A good final season is hard for any TV series to land, but it’s particularly difficult for a show like Girls. Lena Dunham’s HBO series has spent the past five years under a pop culture microscope, inspiring more thinkpieces than I’d ever care to count, lauded for its bravery and honesty one minute and lambasted for its navel-gazing characters and diversity issues the next. No matter what Dunham and company do as they bring the series home for its finale in a few weeks, some will accuse them of running the train right off the rails—just ask anyone who worked on the final season of Lost.
That said, I don’t think meeting any particular critical or popular expectation has ever been on the agenda for the creators of this show. Sitting down with the first three episodes of Season 6, I simply wondered how one ends a show like Girls—a show that not only avoids service to any kind of overarching plot (this ain’t Game of Thrones) but seems never to tire of turning its characters loose and letting them run, driven by self-destruction, ego or plain old devil-may-care millennial whimsy. With a show like this, the expectation isn’t really an ending, but rather a moment when Dunham decides it’s time to turn off the camera. That’s tricky, and it’s made even trickier by the fantastic Season 5 finale, which set all of the major characters off on new paths and closed on Dunham’s Hannah Horvath literally running off into her future, having learned something profound about her life that she hopes will stick. Where do you go from an ending like that, an ending that could have been a great series finale had Dunham and showruner Jenni Konner simply walked away right there?
If you’re Girls, you don’t give in to reflection and coasting on the loyalty of your audience. You keep running, you don’t flinch and you don’t slow down.
The new season opens with a lovely little montage, letting us know more-or-less where everyone’s at. Adam and Jessa are still together. Marnie and Ray are a couple, even as Marnie continues the divorce process with Desi. Shoshanna is about to start a new marketing gig. Elijah is … well, he’s still Elijah. And Hannah? Well, Hannah’s finally making her writing dreams come true. The story she told at the Moth in Season 5, about Jessa and Adam becoming a couple as she looked on, is now a Modern Love column in The New York Times, and a magazine is courting her with assignments. Hannah Horvath, always convinced her voice was meant to be heard, is getting what she wanted.
If you’re Girls, you don’t give in to reflection and coasting on the loyalty of your audience. You keep running.
Once this new status quo (if there is such a thing om Girls) is established, the first three episodes steer relatively clear of the show’s familiar Brooklyn haunts, and two of them barely take place in the city at all, our first hint that Girls is not going to play it safe in its final hours.
In the first episode, Hannah heads off to a Montauk surf camp to write about the appropriation of the surfer lifestye by bored middle-aged women, and meets a charming instructor named Paul-Louis (the ever delightful Riz Ahmed). Back in the city, Marnie risks falling back into old patterns with both of the men in her life. The second episode takes both Marnie and Hannah out of the city to a cabin in the woods—where events transform into the closest thing Girls will ever have to a straight-up horror story—while Shosh tries to reconnect with Jessa and make some new work friends. Then there’s episode three, which guest stars Matthew Rhys (The Americans) as a charming and acclaimed American author who wants to meet Hannah to discuss … well, I’m not spoiling this one for you, but you should definitely be prepared for a deluge of thinkpieces about it.
Each episode is a carefully crafted jewel of Girls-ness, delivering all the dry wit, awkward sex and lapses in judgment you’ve come to expect. Dunham and Konner know how to walk that tightrope blindfolded at this point, but this time around the show’s mission to be a “tone poem” for its generation seems to have sharpened. When discussing why she wanted to end the series, Dunham mused that girs must, at some point, become women, suggesting that Hannah and her friends will not remain the hot messes we’ve grown to know. Maturity is obviously something you hope for at the end of your twenties, but if the show sways too far in that direction we just won’t buy it. Where, then, does Girls strike the balance?
There are subtle clues in the beginnings of Season 6, even as the fuck-ups continue and the lessons don’t always stick. If the show is building to something to close everything out, though, it’s not telegraphing it, nor is it using these early episods to merely set something up. Girls is barreling forward as it always has, as its characters often demand it does—only this time, there’s a sense that all of its relentless, sloppy, exuberant life is bringing growth along with its change. Season 6 leads off with three of the best episodes Girls has ever produced, signaling to us all that this demanding little show will not go gentle. I don’t know what the finale of Girls wil bring, but I know it won’t be predictable.
Girls returns Sunday at 9 on HBO.