You can disagree with her, or be exhausted by her, or even be completely electrified by her vaunted position as cultural lightning rod, and none of that has to color your opinion of the show she created, writes, directs, stars in, and, beginning Sunday night with the final season premiere, is ending.
Her show is one that is mocked or written off because people don’t like it on principle—or, more likely, on Lena Dunham’s principles.
It’s a show that, from its first trailer six years ago, was tasked with standing for something grand. With, even more ridiculously, being definitive, even as over its six seasons it has methodically broken down the notion that any character on the show could possibly be universal—in fact relishing in the specificity of their experiences. A specificity that might be relatable, or might be educational, or might simply be annoying. And that’s been the beauty of it.
When Dunham’s Hannah Horvath was introduced to us with the inebriated monologue in the pilot, “I don’t want to freak you out, but I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice of a generation,” it was a wink to an aimless millennial culture’s absence of such a defining voice, meant to capture the character’s delusion and desperation.
Six seasons later, Hannah tells a news editor in Sunday night’s premiere, “My persona is very witty yet narcissistic… I give zero fucks about anything, and yet I have a strong opinion about everything, even topics I’m not informed on.”
Understandably, when you chart the passage of time, the show’s influence, and Dunham’s presence in the media, the lines between Dunham and Hannah Horvath have seemingly blurred. Knowing about one’s controversies and public statements informs the how palatable the other’s actions, dialogue, and positions might be.
It makes for both an intoxicating and infuriating experience when you watch the show—something that will only become more potent when Episode 3, which finds Hannah litigating sexual consent, male privilege, and media responsibility, airs in two weeks.
And yet, there are far more opinions being had about this show than there are people watching it—those ratings do not support the weight of the thinkpieces—indicating an inability to divorce creator from content, a misunderstanding about the show’s self-awareness of its character’s privilege, and, honestly, a lack of respect for how damn good it’s been.
Last season was spectacular. Last night’s premiere? It was excellent, too.
“No one has ever wanted to talk to us about craft,” Dunham says in a recent interview with Vulture. “They just want to know, ‘What does it feel like to have people hate you?’”
A public figure should not escape accountability for statements they make in public spheres, and debate about content is vital, even crucial, to a show’s importance and success. But the cultural conversation became louder than the show it was about. People stopped letting the show stand for itself. So let’s allow it to do that. Let’s talk about craft.
Sunday night’s premiere featured some of the best writing the show has produced. More and more, Hannah Horvath is resembling a character we no longer identify with, but so clearly recognize. She’s annoying and hard to tolerate, but grounded enough to be endearing.
You can’t stand to be around her, but you care about her enough to invest in her struggles. And everything is a struggle, whether it’s sleeping with the wrong guy or that time the cunty girl at surf camp got a tote bag and all you got was a stack of papers.
The quick logline to kick off the new season: Hannah is actually experiencing success as a writer. She’s been published in The New York Times—a confessional article about losing her best friend (Jemima Kirke’s Jessa) to her ex-boyfriend (Adam Driver’s Adam), but still. She takes a freelance assignment from a Vice-like publication to go to a ladies’ surf camp and make fun of how it’s been co-opted by insufferable yoga mavens.
There is so much to simply enjoy, independent of what the show “means,” from Sunday night’s premiere.
There is a phenomenal joke written about Shailene Woodley: “Shaliene Woodley likes to go to a private area, open her vagina, and let the sun in. And that’s how she gets her glow. So when she goes to, like, the Insurgent premiere, that’s not makeup. That’s sun in her pussy.”
We don’t have to tell you that Hannah tries this herself.
The Night Of’s Riz Ahmed, playing a surf instructor, raps shirtless. Hannah’s reaction to the sight echoes our own: “I’m gonna fuck him!” It ends differently for her than it does for us, dear viewer. Good for Hannah.
There are several montages that are, quite simply, a delight.
The opening, with all of Hannah’s friends reading her Times story and reacting in ways that are so characteristically them is a nostalgic ease into the new season. There’s an uproarious montage of Hannah dancing at a surf club that calls back to the brilliant Icona Pop-scored coke rave in Season 1. And Dunham and Ahmed re-enact their own bumbling From Here to Eternity hook-up in the surf, but Girls-style, which is to say awkwardly and hilariously.
There are lines that are so Hannah: “I don’t remember very much about last night, but I don’t feel violated in any way,” she tells Ahmed’s character while climbing out of bed the morning after. And there are lines that are so you: “I’m probably going to go back in my room and, like, cry. Not in a sad way. But in a Sundays in high school way.” That is such a specific feeling captured so perfectly.
Then there are exchanges that, regardless of whether they are specific to Hannah or relatable to a generation, are just generally profound.
“It’s so much easier to love something than to hate it, don’t you think? Love’s the easiest thing in the world,” Ahmed’s Paul-Louis says. “Yeah. But all my friends in New York define themselves by what they hate,” Dunham replies. “I don’t even know what any of my friends like. I just know what they don’t like. God, that’s so crazy. Everyone is so busy chasing success and defining themselves they can’t even experience pleasure.”
It’s a style of writing that always falls just short of heavy-handed, which is what makes it so effective, and, often times so galvanizing. It’s earnest and it’s satire. It’s commentary and it’s achingly realistic. It’s a line she toes when she’s making an acute observation about this generation she’s supposedly defining, or when she’s more broadly skewering Brooklyn culture, or twentysomething culture, or female culture.
There’s an intangible something in her work that keeps the pointed ridiculing of millennial nonsense—next week’s episode finds Shoshana attending a WEMUN (Women Entrepreneurs Meet Up Now) event hosted by the co-founders of Jamba Jeans; “You guys literally cracked open the market on athletic denim!”—from venturing into Portlandia sketch territory, just as it keeps the show’s messaging from becoming too academic or hostile.
It’s a remarkable talent to be so lucid in crafting the narrative about life being an imperfect mess, and that’s what’s made Girls so entertaining.
The show has provoked and challenged and changed, using nudity and sexuality and language and femininity and even privilege in ways that television has never done before. But it’s also, sometimes, just fun and funny.
It’s a show that has never been perfect, and maybe has been more interesting because of that. Few series have been as annoying as often as they’ve been spellbinding.
Few have gotten themselves into as much trouble, and just kind of sighed and went with it, the way we do in our own lives. Is that creatively bold? Obstinate? Dumb? If nothing else, it’s very Girls, and it’s commendable that it shows no desire to resist doing the same to the bitter end.
Pissed by the way Girls has used nudity before? Last night’s premiere should have been a treat for you. Irritated by the inorganic “points” it attempts to make? Brace yourself for Episode 3.
In that same Vulture interview, Dunham addressed the series-long response to the show.
“I’ve always felt the need to be like, ‘I accept every criticism. Thank you so much for watching the show. I’m so grateful,’” she said. “Now that the show is ending, I feel like I’m finally ready to blow it up a little bit and be like, ‘You know what, fuck all y’all.’ I’ve made mistakes as a person. I’ve said things I regret, but at the end of the day, we spent six years making a piece of art that completely busted open the way women were allowed to behave on TV, and I’m not going to apologize for it.”
Can we actually do the same?