What We Learned from the First Season of 'Girls'

Girls may be the one show that we, as a collective TV-watching presence, have had the most to say about this season. It's left a mark. 

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Girls may be the one show that we, as a collective TV-watching presence, have had the most to say about regarding an inaugural TV season in recent memory. There are many reasons for that, including the show's creator, Lena Dunham, her producer and co-writer, Judd Apatow, controversies related to another writer on the show, Lesley Arfin—and of course, for the content of the show itself: sex and relationships; depictions (or lack thereof) of racial, social, and economic diversity; portrayals of twentysomethings living in New York; thoughts about feminism; comparisons to HBO's previous girl-series Sex and the City; the zeitgeist of now; and so on.

So it only makes sense that there's a lot being said about last night's finale, and about the season overall. Slate is flooding the zone with Girls coverage, including this pretty great two-part interview with Dunham by Megan O'Rourke, and The Guardian has pulled together finale thoughts from the various commenters who've participated in its Girls chats thus far. I'll be talking more about last night's finale at 2 p.m. with the A.V. Club's Todd VanDerWerff, but in the meantime, here are the lessons learned from a season of Girls. (Warning: Spoilers follow!)

Patience is a virtue.
Like many, I admit to feeling a bit disappointed about the first episode in the season. But progressively, it got better and better, with stand-outs like Shoshanna's skirt-less flight from Ray on the mean streets of Bushwick after she accidentally smoks crack at a warehouse party among its laugh-out-loud moments. And tech-wise, has anyone so perfectly employed the urgent, viscerally moving sound of an arriving text message? Last night's two major surprises (Jessa's wedding and a car smacking into Adam during a fight on the street with Hannah—I yelped aloud when this happened) both take us places we never imagined we'd go. And Hannah's gradual development—and clearly she's not "there" (i.e., a self-actualized adult) yet, but you can see progress, and, frankly, we don't really want her to be a grownup yet at all—is continually compelling, because she is a flawed character. As a first season, I'd say this one delivered, over all, even if we started out as judgy and bratty and entitled as Hannah about it, wanting perfection spooned to our mouths from the start. In the end, this was a purely enjoyable, entertaining, if sometimes cringeworthy show to watch, each 30 minute episode going by so fast it felt more like 15. I'm eagerly anticipating season 2.

Sex and the City is dead. 
After weeks of comparisons to the clear predecessor in terms of theme—remember, Dunham has Shoshanna mention Sex and the City directly in the pilot—Dunham effectively killed Sex and the City last night by closing the season with a surprise wedding. Not only a surprise wedding for the viewers, but more importantly, for the characters. No one is expecting this; we never had an inkling it was on the way, not only because the character of Jessa hasn't shown an ounce of interest in wedded bliss prior to now, but also because of the guy she marries, who she appeared to hate in their one-episode interaction and we all passed off as a bit character emblematic of a certain kind of yuppie douchery.

I have to admit, I got hint of the wedding before I actually saw the episode, so I'm not sure how much more surprised I would have been to watch it go down in real time, but as I was watching Jessa marry the man she met two episodes previously, the guy from the aborted three-way with Marnie, Thomas-John, of course his name is Thomas-John, who got so angry when the girls accidentally spilled wine on his ridiculously expensive rug, I was thinking: How long did it take Carrie Bradshaw to get to a wedding? Answer: It took until the movie. And even Charlotte's wedding to Trey doesn't happen until Season 3, after much hemming and hawing and hoping on her part.

Similarly, the friend "breakup" of Marnie and Hannah is on a far faster schedule than we saw Miranda and Carrie stop speaking. Even if Marnie and Hannah are still by appearances friends and will surely come back together again in future episodes, it's as if we're all on an accelerated, post-Sex and the City schedule. That's credit to Dunham in making it a show of the time, and in skillfully alluding to previous images of womanhood without being derivative. Sure, we can still watch reruns of Sex and the City and probably will, but we won't ever watch them quite the same way, having seen Girls.

The implications of that wedding. 
With Jessa getting married, I think Dunham is flipping the switch on stereotypes of matrimony and "what girls want." Shoshanna, the most traditional-values-driven of the group, would have seemed the obvious contender to follow in Charlotte York's footsteps and get married first of her friends; instead, she's still (up to this episode) working on losing her virginity. Instead, Jessa suddenly appears, wearing a white hippy-doily type dress and bouncing about and smiling and talking about how it feels like she's sleeping on a rosebud, and everything we thought we knew about her is turned on its head. Or is it? To me it's a demonstration of the freedom to choose, yet again, to choose whatever you want at that particular moment, to engage in new experiences, to reinvent traditions in a new, empowered format. Whether it's a good marriage or the two will stay together (seems doubtful, but who knows) almost doesn't matter. The surprise wedding is freeing at the same time that it's perverse, which is just like Jessa. And the most important thing, for her, to always be turning the tables on the expected, has happened yet again. (Shoshanna, brilliantly, is pissed off that she's wearing white.)

On the other side of that we have what happens between Hannah and Adam. Again, Dunham makes us think. The pervasive, if totally dumbheaded, stereotype about dating and relationships is that the wedding-happy girl is always trying to snag the commitment-phobic guy and make him commit. But in real life, that's not necessarily the case; things are far more complex and evolving. But that's exactly what we see between Hannah and Adam. Each time he says something "relationshippy": he's moved by the wedding, he wants to move in with Hannah, they're "in it for the long haul," you see her face freeze, her eyes glaze. It's that oh shit feeling so many of us have experienced, when we've obtained what we thought we wanted but aren't sure we want it further, or that we ever wanted it at all.

Shoshanna, too, when propositioned by Ray, is O.K. with him going home with her, but makes sure to warn him, after clarifying that he's not punking her, that he should "Stay out of [her] emotional way." Girls are as messed up as guys, or, if not "messed up," as wary and cynical and unsure or manipulative or careful about relationships about anyone. "Your relationship is not a thing, it's not an achievement," says Hannah, who says there's lots she wants to do before she gets around to "working" on a relationship. High-five, girl, though the biggest props goes to Marnie going for the cake, and the guy, and breaking out of her established control zone and laughing her ass off  and actually having fun.

Evolving perspectives of girls and boys.
The beauty of Girls, maybe, is that everyone is "vibrating on a strange frequency" (a classic line Ray delivers admiringly to Shoshanna). So characters we hated at the beginning we learned to sort of love, or at least appreciate; seemingly awful men became better, seemingly awful women changed and grew in our estimation. First we feel sorry for the dad of the kids Jessa babysits for; but when he leaves her in that hospital, there's a new side of him. He's just as manipulative as anyone, his own goals in mind, his own emotional and physical cravings. And Adam, oh, watching Adam get smacked in the heart twice—first by Hannah, figuratively, then by an actual car—we realize how much we've come to love him. He is the weird knight in shining armor, suddenly.

But beyond how we watch the characters, male and female in this show, are all of the varied reactions that real-world boys and girls have about them. Among them, John Cook's curmudgeonly Gawker recaps; Foster Kamer's interviews with real boys watching Girls for Jezebel, and the strange finding that the majority of dudes watching the show are middle-aged men. Interesting. Very interesting.

A show can't be everything to all people but it can be a lot of things to a lot of people.
While many have complained about lack of diversity, or the way Dunham doesn't do enough to portray feminism or women of all types or empowering sexual relationships, the fact is that this show got us talking about all of that, and more. We talked about HPV...yay for a show that mentioned HPV, which, as Hannah says in last night's show, everyone has—even if she seems hopelessly clueless about it in an earlier episode. Yay for talking about porny sex and not porny sex and how a hookup may or may not become a boyfriend and how sometimes girls stick with men they actually hate, for complicated reasons. We learned about frenemies, about the "taboo" of being a virgin, about how weight affects a person's self-esteem, about ambitions and failed ambitions, about getting peed on in a shower, about domination, and about how claustrophobic it can feel to live, sometimes, in New York City, just to name a few...

Lessons in geography. 
As for that claustrophobia, we got a nice reverse touch of it last night. On the micro-level, with friends, with the circles you find yourself in, especially in cities like New York, you are always running into people again and again, even when you'd rather not. So Elijah, Hannah's ex, is at Jessa's wedding, and threads are established for the former twosome to possibly live together next season. Charlie, Marnie's ex, is at the wedding too, and in the end he runs into her with another guy. Shosh and Ray, after various previous interactions finally find themselves together; we knew this would happen because fate kept putting them in the same place despite their broader worlds. And in the end, Hannah takes a train to nowhere land, outside of her comfortable stomping grounds, and finds herself without a purse, not knowing where she is, on a beach, alone, and eating cake. This is seems a far cry from eating a cupcake in the bathtub at home while she gossips with Marnie...but in some ways it's not that far, at all.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.