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The Real Drama of 'Girls' Has Never Been About Hannah

Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

How long can the characters in HBO’s "Girls" last before they outstay the public’s welcome? Since its premiere in 2012, the show has been a lightning rod for controversy, cultural debate, and critical attention ranging from fawning to excoriation. Now in its fourth season, "Girls" seems to beg one question of its audience: Will its privileged young women ever grow up, and make the title of their show irrelevant? If the first few episodes of the new season are any indication, this is, for the first time, a very real possibility.

There is a wonderful moment in “Triggering,” the second episode of this season, in which Hannah (Lena Dunham), newly arrived at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, tries in vain to get a cellphone signal. She stands on the lawn of the enormous, too-good-to-be-true house she has rented for a song, and holds her phone out at various angles, stretching her arm as far as she can. Watching this scene for the first time, I was at first positive that Hannah was searching for the best possible selfie angle: “here is my new house, here is my life, and here I am transformed into a writer.”

"Girls" has now been on the air for three years, and in that time creator and actress Lena Dunham has more than established Hannah as the kind of character from who we’d expect this kind posturing. The character’s most revealing moments come when she makes her most brazen attempts to present herself as a persona: the sexual adventuress, the tough chick who’s been around the block, and, now, the writer. "Girls" is at its strongest when it shows us just how vast of a gulf can stretch between the people its characters pretend to be and the people they really are.

This season, the women of "Girls" are, more than ever, engaged not just in histrionic pratfalls but in attempting to bridge the divide between who they are and who they want to be. They are reaching out to others, rather than just finding new ways to frame themselves—or as Elijah (Andrew Rannells) says in the most recent episode of this season: “I realized I got so good at taking selfies I wasn’t feeling challenged anymore. And I thought: what if I turned the camera … around? It’s a real epiphany for me.”

This is the kind of epiphany that has evaded “Girls” characters since its inception, and that has made the show seem so infuriating to some viewers, and so innovative to others. Truth be told, I think, it’s both. I’ve always enjoyed “Girls” for being a well-written, lovingly assembled show filled with both acerbic wit and moments of startlingly powerful emotional rawness. Yet I’ve also always found it difficult to watch—as it seems many viewers have—in the same way that I find it difficult to look at pictures of myself from my most awkward years. We can do all we want to reject the person in the photo, but we still have to acknowledge her not just as a past self, but as a facet of who we are now. Watching “Girls” characters, and especially watching Hannah, seems a similar experience for most viewers. I will admit that it certainly is for me. I am constantly dismayed by her selfishness, her obtusenesss, and her apparent inability to think of the world as anything but a stage on which she can play out her latest drama. I yell at her to reconsider her decisions, the way I yell at characters in horror movies who seem as determined to rid themselves of their young lives—Don’t go in the basement!—as Hannah is to shuck away any shred of dignity or accountability.

I keep yelling even though I know she won’t hear me, the same way I know that the rude, self-centered, deeply insecure person I was a few years ago will never be able to hear me, either. I empathize with Hannah because I know that person will always be a part of me. And I keep watching because, if Hannah or any of the other characters on “Girls” do begin to learn from their mistakes, it will be the first time anyone has seen such a painful journey on television—even if we all know what it’s like to live it.

When we think of female stars, and of many of the enduringly lovable female characters television has previously acquainted us with, we think of a finished product. Women like “Friends”’ Rachel, Monica and Phoebe or “The Office”’s Pam Beesly, or “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”’s Mary Richards spent much of their time on television unsatisfied with their apartments, their boyfriends, their careers, and their clothes. But they also knew who they were by the series’ outset: Their characters were fully formed, static, and reliable. They were also likable to a fault, because they were on television, and likability, as everyone knew, was the most sacred duty of any leading lady. Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel Green began her run on “Friends” as a spoiled runaway bride from Long Island who didn’t feel like a real adult. But from the start, she was also funny, sexy, and caring. She was consistent in the way that only a sitcom character can be, and though American viewers have moved away from the sitcom model in terms of their viewing habits, female characters still seem stuck in its template.

The women of Girls are not sitcom characters. They behave rashly and at times inexplicably. They mask their own grave uncertainties with constant jokes and barbs and insults, some of them funny, some of them simply depressing to watch. Sometimes they treat each other with tenderness, and sometimes they are rude or thoughtless or even cruel, in a manner that is often uncomfortably similar to the social dynamics we encounter in real life. It is one of “Girls”’sstrengths, especially this season, that it allows its characters’ relationships to be influenced by the somewhat random ebb and flow that so often governs group social dynamics. Anyone who has watched “Sex and the City”and wondered how four allegedly high-powered New York women are able to coordinate endless breakfasts, lunches, and cocktail hours will have no such misgivings when watching “Girls,” whose characters seem to go weeks at a time without even seeing each other. Individual characters fail to display the static personalities we know from television, and their relationships to each other are similarly slippery: mutual enmity can slide into lust, and wry patter can break to reveal a tender core, at the most unexpected moments.

This season, in particular, is intent on forcing its characters to reckon with their mistakes. After embarking for her new life at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop without defining the new terms of her relationship with Adam or taking stock of how much she was leaving behind, Hannah has found herself, disappointingly, unable to escape the real world, or herself. Upon her arrival, the viewer sees Iowa as Hannah must: a green, green pasture that promises her freedom, time, and people who will think she is the most fascinating writer in the world.

Of course, this is not the case—and Hannah’s almost immediate sense of disappointment is the kind many aspiring writers have probably felt. The opportunity knocks, the moment comes, the world opens up and allows you to inhabit the role you have always wanted—Author—and yet you remain yourself. We watched Hannah arrive in a flush of excitement at her new identity as Struggling, Gritty Female Author, and immediately begin to search for an audience to make the role seem real. “Must be nice to have your parents paying for all your shit,” she tells a clerk in the university bookstore. “Must be nice to still be on the teat.” But Hannah is probably still on “the teat” herself, and reacts badly when her fellow MFA students approach her fiction with the same criticism many viewers have reserved for her character: “It’s about a really privileged girl deciding that she’s just gonna let someone abuse her.”

Instead of finding renown as an unflinching author—a voice of a generation, at least, if not the voice—Hannah feels pigeonholed as the “Fifty Shades of Grey girl.” She responds in the worst way possible, lashing out at her classmates, in an attempt to disguise her anger and hurt feelings as necessary candor. When her audiences doesn’t respond to her performance the way she wanted, it’s easy for her to tell herself that her classmates don’t understand her—instead of admitting that they understand her all too well.

Perhaps the biggest question underlying season four is whether the characters’ constant dissatisfaction is related less to the human condition than to millennial culture. In the first episode, a slightly older character (played by the spitfire Natasha Lyonne) cannot even give Jessa a full reading of the riot act without wondering aloud about her generation: “Is it because you were told you were special one too many times, and you believed it? Because when my generation and every generation before me were called special, we were smart enough to know that it meant we were stupid, so it made us work that much harder to stop being stupid.”

In all the women of “Girls,” we see characters who still feel like girls because they have yet to reach the potential they were sure was their birthright, and who are constantly surprised by the fact that the extraordinary lives they expected for themselves somehow remain beyond their reach. It’s hard to imagine that this problem can stem only from millennial culture, or even necessarily from a privileged upbringing. But it renders all too recognizably the moment at which some young adults realize they have prepared themselves for lives of extraordinary prestige, talent, and greatness, but never given a thought as to how to just be ordinary. Part of the journey of becoming an adult lies in realizing that there is no “just” being ordinary at all—that an ordinary life in which one can be generous, kind, and empathetic is as great a goal as fame or fortune, and that it is in fact more difficult to have character than it is to be a character.

Watching Hannah’s almost immediate disappointment with her MFA, I was reminded of the words of Flannery O’Connor, another one-time student of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “All human nature vigorously rejects grace,” she wrote, “because grace changes us and the change is painful.” O’Connor, a Catholic, had divine grace in mind as she wrote these words, but they apply equally to the moral lives of her characters. The road between childish dreams and adult realities is perhaps, in the end, a series of painful moments: We are presented with the opportunity to step outside ourselves, to form a relationship with the world and the people in it, and to make kindness and responsibility a daily practice, rather than assuming we will simply grow into it at some unspecified time. By giving her exactly what she thought she wanted, “Girls”’ writers are giving Hannah a greater opportunity than ever to come to terms with the fact that practiced personae and exterior approval will never allow her to feel comfortable with herself. By realizing that Iowa is not the heaven she imagined, she may realize that no heaven exists, and that she has to learn how to be not a “Female Author,” but Hannah.

Anyone who finds themselves in the midst of this journey to adulthood and self-acceptance knows what undignified flailing it entails, and nearly anyone who watches “Girls” will recognize some facet of their own journey in its characters’ experiences. The quality that makes the show so painful to watch is the same one that makes it worthwhile: It shows not just how difficult and embarrassing this journey can be, but how meaningful it is to undertake it. Hannah is an awful and entrancing character because she is the girl none of us want to identify with, even when so many of us do. I can’t stand the thought of watching her antics for one more minute, and I can’t wait for the next episode to air. Ninety-nine out of a hundred times she will take the most narcissistic and childish approach possible, but one out of a hundred times she will choose grace, and I want to be there to see in when she does.