The Refreshing, Hopeful, Subtly Bleak Girls' Season Three Finale

Our roundtable discusses "Two Plane Flights," the 12th episode of the HBO show's third season.


This week's panelists: Chris Heller, Spencer Kornhaber, and Ashley Fetters.

Kornhaber: The news that you may be moving halfway across the country for grad school is the sort of thing you’re supposed to tell your significant other, right away. But what if that significant other is about to undergo the most significant professional challenge of his life—opening night as a Broadway actor? Maybe you wait a couple hours.

Similarly, when’s the right time to tell your ex that you love him and want to get back together? Maybe not during intermission at a play. When’s the right time to fess up to your good friend that you slept with her ex? Maybe not right after that friend learns she won’t graduate college. And, uh, when’s the right time to decide you don’t want to commit suicide? Maybe not after you’ve cajoled your young assistant into giving you a lethal dose of pills.

This season finale found its typically Girls-ish moments of awkward, cover-your-eyes humor not so much from what people were saying, but when they were saying things. “Seriously, shut the fuck up,” Clementine, acting as viewer proxy, tells Marnie at one point. “Has anyone ever taught you when to speak?”

Believe it or not, this is a sign of progress for our heroes. Not long ago, entire seasons’ worth of tension were built on the girls lying to themselves and to others. Remember how toxic it was for Marnie to keep quiet to Hannah about having semi-slept with Elijah? Now, Marnie’s spouting brutal truths about herself as soon as Hannah walks into her apartment: “I know I use sex for emotional validation, because it's what I do.”

So, more and more, these characters recognize the monsters we see them as. More and more, they’re having tough, necessary, seemingly adult conversations. Does that mean they’re suddenly humane? No, but watching them try to be—watching Marnie try to comfort Shoshanna with a tale of her lazy days at Oberlin before knifing her with news of the Ray dalliance—is hilarious. Of course, characters who self-sabotage pointlessly and squabble pettily are hilarious too. Eventually, though, they get tiring. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see the season ending with a series of forthright, if ill-timed, conflicts about Real Stuff.

For example, Adam and Hannah face their biggest challenge yet, and it’s not from him being a weirdo or her being a narcissist. It’s from both of them wanting to throw themselves into fulfilling careers. We hadn’t known Hannah had applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but now her tirade at the GQ offices makes more sense: She had success on the writing-for-hire path, found it wanting, and still held out hope that there’s a way to write and be fulfilled. Her beam at the end of the episode signaled that even if her relationship with Adam may be nearing an end, even if she’s unemployed at the moment, her idealism and ambition can keep living. It’s one of the most encouraging victories the show’s ever offered.

Less encouraging: everything Shoshanna-related. Her destructive apartment rampage (the reason heavy music was invented) stems from more than just her “fucking cunt of a glaciology professor” flunking her. It’s from the reality-shaking realization that her plan to Have It All—promiscuity, stability, achievement—has failed, and maybe was always doomed. Shoshanna’s screen time this season has been pretty miniscule, but there’s something fitting about the fact that her plotline has been one of subtle, marginal simmering. We’ve seen her frustratedly trying to study as her friends distract her; we’ve seen her sit silently then explode in judgment. This is an intense person putting herself under intense pressure in an intense period—and all, it turns out, for nothing. (OK, for perhaps one more semester at NYU.) It’s hard to tell if her abject proposition to Ray was sincere, or whether it was just her trying to regain control of at least one aspect of her life.

Jessa, meanwhile, has relished being out of control all season. She goes to rehab and makes a joke out of it; she’s sober for a bit then backslides spectacularly. Whenever she’s not getting wasted, she complains of boredom. But hanging out with Bede, someone who appreciates her candor but who won’t indulge her junkie tendencies, offers something genuinely new. When her employer requests euthanasia, Jessa must confront all the topics she’s been getting too high to think about—mortality, aging, happiness, the real purpose of pharmaceuticals. Maybe with a mentor who’s decided to choose life, she’ll finally start taking her own existence seriously.

Marnie, though, appears ready to pick up the mantle as the show’s agent of chaos. Self awareness has just made her worse, it seems. Hannah and Elijah tell her it’s a bad idea to go after the non-bachelor smarmmaster Desi. She nevertheless giddily celebrates after she gets him to lunge at her. When she grins at the sight of Desi and Clementine fighting, I can’t help but feel like the real issue we’re dealing with in her plotline is a psychological one. At this point, I don’t know what’d it take for her to break her own cycle of misery.

Chris, your thoughts on the finale? Could NYC-obsessed Girls really relocate its main character to the Midwest? And should we cheer or fear the inevitable Laird/Caroline birthing episode?

Heller: I can't even with that pregnancy. Everything is on the table for that child. Water birth? Sure. Co-sleeping? Duh. Elimination communication? Of course. I just hope that Laird baby-proofed his dad's compound upstate. It's the least an extremely integrated human being should do.

I agree about the finale: Girls has staggered toward the Real Stuff for the better part of this season, from Hannah's GQ affair to Adam's burgeoning career to Shosh's failed plan to graduate out of her old life. "Two Plane Rides" uses each of these storylines to raise broader questions about direction and purpose. (To paraphrase the eternally wise Loreen Horvath, these questions could change the course of their entire professional lives.) It's a relief, in a peculiar way, to see these characters face problems they can't escape or delay. Hannah has to make a choice about Iowa. Adam must decide if Broadway comes before his girlfriend.

We worried a few weeks ago if Hannah and Adam's relationship was fading away. It turns out that, maybe, Hannah and Adam instead will decide they care about their dreams more than they care about each other. If they do break up—and the song composed for the episode's end credits sure makes it seem like they will—it'll be the most mature decision they've ever made. Almost too adult, even. Without each other, who will these two people become?

Call it the Ploshansky Rule: A relationship can change you for the better, but only if you first recognize how it has changed you. That's a big reason why Ray pulled his life together after his break-up, while Shosh made hers worse in ways that didn't reveal themselves until it was too late. More than anyone else in a relationship on the show, Hannah and Adam adopted the best parts of each other. She's more self-assured because of him; he's less pretentious and sneering because of her. Their weaknesses are still there, like her ill-timed backstage reveal and his self-sabotage in the Broadway alley, but they've made each other undeniably better. If they break up, can they thrive?

I suspect Hannah will, while Adam won't. We saw what happened to him last year when he tried dating Natalia. He needs a person like Hannah, someone who validates his passions and is at ease with his hang-ups and quirks. He's still a profoundly angry person who drags people down when he's in a mood. Even if the ambition that got him to Broadway is new, the way he lashed out at Hannah was old. (Remember: Adam was the one who said he was "tired of trying to work it out.") I'm glad that she's finding happiness and purpose outside of her relationship—Hannah was never going to be a woman defined by the man she dated—so, in a way, "Two Plane Rides" felt like a step toward a new era of Girls. The characters are growing up, their problems have reached life-changing heights, and change is near. I'm almost surprised I'm writing this, considering how much I hated the early episodes of this season, but I'm excited to see where they go next.

What do you think, Ashley? Will Hannah and Adam break up? How much will you miss Elijah's formal shorts this summer? Will Shosh ever have another line as great as her M&M's command?

Fetters: As for Shoshanna and the M&Ms line: Nope. That was it for me. This season’s Peak Shosh moment.

But that speaks both to how high-quality that line was and how little Shoshanna we’ve seen this season. In addition to hoping that Season Four has Hannah continue to figure out her priorities and Marnie quit making out with other people’s boyfriends and/or ex-boyfriends, I mostly want the next season to deliver a Shoshanna scene that can top the “I can’t be the only thing you like!” screech. Er, speech.

Anyway, in the “inside the episode” featurette after the finale, Lena Dunham says the goal wasn’t so much to tie up all the plotlines for the end of the season, but rather to open new doors and raise new questions. I think this finale did that beautifully. So much of Hannah’s arc this season has been about figuring out what’s Priority A and what’s Priority B between career and relationship, and this is the first time we’ve seen her consider (and consider the consequences of) placing her career on top for a change.

Obviously—as you point out, Spencer—Hannah could have delivered the news to Adam a little more sensitively. Anything that starts with “I know you need your space, but” isn’t going anywhere good. But does anyone else notice Adam’s hypocrisy? Over the last few episodes, he’s been putting his time and effort into his work instead of his relationship, and Hannah’s been struggling to make peace with that. Now, it’s Hannah who’s committing herself to pursuing her career, and it’s Adam who’s taking it personally. “Now you’re leaving me?” he asks Hannah after the show. It calls right back to Hannah’s interpretation of Adam’s newfound commitment to his career: As she said in last week’s episode, “I feel like you’re leaving me, only in such slow motion that I’m not even gonna notice until it’s done.”

(It’s true, however, that Hannah’s putting a bigger logistical strain on their relationship than Adam did: As Adam points out, he moved a few blocks away for a few weeks, while Hannah’s talking about moving half a country away for two years.)

With regard to whether I think Adam and Hannah will stay together: My guess is the way this ended—with Hannah clutching her acceptance letter to her heart and smiling to herself—indicates that for now, she’s planning to move forward with her career at the top of her list, even if she knows it could mean losing Adam in the process.

On the surface, that seems like a hopeful (if bittersweet) note to end the season on. In bleaker terms, however, it could also mean her conviction that she’s a special snowflake has once again been validated. Which is how we got to “I’m the voice of my generation—or, at least, a voice of a generation” in the first place. For much of this season, we were impressed with Hannah’s maturity, and a big part of that was her ability to accept and succeed at a normal-person job. It seemed she had realized that a steady grown-up paycheck was more practical than hanging onto that elusive dream of finding success in creative writing. So it’s worth pondering: Is this a step forward, or is it actually a step backward?

And, side note, I can’t imagine the show actually packing up and moving to Iowa. At least not permanently. In fact, if Hannah remains the Hannah we know, I can see her enrolling at Iowa, deciding three weeks in that writing cannot be taught after all, and flouncing back to New York, to her parents’ dismay.

Again—bleak. Sorry. Let’s just say I hope she proves me wrong.