It’s unusual, deep into a TV show’s run, for it to reinvent itself in a way that not only feels new, but wins over viewers who were ready to leave it behind. That’s what happened with Girls’ fifth season, which featured a number of gorgeously directed episodes (like the immersive “Japan”) and moving single-character moments (like Marnie reconnecting with Charlie for a day spent exploring the city). For a show I have often disliked but keep returning to, it felt like a reward for sticking with it. The girls felt like they were growing up — just a little bit — and the show’s aesthetic had matured alongside that notion.
Season 6, the show’s last, feels more like a regression both in story and style. The show has long given up on the notion that its four leads — Hannah (Lena Dunham), Marnie (Allison Williams), Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) and Jessa (Jemima Kirke) — were actually friends or view each other with anything but contempt. There are some issues of co-dependence (with Hannah and Marnie) and that of family (Shosh and Jessa are cousins, which is easy to forget), but the four certainly aren’t tied together with any actual affection for one another. In the first episode back, Hannah muses to a surf instructor (played by Rogue One‘s Riz Ahmed) who makes a great, brief addition to the cast) that she knows her friends only by what they hate.
As such, the girls tend to spend very little time together onscreen, which in Season 5 provided for some excellent character-centric episodes, the best of which didn’t revolve around Hannah. In Season 6, the focus is back on her, and in the third episode, on her alone. It’s not to the show’s benefit. If you’ve stuck with Girls this long, there’s a weary acceptance at this point of Hannah’s victimized self-obsession, although there is something to be said about how Hannah is always completely herself. But then there’s Dunham’s insistence on making sure we’re always seeing Hannah fully, as in nude, which is how she spends most of the first episode. The show is back to its aggressive stance of challenging the viewer to “behold the awkwardness, and so what? This is just a body, what’s your problem?!”
Beyond that, though, there are actually some interesting dynamics to explore. Marnie is officially in a relationship with Ray (Alex Karpovsky), but one where she keeps him at arms’ length and very easily falls back into an affair with her soon-to-be ex-husband Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). There’s tension, too, between Marnie and Sosh, whose personality is much more in sync with Ray’s, and whom Ray continues to spend a lot of time with. Jessa is on the outs with everyone except for Adam (Adam Driver), as they continue their relationship. And Hannah, who has finally found some success as a writer, is largely on her own, constantly repeating, “if you need me I’ll be writing.” We get it.
The thing is, while those kinds of love triangles and squabbles and resentments can sound like Melodrama 101, they are not to be dismissed. What Girls is very good at doing is subverting our expectations of how they play out while simultaneously addressing them with raw emotion. There’s humor and truth to them in a way few shows can handle, but Girls wastes too much of its time in this new season falling back into old patterns instead of embracing its most effective kinds of storylines.
The best example is the third episode of this final season, which features a cameo from Matthew Rhys (The Americans) as a famous author Hannah has skewered in a blog. After allegations came out about him on Tumblr regarding non-consensual encounters during his book tour, Hannah writes a scathing takedown about how he’s just another power-abusing man she used to respect but no longer can. He then invites Hannah to his apartment to discuss the piece and the nature of consent and perspective, which falls a little flat. But then the episode takes a turn that shows rather than tells Hannah’s argument for her, which is an excellent bit of storytelling. And yet, it doesn’t stick the landing in any real way, ending in a moment of fantasy that feels at odds with the series’ tone.
Ultimately, if you were expecting Girls to start to wrap up its final season in a way that felt like a finale or a goodbye, it’s not. At least, not yet. That’s not surprising — it’s a show that has never followed convention. And yet, after its great fifth season, it also is a little disappointing. When Girls first premiered Dunham was hailed as the voice of a generation, usually by those of a different generation. The show has often portrayed Millennials at their very worst and most self-involved, so depending on your age, you may agree or vehemently disagree with that initial assessment. But what is true with the show is that while it has always satirized the “plight” of the young and privileged, it also has touched on something very real, very raw, and very vulnerable about realizing that things never quite turn out as you planned.
Rating: ★★★ — Not as strong as in the past, but you’ve come this far
Girls Season 6 premieres Sunday, February12th on HBO