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“I need to see how other people see me because it’s the only way that I can see myself.”

That’s Jenny Slate’s Girls character Tally Schifrin, a successful Brooklyn writer who might have more in common with the show’s creator, Lena Dunham, than Hannah Horvath does. In last night’s two-part season finale, she explained to Hannah, a jealous nemesis turned confidante after some bike pilfering and blunt puffing, why she Googles herself so often.

“I wake up every morning and I think, ok, what would Tally Schifrin do?,” she said. “Tally Schifrin is not even me now. She’s just like this thing I’ve created. She’s a monster that I’ve made and that I have to feed.”

The feeling of disassociation that she was talking about doesn’t just result from her celebrity status. Tally’s struggles, the impeccably written fifth season of Girls suggested, are on some level universal ones about growing up. The longer you live, the more your identity coalesces. Does that identity serve you, or do you serve it? Once it’s set, can it be changed? These aren’t just questions about self improvement—about buying new clothes, like Elijah does, or exercising more, like Hannah. It’s about seeing who you’ve become to the world and making a possibly radical choice about how to proceed.

For Hannah, that radical choice was to stay calm when she learned that her ex, Adam, was dating her best friend, Jessa. In her subdued but funny performance for The Moth, she said that the worst thing about the situation was knowing that Adam and Jessa rightly expected her to react with outrageous behavior. But Hannah saw how she was seen by others and broke with the caricature, delivering a fruit basket to Adam’s door instead of a bicycle through his window. This doesn’t mean an abdication of the otherwise wacky Hannah persona: She still left a decent-seeming boyfriend, quit a decent-seeming job, and stole a decent-seeming guy’s bike. But she made each of those choices after clear deliberation about the risks and potential rewards. Though her life may appear to be one of chaos, increasingly it seems that control, not inertia, drives it.

Other characters have chosen to defy the dominant conception of themselves in the service of their own happiness. Marnie has said time and again that she’s not a kind of girl who can be with a kind of guy like Ray—but, for now, she’s set that appearances-rooted judgment aside in order to fulfill her desires and need for emotional support. Shoshanna’s rebrand of Cafe Grumpy, requiring an avatar of whimsy to post Mitt Romney ads in a coffee shop, offers a lighter vision of the power of taking command of one’s own identity. The progress that Hannah’s parents have made in finding some peace after Tad came out is a reminder of how the process of periodically realigning the person you’ve become with the person you want to be continues into middle age.

But not everyone is on the path to transcending. Elijah, brutally confronted by Dill with how he is perceived by other people, chose for now to double-down on the aimless party-boy look. Jessa and Adam, too, remain chained to the most destructive generalizations they might make about themselves. All season, they’ve made comments indicating that they believed their relationship would result in an epic blowup because of their personalities. Now, they’ve obliged the doomed-psycho-lovers narrative with a violent fight. When Adam broke through the bathroom door all Shining-like, Jessa chastised him for going over the top—a clear indication that as much as their battle was driven by pure passions, it was also a kind of performance.

The exact reason for that performance came, too, from a clash between self-conception, outward perception, personal choice, and reality. “You know people hate me,” Jessa told Adam in one of the most electrifying scenes of the entire series. “I’m a hatable kind of person. I don’t know why, I can’t help it, maybe it’s because I have a big ass and good hair. But I know—I know!—that I have principles. And one thing that I don’t do is steal people’s boyfriends.”

She then said that her identity slipping in the wrong direction— from someone who doesn’t steal boyfriends to someone who does—was not her fault but Adam’s. He had no words to reply to that accusation, only physical action of the sort viewers haven’t seen in a long time from him. She replied in kind. In a season defined largely by progress for many characters, here was a frightening reminder that growing up can mean backsliding—especially when you allow yourself to be exactly who everyone fears you are.

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