‘Girls’ and the Sly Interplay Between Fiction and Reality

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In the first episode of the current, and final, season of Girls, Hannah (Lena Dunham) goes to Montauk to report on a surf camp and winds up falling for the instructor, Paul-Louis, played by Riz Ahmed. It’s a typical Hannah move to spin a professional assignment into a personal journey — there goes clueless, selfish Hannah, confusing a man’s sexual interest for genuine affection. But — doesn’t it kind of look like he’s starting to fall for her, too, right up until the moment he confesses he has a girlfriend?

This is both Girls’ greatest strength and, it would seem, a major source of viewers’ grievances: Its deepest, most emotionally resonant moments are also some of its most laughable. When Hannah and Paul-Louis stroll along the beach, pausing to make out in the sand, it’s both sweet and funny. George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” which plays over the montage, kicks into a stirring key change just as they start to warm up to each other, and I challenge anyone to listen to that song and not feel a tingling sensation that something is happening. Later, as they watch the sun set, Hannah gives in to Paul-Louis’s stoner philosophy: “Yeah, love does give vibes!” she exclaims. The scene is simultaneously earnest (because Hannah really is falling for him) and mocking (because she’s so very wrong about him).

Girls does this a lot. In the season opener, there’s a similar scene between Marnie (Allison Williams) and her soon-to-be ex-husband, Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Although the scene begins with the couple arguing over assets, another sweet, sentimental song kicks in as Desi tells Marnie not to give up on her music. “Before I ever saw you as a woman,” he says, he saw her as a “musical force.” Again, this is both sincere (because Desi really does feel that) and sardonic (because we’ve all heard Marnie’s music and a “force” it ain’t). The show skillfully registers both realities at once, helped by actors who take their characters seriously even when they act dumb.

By allowing us to see, and hear, the disconnect between their self-destructive behavior and their own moony-eyed, revisionist interpretation of that behavior, Girls slyly conveys the ways in which its characters are themselves playing roles — acting out their lives more often than living them. Sunday’s episode, “What Will We Do This Time About Adam?”, hammers this home in devastating fashion. The episode begins with Adam (Adam Driver) informing Jessa (Jemima Kirke) that he’s going to offer himself up to Hannah as an ersatz father to her unborn child. Jessa plays it cool, but she’s shaken by the disclosure, particularly since Adam’s debut film — based on his volatile relationship with Hannah — has already driven a wedge between the couple.

The process of turning their relationship into fiction has a greater effect on Adam than he anticipated. It probably doesn’t hurt that the actress who plays Hannah, Daisy Eagan (her real name as well as her character’s name), is actually really good; when she and Adam reenact a scene in which Adam comforts an anxiety-ridden Hannah (think end-of-Season-2-Hannah, when her OCD rears its ugly head), Jessa is surprised at Adam’s tenderness, and shocked to realize that Hannah and Adam’s relationship was actually more hot-blooded than their own.

Only after Adam revisits his and Hannah’s relationship through the lens of fiction does he “realize” that he wants to be with her. In Sunday’s episode, he and Hannah spend the day essentially play-acting their relationship as it might have been: They have sweet sex; they stroll around Brooklyn drinking sodas; they make plans for the future. But then they start shopping for housewares, and Adam starts talking about the furniture he’s going to build — “The quality will be better, and it won’t be leaking toxic ooze all over our kid.” Hannah’s hands encircle her stomach and Adam’s voice becomes faint as she zeroes in on a picture of a mother and baby on the box of an infant bathtub. The background music kicks up a notch: “I’d be free,” a woman’s voice croons, “I’d be free/ Oh, then I could be me.”

The spell is broken. “I’m just excited to get out of my own fucking head for a while,” Adam admits. Finally, the two sit down at a diner, and in a crushing, wordless moment, they acknowledge the game they’ve been playing. In a minute, as tears stream down Hannah’s face, Adam goes from half-jokingly proposing marriage to casually asking her what she’s up to for the rest of the night.

Like everyone’s reaction to Hannah’s pregnancy, Adam’s offer to help raise the baby turns out to be a reflection of his own feelings of guilt and his compulsive need to save the day. I was reminded of a scene late in the second season, soon before Adam rushes to Hannah’s side when she’s in the midst of a particularly bad OCD episode. In “It’s Back,” Adam goes to an AA meeting, where he talks about Hannah and how much it meant for him to be able to take care of her. She wanted to learn from him; she thought he had so many things to teach her. It felt good to be not just wanted but needed.

The characters on Girls often express a familiar generational anxiety over their perceived “authenticity,” or lack thereof; in episode six of the current season, “Full Disclosure,” Desi shows up high for one of his and Marnie’s gigs, and proceeds to panic that he’s not a real musician but has only been “acting” like one, just like he was only ever “acting” at being an actor before he made the switch to music. A similar panic drives Adam to plead with Hannah to watch his movie, so she can confirm that his memories are accurate — that their relationship was real and not just an act.

“I don’t think we ever acted like real friends,” Hannah tells Jessa when her estranged best friend comes to see her, having learned that she’s pregnant. The moments on Girls where the music swells and the characters appear to be engaging in an intoxicating moment of connection never last long. But it’s to the show’s credit that it’s honest enough to acknowledge when characters aren’t being honest with themselves — and shrewd enough to recognize that sometimes, you need a little fiction to discern what’s real.