I’ll always remember the disappointment of realising I had run out of Jane Austen’s novels to read. It felt as if an important friendship had ended. That I had lost the voice of someone trusted. I have the same feeling about HBO’s Girls – written and performed by showrunner and all-round infamous woman Lena Dunham. Because when Season 6 airs next month, it will be the show’s last.
Austen and Dunham are my favourite writers. Partly because they observe the quirks of the societies they live in a very funny way. In Austen’s case, landed gentry in eighteenth century Britain. In Dunham’s: millennials in 21st century Brooklyn.
Dunham’s work is an indictment of young, white, middle class privilege. It surveys modern dating and the disintegration of a framework for twenty-something-year-olds to grow within with biting humour. And yet her writing is as compassionate as it is withering. The last five seasons of Girls have served as a portrait of the meeting points between the characters’ spoilt blunders and their vulnerability and humanity.
But more significantly their writing is – to me – the ultimate celebration of the female spirit. It takes for granted that whatever gilded cage and confines a patriarchal culture constructs around her, ranging from the marriage market to a steady stream of subtle degradation, a woman’s core essence can surpass. That for all that they can be naive, flippant and their own worst enemies, women are and always will be the ultimate creators. They are the portal between physical and spiritual. And this can be felt in the myriad of ways their souls bend in reaction to the world around them. Felt in their resilience and in the expanse of space in which their imaginations roam.
Austen and Dunham’s women dance through narratives in which even the most beloved men are ornamental. They write women who can’t help but roar when there’s a hand over their mouths. Who can’t help but stand taller when backed against a wall. They have an indefinable revolution within them. Dunham carved a window into a world in which realistically represented women are uncompromisingly placed centre stage. Not to be glamorous, not to be funny, but just to be. And she didn’t do it with one female lead. She did it with four. That’s not ticking a diversity quota box, that’s turning the industry standard on its head.
Critical response to the show has run alongside of it like a spin-off. It is one of its most perfect features, integral to its value. Grumblings on the smallness of Dunham’s subject matter and the largeness of her thighs in her show about women is the ultimate, if unintentional, satire.
In a pre-emptive response to this type of critique, Girls puts forward the idea that women can aspire to be more than ‘easily digestible hot chick’ and can in fact be perfectly imperfect. Debunking the ideology that flaws are unattractive and unladylike, it gives women permission to make mistakes and to be quintessentially feminine at the same time. Confirms they can be multidimensional, walking contradictions and still be loved.
In screenwriting terms, Dunham is a champion of the female anti-hero. As are her cast and crew. Seeing actors like Adam Driver, Christopher Abbott and Alex Karpovsky pour their guts onto the table in service of breathing life into a show like Girls is not an everyday occurrence.
To me, every episode is poetry but there is one in particular that stands out. That feels so true to my own experience of being a woman. Season 5’s “The Panic in Central Park” opens on a close-up of Marnie Michaels sitting despondent in tracksuit, headphones and messy bun. Her eyes close, slowly, in an attempt to block out the room around her.
Across the bed, strumming a guitar in his underwear, sits Desi – the narcissistic musician she married because she couldn’t bear to relinquish yet another fantasy of what her life could be. He tries to get her attention as she shifts her body away from him. They bicker in a cramped New York apartment as she tells him that she wants space and he tells her that he doesn’t.
Marnie holds a dichotomy within her. She has grown more than any character on the show. From controlling and prim, to raw and defiant. And yet a small part of her is holding out hope that she’ll be rescued like a princess from her tower. That she’ll get the storybook ending young girls are promised.
The conversation that passes between Marnie and Desi as they sit on the bed is archetypal of the established male/female dynamic:
Marnie: You don’t seem to care at all about what I want. Would you prefer that I just pretend nothing’s wrong with me? And stop feeling all of my feelings? And hug you, and fuck you, and tell you how amazing you are? And how much I love you…
Desi: That sounds really positive to me. I think that would make you happy too.
Marnie: Oh Jesus…
Desi cries, they both shout and Marnie storms out at dusk to the soundtrack of “Just Sayin/ I Tried” by The Internet and the short, iconic title sequence flashing across the screen: GIRLS.
Over the course of the night that follows, Marnie is reunited by chance with the first love of her life, Charlie. The episode is a beautiful, gutting portrayal of growth, annihilation and renewal.
Both Marnie and Charlie have changed from the inside out since their last meeting. Neither of them feels they have anyone left to please. Charlie’s signature kindness lingers but he is now a wildcard, resulting in the dark, dreamlike twists that take the two of them across New York and into the early hours of the morning.
Marnie – reunited with the man who she once considered her family and at the perfect moment in time – smiles with a freedom and purity we’ve never seen in her before. It seems she might get the knight in shining armour she’s been secretly counting on.
At dawn, the fantasy is shattered and she’s brought back down to earth with a jolt harder than any she’s experienced. In a wide shot packed with stark symbolism she leaves Charlie’s building barefoot in a ball gown, without any of the possessions she carried with her the day before, not even her wedding ring.
There are many things to love about “The Panic in Central Park”, but there’s one moment that is, to me, piercing in its ability to articulate that which is normally left unsaid. It’s not the irony of Marnie recounting how her father didn’t show up to the ill-advised wedding where she married a man guaranteed to let her down. Nor the catharsis she feels on extorting hundreds of dollars from an elderly gentleman who mistakes her for a prostitute and tries to buy her.
Not when she falls into a Central Park pond and, instead of struggling, opens her eyes and stays perfectly still. Not the fact that, for the only time ever in the history of Girls, the screen fades to black during a sex scene. Nor one of the many gems that punctuate the script like: “You’re playing aggressive guitar at me” and “I’m late getting where I’m going”.
It’s this interaction that happens between a red-eyed, tearstained Marnie and a composed Desi in the open doorway of a building in Chinatown, after Marnie has finally found her way home.
Like the conversation on the bed, it’s archetypal. It is a scene that reflects the touching strength of a woman who, despite having been knocked down multiple times, decides to embrace her fragility in the world rather than continue to project herself into the arms of a saviour. A woman who decides that having someone else’s agenda imposed on her is not a trade she’s willing to make in return for refuge.
Marnie: I’m like a ghost of myself. I don’t know what I’m doing here or anywhere else. But I don’t want to be married to you.
Marnie (flooded with relief): Thank you.
Desi: You should go be on your own Marn, you know. Do you what you have to do.
Marnie: Yeah. I think that’s what I need.
Desi: But trust me Marnie, it is like… not going to work out so great.
Marnie: It’s not?
Desi (calmly): I mean, probably… you’re going to get murdered. I mean that is how little of a sense of the world that you have. You’re just… you’re going to get murdered one day. You’re going to get murdered. I’m sorry.
Marnie (pausing, then peaceful): Yeah. Well… you know, Desi, maybe you’re right. Maybe I do get murdered.
And with that, Marnie walks away. And when all four Girls walk away this spring, I’m grateful that moments like this one will be forever left in their wake.
Written by Sabrina Ceol