Goodbye to Girls – what we’ve learned from Lena Dunham’s pioneering drama

Hannah Horvath and friends return for a final series – but what is the legacy of Girls?

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In the first episode of the final season of Girls – which airs tonight on Sky Atlantic – Hannah (Lena Dunham) pitches herself to an editor of a magazine called Slag Mag (played by Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Chelsea Perretti). “My persona is very, like, witty, yet narcissistic,” she says. “I give zero f***s about anything, yet I have a strong opinion about everything, even topics I’m not informed on.”

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It’s an obvious nod to the media perception of Dunham as a self-absorbed millennial, outspoken yet ill-informed. And it’s a perfect illustration of the unique nature of Girls, which has become porous, almost interactive, extending beyond the screen in both directions. Reality seeps into the show – in the opener we see Ray reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, because of course Ray would read A Little Life – and sometimes it’s hard to tell the fictional Hannah apart from Dunham, her creator and real-world counterpart.

But how could it be otherwise? Girls grew out of Dunham’s own experience of life as a 20-something in New York; criticism aimed at the show – such as that it wasn’t racially diverse – becomes, then, implicit criticisms of Dunham, and her apparently limited reality. Inevitably that commentary shapes the show, but what is most notable about its final series is that actually, despite this constant critical dialogue, not a whole lot has changed.

Hannah is pursuing writing professionally, but is still obnoxious and self-absorbed; Marnie’s obvious, painful fragility is sabotaging her music and her relationships; Shoshanna remains fiercely, tightly wound, despite her promising new career; and Jessa continues to do… well, nothing, really, and seems unable to resist the urge to self-destruct. Yes, there has been some character development – Jessa has become less blindly hedonistic, Hannah is learning how to let things go – but mostly, the girls are the same ones we met in that very first season five years ago.

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Lena Dunham and Riz Ahmed in the final season of Girls

And there’s reassurance to be found in that. The appeal of Girls has always been that it’s real, although not always in the literal sense. But for every short reckless marriage or wild night out or drug-induced calamity there is a more relatable, universal drama – Jessa deciding to have an abortion, Hannah contracting HPV, Shoshanna’s quest to lose her virginity, Marnie’s fury at her ex-boyfriend’s success.

Though in fact many of these moments are relatable or universal mainly for young women – and the way Dunham renders these moments felt, and still feels, radical. There is a distinct lack of TV gloss throughout Girls, even – or perhaps especially – in sex scenes. The protagonists are not heroines; often they are not even likeable. But so what? Who is, really, in their young adulthood? If Sex and the City is Girls’ predecessor, it’s also its sequel – Girls documents the messy stuff we all go through before emerging into adulthood, hopefully less messy, and wiser for the chaos.

Of course Girls has its faults – how can it not? Its creator and main writer is only just 30, and she has clearly had to learn on the job. But it gets so much right, such as that growing up isn’t a series of grand revelations and constant emotional growth. We don’t always learn from our mistakes, and sometimes we do things that are bad for us or for other people just because. Sometimes we hate our friends, sometimes we say terrible things and sometimes we just want our mum and dad.

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Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet in season one of Girls

That said, the sixth series does feel more mature, in a way. I’ve seen the first three episodes of the last series, which at times have a more considered air than usual, the third in particular. It’s dedicated entirely to Hannah’s encounter with an author (played by Matthew Rhys) who she wrote an article about, and foregrounds an issue that Dunham has often spoken or written about: sexual assault.

Hannah mentions the historical suppression of women’s voices, the power imbalance between a famous, successful man and a young female student, and sexual consent in words that could be Dunham’s. Though Hannah begins the episode sure of her own standpoint, by the end, her lines are blurred; it’s a confronting, confusing piece of television.

It seems unfocused, like much of the show; it could be mistaken for aimlessness, a lack of polish. But this is deliberate, and it’s the essential thread running through the series: the refusal to offer satisfying answers, or reasons why. The nearest the girls get to being sure about something is realising that they know nothing, as Hannah finally admits this series.

Girls can’t be girls for ever. We always knew this. But did we always know that it’s OK for girls to be rude, and self-centered, and complicated, and confused, and dissatisfied, and forgiving, and loyal, and thoughtless, and thoughtful? I hope we did; I hope Girls’ legacy is that more of us know that now.

Girls returns on Monday 13th February at 10pm on Sky Atlantic

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSZ_ofVH-oE