If There’s One Thing ‘Girls’ Taught Us, It’s That Growing Up Is a Lifelong Project

Onward and upward.

When viewers stumble upon Girls five or ten or twenty years from now, they’ll be watching a different show than the one that ended its six-season run last night with a rather unceremonious episode called “Latching.” The experience of watching Girls these past five years has been inseparable from the experience of reading about the show and fretting with friends over the fate of its four central women. Time and again, those articles and blog posts and conversations circle back to the same question: Will they ever grow up?

I supposed when you call your show about a group of self-centered twenty-somethings Girls, that question is somewhat inevitable. But over the years, Lena Dunham and the show’s writers seemed to delight in teasing their audience with the promise of a concrete answer to that question, a mirage the show was constantly chasing and never quite reaching. In the final season, it pulled out the mother of all plot devices, and one that would seem to force its main character to face down the question of growing up once and for all: Pregnancy.

Ordinarily I might call it lazy to initiate a pregnancy plot in the last season of a show, a sort of Hail Mary pass when you’re struggling to introduce new drama into a character’s life. Nothing raises the stakes like a baby, particularly for a character who has earned a reputation as an irresponsible egomaniac in both the real world and the world of the show.

But for Hannah Horvath — and for Girls — it was a brilliant move, a choice that felt true to the character (of course Hannah would have unsafe sex with a surf instructor on a reporting assignment) while simultaneously needling the show’s viewers with a sense of defiance and determination that matches Hannah’s reaction to her pregnancy. It’s fitting that the doctor who tells her she’s pregnant is the same man we saw back in the second season episode “One Man’s Trash,” in which Hannah and Joshua, played by Patrick Wilson, spend the day playing house at his well-appointed brownstone. His appearance this season dispelled the plainly misogynist argument that the episode was all some kind of dream (because someone who looks like Patrick Wilson couldn’t possibly be interested in someone who looks like Lena Dunham), but it also did much more. That episode took place almost entirely in Joshua’s brownstone, a two-hander between Dunham and Wilson, and it was such a different environment from the space-saving starter apartments of Hannah and her friends, it felt a world apart from the rest of the show. Hannah’s pregnancy was surprising enough, but to have the news come from Joshua’s mouth felt not like a dream but a wake-up call — a missive from the “real world,” the world of professionals who own homes and eat their cupcakes in the kitchen, not the bathroom.

“Latching” finds Hannah in a whole other environment — upstate New York, in a lovely house in a lovely town where she’s teaching at a local college. She’s joined by a freshly divorced and functionally homeless Marnie (Allison Williams), who jumps at the chance to feel needed and moves in to help raise baby Grover — hilariously, Hannah actually took the suggestion of the baby’s father, Paul-Louis (Riz Ahmed), who offers up the name earlier in the season after he thanks Hannah for letting him off the hook.

Despite the introduction of a pretty significant new character — Hannah’s baby! — the finale was remarkably low-key. Not a whole lot happened — we jump forward five months so we don’t actually see Hannah go into labor, avoiding what would likely have been a very funny but inevitably clichéd birth scene. And as Dunham had already warned, Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) weren’t in the episode at all, Jessa having landed safely back with Adam (Adam Driver) and Shoshanna having surprised her friends with a new fiancé before essentially calling off the friendship in the bathroom at her engagement party. (The saddest part, for me at least, was the realization that Shoshanna and Ray — Alex Karpovsky — did not end up together. In my mind, they’re drinking coffee and bitching about Paul Krugman for all eternity.)

So we’re left with Hannah, characteristically anxious about her inability to properly breastfeed Grover and worried about infecting him with bottled milk, and Marnie, playing the part of the graceful lady’s maid, to Hannah’s growing frustration. But it’s clear Hannah needs the help, as does Marnie, who calls in Loreen (Becky Ann Baker). Again, Hannah is characteristically resistant to her mother’s tough love, even as Loreen gets in the best line of the episode, and one Hannah needs to hear:  “Do you know who else is in emotional pain? Fucking everyone.”

Hannah storms out of the house, a far less glamorous activity in a small town than it is in New York City. Wandering the quiet streets, she comes across a distraught teenage girl wearing no shoes or pants and peels off her own, offering them to what she assumes is the victim of some sort of domestic abuse. But instead, she learns the girl ran away from home because her mom wanted her to do her homework and she wanted to visit her boyfriend instead. Indignant, Hannah demands her pants back, and despite her horrible treatment of her own mother just moments earlier, reminds the girl that her mother has to take care of her “forever,” a job that involves “endless, endless pain.”

She returns to her house, still without pants, and tries to nurse a crying Grover once more. This time, the baby latches on, and the episode — and series — ends on a tight shot of Hannah’s face as she finally makes the connection she’d been yearning for.

So is that it? Is Hannah grown up now? Or did she grow up when she made the decision to leave New York and take a job with health insurance? Or was it earlier, when she decided to keep the baby in the first place? Maybe it had nothing to do with babies at all. Maybe she’s still not grown up. Maybe none of us are.

As I’ve written before, despite viewers’ anguished requests for the show’s twentysomethings to get it together already, that’s exactly what we’ve been watching over six seasons. Sure, it’s frustrating to watch them take one step forward and then two steps back — who’s to say Hannah’s late-night, pants-less realization about the hard work of being a mother won’t fade from memory the next time Loreen has some harsh words for her daughter — but that’s life. That’s what makes the story Girls wants to tell, about this confusing, exhilarating, terrifying, and formative time in a person’s life, so appropriate for the medium of television. With each episode, Hannah and Jessa and Marnie and Shoshanna and Adam and Ray and Elijah give it another go. They may stumble but the story doesn’t end when the credits roll; they’ll be back next week to scribble one more experience over the palimpsest of their lives.

It’s entirely appropriate that the final scene of Girls wasn’t a marriage or a birth or a death but a smaller, more intimate moment — a moment of peace. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for as we grow up and out of the familiar confines of early adulthood. For all the hand-wringing and tut-tutting over the fate of these immature, selfish screw-ups, their perpetual presence in our lives over these past five years has been a source of comfort. We know your life doesn’t look the way life looks on a sitcom, the show whispered in our ears, and ours doesn’t, either. Regardless of your age, all that worrying and wondering may have been misplaced angst after all. Will they ever grow up? Well, do any of us?