This Season of ‘Girls’ Was its Best Yet. Here’s Why

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Sunday night’s two-episode finale of Girls was a shot of espresso chased with a shot of tequila, a jolting and joyous ending to what has been the best season of the show so far. Technically, HBO aired the penultimate and final episodes back-to-back, presumably to clear its schedule for this weekend’s slate of buzzy premieres (Veep, Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, whatever that is). But together, the two episodes felt like a joint fifth-season finale, an appropriate leeway for a show that has always allowed its characters ample time and space to figure out their shit.

Watching Girls since it began in 2012 — particularly, ahem, if you happen to be around the same age as the characters — has been both frustrating and gratifying. Ever since its premiere episode, critics and viewers have cried out in melodramatic anguish as the central cast of four aimless twentysomethings had casual sex, broke up with boyfriends, got married, got divorced, and took and left jobs like they were free copies of am New York.

Throughout, viewers complained most loudly about Hannah, who seemed intractably wedged in her post-adolescent funk (and stubbornly comfortable with her body). But it can be hard to notice people change when you spend so much intimate time with them. While Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna have had more dramatic changes — two of them have had unsuccessful marriages, one has moved to Japan, and all of them have undergone striking visual transformations — Hannah has developed inch by inch.

But she has developed, and Sunday’s finale(s) made that clearer than ever. Episode nine, “Love Stories,” begins with Hannah patiently asking her now-ex-boyfriend to leave. Suddenly, she’s the adult in the room, a transition that’s been in the works since Hannah began her teaching job in the fourth season. She apologizes in a flat monotone as she packs up his stuff and offers to pay for an Uber. “Our relationship didn’t work out,” she says. “It sucks. At this point it really doesn’t matter who the asshole was and who the asshole wasn’t.”

We shouldn’t be so surprised that Hannah sounds so reasonable and, well, adult: she’s learned a lot! Later, when she bumps into her old college nemesis Tally (Jenny Slate), the two reconnect, and Hannah catches her up on her life since they last saw each other at Tally’s book party — all the way back in Season 1. They share a joint and Tally admits that she’s envious of all that Hannah’s been through; Tally feels that her early success as a writer has stripped away her true self: “Tally Schifrin is not even me now. She’s just like this thing that I’ve created. She’s a monster that I’ve made and I have to feed.” Suddenly Hannah’s zigzagging path through post-college life doesn’t look so aimless. But then, you have to live your life a little before you can gain insight from it.

In our haste to urge the girls to grow up already, we forgot that that’s exactly what we’ve been watching them do for the past four years. Girls has spent five seasons showing how lived experience not only shapes your personality but teaches you how to be comfortable in it. In episode ten, “I Love You Baby,” Hannah participates in an open-mic night at the storytelling show The Moth, and talks about coming to terms with Jessa and Adam’s relationship. It’s a funny, moving story, and she delivers it with humor and grace. It’s the closest Hannah has come to sounding like Lena Dunham. She realizes that she’s “in perpetuity, Hannah,” and there’s both freedom and relief in her surrender to herself.

The series’ patience with its characters has paid off, and it’s also demonstrated why TV is such a perfect medium for stories about growing up — not only because the format allows us to see characters develop organically through the seasons but because over time, we change, too, both as people and as viewers. A TV show gives us a little more breathing room: Maybe in the time between the second and third seasons, or the third and fourth, or the first and fifth, you went through a breakup, a divorce, had kids, moved to a new city, got a degree, lost a loved one; any number of events that could subtly erode your attitude toward a certain set of characters in a certain setting.

Girls has been shedding its baby fat since day one, but Season 5 finally allowed us to see its buff new adult form. If you’ve been watching TV regularly since the series premiered, it probably looks a lot less shocking to you now. The show has paved the way for stories that take women seriously without sacrificing humor; it’s hard to imagine some of TV’s most popular, zeitgeist-y shows, like Broad City and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, existing in a world before Girls. TV-watchers have been pushing Girls to hurry up and mature already for years now. But in so many ways, it’s Girls that has pushed TV to grow up.