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Girls gone mild: Era-defining series ends with hugs and motherhood

The haters, and they are legion, won't have Lena Dunham to kick around for a while.

The sixth and final season of Girls ended Sunday night on HBO with a quiet celebration of motherhood and sisterhood. Creator and star Lena Dunham pulled a classic Lena Dunham – slyly shifting an intensely selfish, irritating character toward empathy from the audience and making the character emblematic while adding a touch of caustic comedy. As endings go, it was wry rather than majestic or especially meaningful. And as such, it captured the spirit of an important but maddening series.

The central characters in the series, Marnie (Allison William), Jessa (Jemima Kirke), Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) and Adam (Adam Driver), ended their journey as they began – satellites around Dunham's Hannah. The final episode was about Hannah only. She had a baby and faced motherhood as she faced adulthood at the start: snarlingly self-absorbed. Then, eventually, a bit more self-aware.

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The finale focused on Hannah as typical, stressed-out new mother just as the series opened some years ago with Hannah as typical, harried college graduate looking for a role in the world. In the end she had one good friend, Marnie, and her own mother, as support system. "No one understands," she bleated at one point as an agitated mother, blissfully unaware that's what she was also bleating as an agitated unpaid intern a few years before. That was part of the quiet comedy of it all.

In the very first episode of season one, Hannah told her parents, who really just wanted her to get a paying job, "I could be the voice of my generation or, at least, a voice of a generation." There was such pretension in that assertion. The character was being mocked but as often happens with iconic TV series, the gossamer-thin humour was ignored or forgotten and risible moments were taken literally. That dynamic created haters – how dare this precocious but unknown twentysomething young woman attempt to speak for a generation.

Dunham never quite did it with aplomb, right up to Sunday's finale. While it was era-defining, Girls was always just an awkward comedy about four postcollege young women figuring out their places in the word. It could be a black comedy, a poignant comedy or a whimsical comedy, but it was still a comedy.

The fact that it was studied and argued about speaks to its important freshness. On arrival, it presented the four young women in a uniquely natural manner. It was never realism, but it was naturalism, and done with an assuredness that also speaks to the rise of cable TV as the primary storytelling medium of our time.

Sometimes Girls was dismissed, accurately, as millennial navel-gazing, but Dunham (with the help of producers Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner, one suspects) kept rescuing it, illuminating the self-delusions and rationalizations of Hannah as the product of her age and naiveté. At times, especially in this last season, Dunham was, mind you, utterly self-indulgent. One episode in which Hannah confronted a famous male writer (wonderfully played by Matthew Rhys) about his allegedly non-consensual affairs with college students amounted to a standalone act of pandering to the zeitgeist. And yet it worked, thanks to the frankness of Dunham's writing and the gusto of her approach to the topic.

That was Girls to the end in a nutshell – still fresh but frustrating. The abundance of scenes featuring Dunham naked or partly naked eventually made the point they were meant to make – people, get used to seeing a woman of Dunham's body type naked and be reminded how little you see of that body type on TV or in movies. The ubiquity of her nakedness drove the haters insane, but Dunham was never going to stop. Nor was she going to stop portraying her character sitting on the toilet and talking frankly about her vagina.

The sex scenes featuring Dunham or the other women characters became a bit more troublesome as the final season unfolded. Viewers got the impression these women mainly indulged in intercourse while bent over a sink in a grubby apartment. That is hardly the sole domain of youth or extravagantly privileged, white twentysomething New Yorkers. It is just a passionate life.

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It would be easy to cynically synopsize Girls in its entirety. And, truthfully, all of its six seasons, the weight of all that comedy and zeitgeist-anchored drama, are captured in a mere two lines of a single Tragically Hip song – "With illusions of some day casting a golden light/ No dress rehearsal, this is our life."

And yet it had so much heft. That is the mercurial power of what Dunham created. And what HBO nurtured. The small moments of the mundane made magical, the idle conversation given the weight of revealing meaning. In Sunday's final episode, Dunham treated the audience to one last sardonic look at Hannah's foolishness. Out walking and enraged by the traps of motherhood, Hannah comes across an upset teenage girl who seems to be fleeing some terrible assault or injustice. She helps the girl. Literally gives her the pants and shoes she's wearing. Then, it turns out, the girl was merely refusing to do her homework so she could see her boyfriend. Hannah gives her a piece of her mind.

So it ends mildly with motherhood. That might seem unfulfilling as a climax, but it fulfills the ambition of the series – small-scale and real yet revealing in a major way about life, mothers and girls who become adults and mothers, in this or any other era.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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