The Five Stages (and First Five Seasons) of “Girls” Grief
Welcome to TV Minus the TV, a column full of thoughts about TV shows watched on laptops published on the internet for you to read on your phone.
In the process of being a professional TV critic, you sometimes have to undertake daunting tasks — like binging all of HBO’s Girls in a month when you’re assigned to cover its final season, which is effectively like following creator/star Lena Dunham and ONLY Lena Dunham on Twitter for four solid weeks.
That is, it’s a lot of one voice.
However, this recent accelerated Lenadventure, with all its teeth-grating Dunhamnity and moments of resonance, was also a chance for me to constructively process my feelings about the end of a series that asks its characters and viewers to learn how to cope.
In fact, after this weeks-long submersion, I’ve come to realize that both the first five seasons of Girls and the experience of watching the first five seasons of Girls line up eerily well with the five stages of grief outlined in the Kübler-Ross model — from the sense of denial permeating the debut season, to the eventual acceptance found in its latest.
Much like the model’s postulated series of emotional reckoning, Girls’ five-season run grabs the heart and head and twists until our animal brains come to terms:
What follows is the curious concatenation of how one evolves while watching Girls, and how Girls evolved while it was being watched…
Season 1: Denial
The first reaction to tragedy (or Girls ) is denial. This can’t be happening, you’re wrong about what you know, this show can’t possibly be like this. Total bewilderment. The debut season introduces us to so many people, with so many aggravating tics and nauseating personalities, one can’t help but wonder if it’s all a bad joke (and many people did).
There’s just something sadistically sarcastic about the depths to which Dunham’s characters go that vexingly straddles the line between awful sincerity and black irony:
Meanwhile, we the viewers are left exasperatingly unsure as to what the trajectory of the show will be after all this literal and emotional upheaval. When Hannah returns to Michigan to continue her (not-even) quarter-life crisis, the specificity of the suburban homecoming makes it clear this is one existential crisis that won’t be solved in a single episode. She’s still sleeping with Adam (Adam Driver) — whose own implicit denial that he cares about Hannah is reciprocated in the finale by her denial of love when he offers to move in — and still leeching off her best friend, Marnie (Allison Williams) — whose gnawing refusal to admit that Hannah is a selfish burden eventually bursts in the penultimate episode of the season.
Which leads us directly to the second stage…
Season 2: Anger
Anger is the logical next step after denial, because what’s more frustrating than having reality a-knock-knock-knocking on your alt-fact doorstep? When we realize we can no longer deny what kind of show Girls is, those near us suffer. We blame the remote control, our dogs, our girlfriends, our trusted sources at The A.V. Club and Vulture, and especially, Lena Dunham. We’re hooked, and it’s too late to get out. Damn it all.
It’s season two, after all.
Synchronously, its first two episodes open with multiple fights between lovers who’d been fooling themselves for too long: Elijah (Andrew Rannells) and his boyfriend, George, who struggle with a considerable age and income difference; and Hannah and her boyfriend, Sandy (Donald Glover), whose conservative political leanings make any interaction with hyper-liberal Hannah volatile. The relationship turmoil climaxes with Adam arriving uninvited and unannounced to Hannah’s apartment at the end of the second episode, which upsets her to the degree that she casually calls 911. Thus, after a brief chase inside her apartment, the cops soon arrive at the door. Adam is then belligerent to both Hannah and the police, while Hannah remains continuously shocked that actions have consequences.
Which, let’s be honest, makes me mad too.
Hannah then picks a coke-addled fight with Marnie and Elijah because of their three-pump sexual excursion#, and later hosts a wrong-headed (literally inviting two heads that should never have been in the same room) dinner party that ends with Charlie’s new girlfriend yelling at Marnie. Finally, all the underlying issues that made the first season so intimately watchable, involving us in the smallest details of these dramatic lives, have violently bubbled to the surface. Jessa and her new husband fight, Ray (Alex Karpovsky) and a random doctor played by Patrick Wilson fight, and we’re all stuck wondering how, of the two televised options, professional wrestling became the more mature choice for relationship development and maintenance.
The facade is collapsing all around us, and things are getting gross and petty…
Jessa gets pissed at Hannah for banging her teen brother in the woods (yikes), who in turn gets pissed at Jessa for abandoning her at her parents’ house. Adam becomes sexually violent and aggressively degrading to his new girlfriend; lashing out as a development from his suppressed feelings for Hannah, which of course leads to multiple fights (“No, I can like your cock and not be a whore”). Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) and Ray eventually crumble, while Adam smashes things, revealing the shirtless animal that was hiding beneath his quirky exterior the whole time.
The chips are down, and they’re all too scared to turn to anything but…
Season 3: Bargaining
The third stage (and thus, the third season) involves the hope that the thing causing you grief is avoidable. Think of people pleading with angels/devils in movies when it’s their time to move on. They’ll change their ways; they just need a little more time. Girls can become a full-fledged prestige dramedy after two seasons of skating by on shock value and caricatures; it just needs the proper time to unfold its complexity!
“Sure,” says the TV angel with its hand on your shoulder. “Don’t they all.”
Much of the third season’s bargaining is, unsurprisingly, based on the main characters’ selfishness, with Jessa’s stretch in rehab (as well as Adam’s ongoing alcoholism) bluntly tying the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to the collective negotiation of the protagonists for their happiness. And the admission of powerlessness to their addiction is a very attractive scapegoat for a pair apparently addicted to bad decisions. Perhaps if they make amends, maybe invite Adam’s mentally unstable sister Caroline (Gaby Hoffmann) to Hannah’s 25th birthday party, life will figure itself out for them.
Then there’s an actual death…
David, Hannah’s editor played by John Cameron Mitchell, turns up dead. But at the funeral, Hannah enters into almost literal bargaining as she immediately begins shopping around her eBook that will no longer be under David’s supervision. Contracts are discussed, legal counsel is given; though ultimately the death of a close acquaintance merely ends in Hannah’s financial frustration (her concession job — a gig at GQ that most writers would dream of — is something she’s actually good at, and therefore must be resented).
She could be a ‘real writer,’ if only she had more time…or freedom…or inspiration…something!
The relationships in this season come shackled with the same kind of nebulous rules and dubious regulations, as well; those pesky logistical excuses that belie an underlying sense of resignation in favor of well-defined potentialities and the straw man specter of expected compliance.
Adam and Hannah come to the conclusion they have to live separately after he gets a role in a Broadway show, while Marnie accepts a few subpar fuck-buddies out of sheer desperation:
Two capsule episodes sum the season’s commitment to the impotent struggle against reality: In “Beach House,” its seventh episode, Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna take a mini-vacation that tapers to endless frayed ends and bickering. However, they’re able to reconcile the very next day based on nothing more than the feeling that they’re somehow connected, as they dance along to choreography learned the night before (Ok, so these are my friends, they think to themselves, I can live with that). “Flo,” on the other hand, sees the season’s second death, with Hannah’s grandmother (June Squibb) passing away in a post-ironic episode focused precisely on the previously-outlined bargaining process; her hospitalization exposing a dysfunctional family as they coalesce and attempt to work out their problems — including a DUI-friendly cousin and a fibbed marriage proposal — to no medicinal avail.
For this is how the world works, and it’ll never change…
Season Four: Depression
If this inevitability comes built into the world, then why bother trying at all? That’s the premise behind the fourth stage of grief/Girls: depression. It’s mortal despair, shunning those close to us and burrowing further and further into ourselves. For the audience, after three seasons, our patience has run out; yet our escape is all but impossible. We’re here, though we’re not happy about it, so why even bother asking the show to improve? It’ll be renewed either way.
Hannah’s isolating journey to Iowa reflects our melancholy:
What was once enchanting and novel has become a wasteland, leaving us only to reflect on our own mistakes. And one class per week leaves a lot of dead time to be sad, just as one interesting plot development per episode (though that may be too generous) leaves a lot of dead time to think about why we’re still watching this show.
Like Hannah’s infamous sit-in upon discovering Adam’s new girlfriend (which rings equal parts incredulity and ennui), we imagined coming to home where we belong, but the inevitably of betrayal and hate now seems inescapable.
And yet. There remain chances abound, both for the characters, and for our viewing pleasure. Because for each stagnation, an unexpected opening appears.
Through the grey haze of depression, these silver linings are easily ignored or mocked, viewed suspiciously as too-good-to-be-true chances at self-worth. But whether it’s Shoshanna’s opportunity for a Japanescape from the terrible, self-obsessed people in her life; Hannah’s new teaching gig, and her father’s newfound acceptance of his homosexuality; or Ray’s seat on the city council, there are nevertheless bright lights at the end of this depressed tunnel. Indeed, Hannah’s refusal to take back Adam and Shosh’s acceptance of her new Tokyo-based job are actually the first steps towards self-actualizing maturity these characters have taken in years of screentime.
Which brings us to…
Season Five: Acceptance
It’s going to be okay.
The final stage of the Kübler-Ross rollercoaster mercifully allows us (and the show) to embrace its vexatious quirks, the girls’ instability and selfishness ironically providing unprecedented opportunity for growth and insight into an otherwise unanalyzed segment of the modern population.
In the fifth and penultimate season, wedding jitters and the culture shock of a new job are smoothed out. The path of least resistance becomes calm adaptation, which Shosh takes to immediately once freed from her toxic circle in NYC. And to be honest, after 40-something episodes in which she’s basically pigeonholed as a quick-talking comedic crutch, it’s nice seeing one of these characters thrive for once, especially one as relatively harmless as Shoshanna. Her burgeoning bilinguality and healthy work romance are like a dabble in a show that actually allows its characters to have nice things.
The technicolor clothes and lights of Tokyo soothe us as much as Shosh, offering brief respite from New York’s callous drudgery.
Likewise, Hannah’s mother finds a way to accept her newly-uncloseted husband, displaying a maturity that trickles down (in a strange way) to her daughter’s exploration of her sexuality. Hell, even Marnie gets some self-care this season! After an impromptu adventure with drug-addled ex Charlie, she realizes she should probably stop all this nonsense with her husband and simply be alone for a little while. Elijah too has a similar realization after a brief tryst with Dill Harcourt (Corey Stoll) that fails to live up to his expectations.
All at once, it seems like the Girls crew has decided to grow. And though it seems like it’s come out of nowhere, lurching forward in fits and spurts, it’s still immensely palatable. Despite us being groomed for years on what to expect from Girls, the show’s proclivities can’t undo our cultural desires for growth, maturation, and closure.
Finally, finally, we get a taste…
Whereas season one’s Hannah would’ve slept with the first willing stranger, throwing a temper tantrum of flared sexuality, in response to Jessa and Adam’s relationship, acceptance-stage Hannah turns her feelings into a successful storytelling experience at The Moth. She even drops off a fruit basket to the insurgents’ home.
The choppy waters have finally settled and we, the audience, will take literally any sanity that we can get from this show.
With the final season here, to continue the analogy of a terminal patient, we can finally die.
Thank you, Lena Dunham. Thank you for your mercy.
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