The brilliance of Lena Dunham's "Girls" is that it works just as well whether you root for her character or against her.
Dunham's Hannah, a precious, spoiled, not very hardworking aspiring writer, is, in a word, insufferable. When we're on her side, it's usually more out of pity than a belief that she's made her own luck. In the last two episodes alone, we've seen her foolishly jam a Q-Tip deep into her ear, procrastinate endlessly and spend a book advance before doing any real work on the book. Her problems are almost entirely of her own invention.
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It's possible to empathize with her, even though there are perhaps millions of people who deserve our empathy more. But it's even easier to laugh at her, the way we laugh at ourselves, when we eat things we shouldn't, ignore our responsibilities or give in to our most narcissistic instincts.
What makes "Girls" so good is that it doesn't shy away from addressing any of life's humiliations, or the huge difference between the way we believe things should be and the way they are. It never ends, for example, with one of those rom-com scenes where a shirtless guy races Tarzan-style through the streets of Manhattan to lift the flawed heroine into his arms and kiss her sweetly.
At least, not until Sunday's season 2 finale. That's actually exactly how it ended.
Have we been giving "Girls" too much credit?
Until now, the HBO series has felt like a blunt rejoinder to dumb female wish-fulfillment fantasies, from fairy tales to "Pretty Woman," where a hunky man -- often a prince, because there are so many of those -- comes to the heroine's rescue. The tacit, disempowering lesson is that it takes a man to fix things.
This isn't to say no female-led show can ever end with the heroine finding heterosexual love: Love can fix a lot in people's lives. Female protagonists deserve to get the guy as much as James Bond deserves to get the girl.
But for Bond, the girl is just a bonus. For Hannah, at least Sunday, the guy felt like the solution.
I'm hoping this is all a huge fake-out, setting us up for a hard lesson in season 3.
But Hannah wasn't the only one Sunday to be apparently rescued by a man. Marnie, a total mess, reconciled with an ex who has -- hooray! -- made scads of money since she dumped him.
You could say Shoshonna's storyline provided a counterpoint to Hannah and Marnie's: She broke up with her boyfriend, Ray, deciding she would be happier without him. (She accuses him of hating everything -- but what she considers hate, Ray considers critical thinking.)
We soon see Shoshonna making out giddily with exactly the kind of Scandanavian-looking guy that Ray accuses her of secretly desiring. In a way, she just climbs a ladder to a more traditionally appealing guy.
Did "Girls" completely sell out on us?
I hope not.
Let's take a minute to consider how bogus, on the surface, Sunday's finale felt.
"Girls" has taken some license before with the type of men and boys a young woman like Hannah would be likely to attract. She may be a talented writer, but we really haven't seen any evidence that she is. She wears sloppy little-kid clothes much of the time, and she's chubby -- by all indications happy with herself, but chubby.
(This is the part where readers might raise all sorts of complaints about the male gaze and how it objectifies women, but come on. Hannah has been naked more times than I can count this season, in scenes when she didn't have to be. Dunham wants us to see Hannah naked, a lot. So we're allowed to notice things, just as we can notice that her often-unclothed romantic interest, Adam, is turning into the Hulk.)
In an episode earlier this season, Hannah had a brief affair with a handsome doctor (Patrick Wilson), who she probably wouldn’t lure in real life. It felt so fantastical that some critics have argued that the episode was a dream. But even with a guy who was objectively out of her league -- physically, economically, perhaps intellectually -- Hannah made it all about her. She refused to focus on his pain over a recent separation, or even to call him "Joshua" -- his preference -- instead of Josh.
In one character-defining scene, she stopped giving him a sexual favor to insist that he instead pleasure her. In short, she expected him to do all the work, and for her to enjoy the rewards. The episode ended with her relaxing at his house, eating his food, reading his newspaper -- all the luxuries he earned through years of not just working but saving people's lives.
In Sunday's episode, the pattern continued. In one scene, we see her reading a trashy magazine and eating whipped cream straight out of the container, which is about as slovenly as a human can get. Soon after, Adam gets her phone call and makes that shirtless run through the streets. He even breaks down her door when she refuses to get out of bed.
Are we supposed to believe this sort of thing actually happens? That would be the least charitable interpretation of the episode, because it would put "Girls" in league with a movie likely to star Kate Hudson and Patrick Dempsey.
Or maybe we're to believe that for all Adam's rough-sex, male domination, porn-fueled fantasies, illustrated in episode after episode, in the end he's won over by a woman completely different from those he watches onscreen: That what he thinks he wants and truly wants are completely different.
Or perhaps the season finale is meant as a cultural critique. Is it long-due revenge for decades of films where gorgeous, scantily clad young women fall for geriatric, pot-bellied men? Are the "girls" finally winning, for once?
I don't think that's the right takeaway, either.
Because I don't think Adam is rescuing Hannah at all.
Remember that last season's finale also ended with a character being "rescued" by a man. Jessa had a quickie wedding to finance-whiz Thomas John, and bragged early this season to Hannah that her hunt was over. But it isn't: The marriage disintegrated as she went to dinner with his parents, disclosed a history with heroin, and did her best to sabotage things.
Hannah and Adam's relationship is on perhaps shakier ground. They're both at their absolute lows. She's about to get sued for blowing the advance, he's a recently lapsed alcoholic, and he was in the process of destroying his apartment when she rang him up. Last episode ended with him crossing a line with his unlucky new girlfriend – the girlfriend he's cheating on when he kisses Hannah.
So this may not be a happy ending after all, a "Sex in the City"-like reunion with Mr. Big in Paris.
In fact, it may be the story of two very messed up people, meeting at their low points. And they may drag each other even lower.
We know all of their flaws, and they know some but not all of each other's. But is that true love? Or settling?
I don’t expect "Girls" to settle for "true love." I'm giving the show a lot of credit here, but it's earned it.
Still, I'm a little worried, because of the fact that Judd Apatow co-wrote this episode, that we're supposed to take the supposed romance at face value.
Apatow, one of the show's executive producers, has a tendency to ramp up sentiment in the sorts of situation where Dunham refuses to do so.
The girl, in other words, is tougher than the guy. She can fight her own battles, and should.