It flopped, I think, because it latched onto a new character’s needs instead of dealing with the show’s many existing stakes. (Sorry, I’ll stop punning.) Look: Grover’s a cute baby, but I get little narrative satisfaction from knowing that he bonded with his mother. Neither am I all that interested in Hannah’s newfound ability to give, which seemed to be what that scene was telegraphing. For one thing, Hannah’s growth was demonstrated a lot more effectively when she took pity on Desi and bandaged his hand in “Hostage Situation.” That showed a Hannah capable of modes of generosity and empathy the Hannah of season one—who yelled at gentle Charlie not to hit them—could never muster. For another, Hannah’s selfishness is, as Phil points out, such old news that it’s very hard to feel very strongly about it.
Most importantly, though: this show is called GIRLS, not The Hannah Show. This turned out not to be the show about friendship we’d hoped it would be—and that Hannah hoped to be, judging from the one line we saw her actually write: “A friendship between college girls is grander and more dramatic than any romance.” Now, that turned out to be as false a promise as the “voice of a generation” stuff from the premiere. Still: no matter how unlikeable they became, the show trained me to care about the two women Hannah left on that front stoop, and about the other two women it left offscreen. Jessa’s moment with Hannah in “Goodbye Tour” was an unacceptable goodbye to Jessa; it only involved Hannah, and this is not just The Hannah Show. I wanted to see Jessa with Adam, maybe hating him a little. Or getting high. Or taking credit for his work at the premiere of his movie. Or whatever. I wanted to see Shoshanna on her honeymoon, looking out a window, ruffled and grim.
As for Marnie and Loreen: Allison Williams and Becky Ann Baker did transcendent work in that finale. That was an epic fight—I think I like it more than you did, Phil, although I agree that it wasn’t as specific as it could be. But it saddened me that the payoff was Marnie and Loreen’s bland and accepting demonstration of one-sided radical love. Their characters didn’t get any catharsis, and the epiphanies Hannah had on her pantsless walk were mostly limited to her POV. Girls does one-act plays so very well when it wants to, but this one didn’t measure up because it slightly misjudged the show’s center. Hannah is definitely first among equals in that ensemble cast, but the finale treated her like a straight-up protagonist.
All that said, I think I minded the pregnancy storyline less than you did, Phil. I also appreciated that an episode tackled the crazy-making challenges of breastfeeding, something which many friends have struggled. I agree with you, though, that “Latching” was ultimately pretty damn timid. This show has never been afraid to show us what’s happening at nipple-level, and I don’t see why it should start at the end.
Somehow, though, I don’t mind. That’s partly, I think, because while it is, as Phil says, a bottle episode, I’d argue that “Latching” is more epilogue than finale. And not just because Konner and Dunham have said so, but because it really feels like a different thing entirely.
Girls is indeed at maximum power when it does bottle episodes. The show never did seriality especially well (I’m hoping Jane can speak to that): What little growth there was happened mostly offscreen, and there was a tendency to check in on characters who were either infuriatingly unchanged on the one hand, or totally transformed through a kind of saltatory conduction on the other. (Hi Charlie!) But when Girls was good, it was great: episodes like “American Bitch” and “One Man’s Trash” are less episodes of a series than they are lovely one-act plays. The dialogue is tight and unexpected and brilliant, and the episodes have atypical momentum and catharsis.
That I think of the bottle episodes that way—as plays—really affects my reception. I’ll forgive a lot more stylized stuff in a play than I will in a serial narrative, and I’ll forgive a lot of looseness in an epilogue that I’d object to in a finale. Konner and Dunham say they thought of “Goodbye Tour” as the finale, and maybe that explains my dissatisfaction with it. (Hannah’s miracle academic job in Candyland will not stand.) “Latching” felt, by contrast, like the Deleted Scenes on the DVD; it felt to me like I was getting something extra.
I want to pause here to note how impressed I am with how the series handled some of its very loosest ends. I think we all turned on the show a little after that season two chase scene, which raised some absolutely gigantic genre questions, the answers to which would fundamentally transform our reception of the show—if an epilogue elicits a different response than a finale, a rom-com elicits a different response than a satire. My hope back then was that Dunham was parodying rom-com tropes while making us experience them at maximum power. I think this season suggests I was basically right about that; Adam rewrote Hannah as a manic pixie dream girl in his film, and the incredible wordless scene between Hannah and Adam as they realize it can’t work was perfect.
The trouble is that we’ve been waiting for years for that scene, for the series to finally show its hand. Force viewers to sustain their responses as provisional for too long and, exhausted, they’ll give up and forget to respond. For years, the show hasn’t quite wanted to tell us whether the milk is coming out or not, or whether the endings it’s showing are satirical or sincere. The result is that I don’t care very much anymore.
Still, I liked how carefully the show handled the messy Ballad of Hannah and Adam. I liked that Hannah resented her portrayal. I liked that Adam romanticized their past in ways that seriously conflicted with his own account of the relationship back when they were together. (I gathered some of his narratives together here.) I liked that Jessa’s artistic inclinations were fraudulent, and I liked how taken aback she was by the tenderness with which Adam portrayed a woman of whom he usually speaks with such contempt. My complaint is that the story is unfinished: There was so much for Adam and Jessa to resolve—or not—once he and Hannah parted, and we didn’t get to see them hash out any of it. I would have happily sacrificed Elijah’s audition to get a little more of that story. Or Loreen’s. Hear me, universe: Loreen needs a spinoff.
Despite all the ways I think Girls could have done some of its smart things more smartly and its white things less whitely, I’ll miss the shock of this show’s daring edges and odd ambitions and peculiar retreats. It’s good to be back and gabbing about it together. Phil, you made me sad with that summons to the bathroom for the summit in “Goodbye Tour”. I’m going to be the Marnie. I’m not ready to call it.
Who’s here? I’m here. I win—
by Jane Hu
Like Lili, I’ll always remember Girls as the show that brought Dear Television together, but it occurred to me that Girls was also the first television show I ever wrote about. Besides questions of Girls’s realism, relatability, self-critique—or even the synchronism of my being basically Hannah’s age and also living in Greenpoint circa 2012—is the fact that I grew up with Girls not so much as a, well, girl, but as a critic. Its seriality as a television show sustained this narrative beautifully: Girls was the ongoing, open-ended, uneven text that I constantly returned to, all the while adjusting my interpretive capacities, my critical convictions, my personal priorities. Throughout its run I was in grad school, took time off grad school and instead wrote about things like gerbilling, applied to another grad school, though what never changed was TV’s regular presence in my life. Reflecting on the finale, then, has never been so much a question of how Dunham’s show has come to speak to or for me, than how I’ve grown (if at all) to be able to speak about it.
What are the right questions to ask about Girls? These days, I’m working on a dissertation prospectus, and the most difficult—and crucial—aspects of the genre is deciding what kinds of questions one should and can productively ask about an aesthetic object. I’ve long stopped reading writing about Girls partly because of what seems like a distracting impasse between the critical concerns surrounding it and the show itself. Real-time commentary has, as we all know too well, focused on its micro-narrative and episodic adjustments, how accurately it renders its represented demographic, or its capacity to confirm or complicate its creator’s public persona. In particular, it seems that critics’ fixation on #girlssowhite has offered an easy way to ignore the many other things it does. What I wonder the most—and know least—about is the collective effort behind each episode and the multiple voices behind creative decisions. I don’t align with showrunner Jenni Konner’s desire to know “what Girls looks like without all the noise around it.” The noise seems important and telling. But I do wonder what Girls looks like when we bring the critical “noise” closer in conversation with the show’s own multiple (and often contradictory) creative and narrative priorities.
As Phil and Lili both observe, the show has a problem with plot. Its narratives entropically unfurl, short-circuit, over- or under-deliver, making it difficult to make heads or tails of anything but the more isolated bottle episodes. And not just plot, but as Lili specifies: characters get unevenly distributed as well. “Goodbye Tour” was certainly insufficient closure for Jessa, and nothing confirms the show’s final contraction into The Hannah Show than the fact that not only did Hannah not learn of Shoshanna’s engagement until the penultimate episode, but neither did viewers. But even if we look at Hannah (or Hannah and Marnie [or Hannah and Marnie and Grover (or Hannah and Marnie and Grover and Loreen)]), in the finale, there’s still the question of how The Hannah Show is a group effort between the episode’s writers Dunham, Konner, and Apatow.
Or, from another perspective, Girls is finally a collective endeavor and experience that gets winnowed down to and expressed through a single protagonist. If Girls concludes with Hannah as protagonist, then, it’s one that bears the weight of multiple creative agents behind it—it’s a protagonicity that is complicated by the male baby of color that is both product of and successor to Hannah (and Paul Louis and Dunham and Konner and Apatow). You get the picture. “Latching” is simultaneously an attenuation and expansion of Hannah as main character. It’s Girls ending with Boy. And knowing how much the plot of “Latching” was influenced by Apatow, I wonder how much of Girls’s conclusion in single motherhood is a funny way of resolving a millennial plot from the perspective of a Gen Xer. With the closing inclusion of baby Grover into the cast of Girls, we already get a hint at just how many generations to which the show might give voice.
Speaking of the complex divisions both across and within generations, last week a student asked me whether I watched Girls. (It took all of me not to ask, “Have you read my seminal essay about SNACKS??”) She was bringing it up in relation to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, and in particular the chapter where the journalist Jules incrementally narrates how he goes from profiling a female celebrity to almost raping her. The sudden turnaround of this moment—one from sympathy to horror—reminded my student of “American Bitch,” the celebrated Girls bottle episode from earlier this season. I thought it was a brilliant connection not just because of their similar affective twists, but at the level of content as well. The Egan chapter is directly troping on David Foster Wallace and melancholic masculinity, while “American Bitch” does the same in relation to the legacy of Philip Roth. Both are somewhat feminist retellings. Both are satirical while also deeply moving. The student and I spent the rest of office hours talking about the experience of reading Girls think pieces, of whether the pantsless teenage girl in the finale was a good actor intentionally playing a bad actor in order to amplify her annoyingness, about what it is Girls does.
More than anything, the interaction reminded me that Girls continues to allow me to think about the relationship between the popular and the academic, and I can only hope that with time, journalists will roll their eyes at academic TV criticism less frequently, while TV academics might hazard to join the real-time “noise” around shows more often.
In high school, a boyfriend’s mom once asked me to stop playing “Fast Car”—my then favorite song—on repeat in her kitchen.
But me, myself, I got nothing to prove,