Warning: Spoilers ahead.
HBO's Girls ended as it began — as a fitful, contradictory, occasionally irritating, often brilliant little story about a stupendously self-involved Millennial girl who just might be on her way to figuring out what it means to be a woman.
That's not the kind of Big Idea we normally expect from TV shows that have gotten as much attention and acclaim as Girls, but in a way it fits the show's subversive spirit — roping TV fans into caring about the evolution of an entitled, perpetually awkward woman in the same way they parse the latest male-oriented mayhem on Breaking Bad or The Wire.
That arc of emotions was masterfully summed up in Sunday's series finale episode, "Latching" — a window into the struggle of Lena Dunham's Hannah Horvath to handle postpartum depression and the difficulty of breastfeeding her newborn son, Grover.
The episode begins by mimicking a shot from an earlier season, when Hannah and her off-again, on-again boyfriend Adam were nestled awkwardly in bed together. In that long-ago scene, the camera panned up from their feet, lingering on their imperfect, average-looking bodies in a knowing parody of rom-coms past.
On Sunday, it was best friend Marnie (Allison Williams) sharing the bed, slipping next to Hannah in a declaration of support for a friend she treated as a doormat during much of the time we saw them together. "I win at being your best friend," Marnie exclaims, after Hannah agrees to accept her help in raising the baby.
Yeah, thinks every viewer who will ever watch the scene, this is going to end well.
Like many HBO series, Girls offered a final episode on Sunday that felt more like an epilogue — mopping up in the aftermath of an emotional explosion. The real finale landed the week before, when Hannah stormed uninvited into an engagement party held by former bestie Shoshanna to discover her ex-friend now hated her guts.
During that episode we saw the quartet of girls — which six seasons ago seemed like a fresh, engaging update to the Sex and the City crew — finally admit their friendships had atomized, done in by the parade of childish choices they inflicted on one another.
In this final season, Girls has excelled at crafting scenes where characters lob the kinds of criticisms at each other that longtime viewers have been screaming at the screen since the show debuted five years ago. Last week, that moment came when Shoshanna finally unloaded on why she was cutting all of her former friends loose; Sunday night, the catharsis was delivered by Hannah's mother.
Loreen, who often seemed a hateful figure in past episodes, redeems herself a bit by showing up as Hannah is coming unglued. Grover won't latch onto her nipples during breast feeding, Marnie's cheery-yet-judgmental attitude is driving her crazy, and she's having a tough time ignoring that nagging voice in the back of her head that says she's going to mess this parenting thing up, too.
In other words, Hannah is flailing through the same tortuous period many parents suffer right after they've taken a baby home. Loreen interrupts a tirade from Hannah to deliver the kind of tough love fans have yearned to see her daughter face for years: "You know who else is in emotional pain?" Loreen screams at her. "Fucking everyone!"
Not long after, Hannah storms away from the house and has the epiphany we've all been waiting for, encountering a cluelessly self-involved teenager who she then lectures like the kind of grown-up character who would have been mercilessly lampooned in the show's first season.
The final scene features Grover finally latching onto Hannah's breast, and an expression comes over her face that suggests she might have an inkling of what this selfless-parenting thing is all about.
There's been a lot to love about Girls' final season, including some sterling performances by its creator. As an earnest, ambitious artist willing to make mistakes in public, Dunham is an easy target for ridicule and insult. But her performance in the scene where Hannah finally realizes, without saying it, that Adam was going to leave her and break his promise to help with the baby, was poignant and effortlessly touching.
Indeed, that may be the greatest triumph for Dunham and Girls: For six seasons they have made us care about a woman who is aggressively unlike the airbrushed, super-thin, beautiful-girls-pretending-to-be-average that TV too often gives us.
Even when we cracked jokes about Hannah's weight or implausible career success, Dunham kept us engaged in the character's journey. That continued right through Sunday's episode, despite its anticlimatic focus on three characters.
Series endings are tricky things: They must embody the spirit of the show's entire season, while offering new surprises and resolving complex, often far-reaching storylines. See Breaking Bad and The Wire for how to do it right; endure Seinfeld, Dexter and How I Met Your Mother for examples of how finales can go terribly wrong.
Still, even when Girls infuriated me — and I won't waste any space lamenting how it continually marginalized characters of color — it always moved me. And in a hyper-stuffed media world filled with distraction masquerading as profundity, that may be the greatest compliment any critic can give.