The rest of television has caught up so fast with Girls that it’s hard to remember how refreshingly truthful and new the show felt when it premiered, to great success and much backlash, in 2012. Lena Dunham’s observant series, the first to be both by and about young women navigating that awkward stage between the end of college and the beginning of adulthood, paved the way for other auteur-driven TV programs—like Donald Glover’s Atlanta, Issa Rae’s Insecure, and Rachel Bloom’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—that provide a deep-dive view of a small cohort of people and the subculture they inhabit.
Anatomizing the grandiose dreams, whiny narcissism, and obsessed-over relationships of a small group of Brooklyn friends, frenemies, and lovers in their 20s, Dunham and company have created a lovingly detailed, slyly comic portrait of American adolescence in its current, absurdly prolonged form. And judging by the first few episodes of the show’s sixth and final season, Girls is poised to build on last year’s stellar collection of episodes, shifting from social satire to pathos, from tender romance to sexual assault, and from blindered self-sabotage to dawning self-awareness with incisive assurance as the main characters slouch toward adult life.
Girls’s resolutely unglamorous, psychologically astute approach to nudity and sex has paid off more every season as audiences have gotten to know the characters better. Fans of the series know Hannah’s (Dunham) pale, seemingly boneless, pear-shaped frame almost as well as they do their own bodies, and they’re used to her half-spilling out of her clothes when she hasn’t shed them altogether. So the casual baring of her ordinary, “imperfect” female body, which registered as a shock in the show’s early years, seems as unremarkable now as Dunham probably hoped it eventually would.
In the season’s premiere episode, “All I Ever Wanted,” Hannah peels off a wetsuit on a crowded beach prior to a surfing lesson and reveals that she isn’t wearing anything underneath, shocking the other surfers and angering the wetsuit’s owner, who’s none too happy to find her in it in the first place. The show’s audience, though, is bound to be less jarred by Hannah’s unaugmented breasts and more by the characteristic mixture of entitlement and impulsivity that leads her to appropriate someone else’s suit without even bothering to learn how to wear it.
As for the sex, we learned last year that Marnie (Allison Williams)—in what appears to be an extension of her neurotic, probably self-loathing inability to let herself be loved—can only reach orgasm with a man she doesn’t care about. So the climax she experiences this season during an illicit tryst with her soon-to-be-ex Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) after distancing herself from the devoted Ray (Alex Karpovsky) is as clear a sign of trouble between her and Desi as the way his obnoxious gold chain keeps whapping her in the face as he thrusts into her. Poor, miserable Marnie may never straighten herself out enough to have an intimate relationship, but there may still be hope for Hannah, who urges her friend to get real about her life and tells her: “But seriously, Marnie, it’s pretty hard to have observations about other people when you only think about yourself. I would know.”
The first-date sex Hannah has with her surfing instructor, Paul-Louis (Riz Ahmed), a potential boyfriend who seems too good to be true, is as nervously talky and physically awkward as her booty call was with Adam (Adam Driver) at the start of the series, but it’s far less masochistic. This time, Hannah’s lover is considerate of and responsive to her, and he brings out a rarely seen lightness in her. When she leans against him by a bonfire at the end of the episode, she looks as relaxed and happy as she’s ever been.
The words that Dunham writes for her characters are so specific to each of them that you could guess who said what if you read a script with no names above the dialogue. Hannah and most of her friends share a quick-witted, sardonic millennial sense of humor, but their banter is at its funniest and most revealing when it’s not clear if they’re being intentionally funny, like when Hannah pitches herself to a magazine editor by saying, “I give zero fucks about anything, yet I have strong opinions about everything, even things I am not informed on,” or when Elijah (Andrew Rannells) asks Hannah if he can borrow her bedroom for “a teeny tiny little orgy” because hosting such an event would be “a really good way for me to network.”
Two of this year’s first three episodes take Hannah out of town, once on assignment to the Hamptons and once on a road trip with Marnie and Desi to upstate New York. Getting the characters out of Brooklyn has always given them a new perspective on their lives. In “Hostage Situation,” Marnie and Hannah start their road trip estranged from themselves and each other, but they wind up reaffirming their friendship, and the episode ends on an exchange of warm, wide smiles before they begin their drive back home.
A charismatic refugee (Joy Bryant) from the New York fashion scene in Poughkeepsie likewise presents an intriguing alternative to “living in a matchbook-sized flat in Queens” when Hannah comes across her inside an antique shop. And Hannah’s fling in the Hamptons gives her a new appreciation of the importance of being earnest, as Paul-Louis introduces her to the corny but profound pleasure of sunsets on the beach and says things like: “It’s so much easier to love something than to hate it, isn’t it?”
Yet “American Bitch,” the episode that’s set in the city, proves to be the most powerful. Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys), a famous, trendy author, summons Hannah to his luxe apartment after she writes an article on what she calls “a niche feminist site” accusing him of abusing his power to coerce young women into having sex with him. At the start of their twisty encounter, Hannah is angrily on the offensive while Palmer seems conciliatory and a bit wary, but he manipulates the situation with chilling skill. The atmosphere turns collegial, then cozily intimate before things go suddenly and terribly wrong.
That episode, and the toxic scam of a “professional women’s networking event” that Shoshonna (Zosia Mamet) attends in “Hostage Situation,” are stellar examples of the knowing intelligence with which Girls has almost always portrayed New York City subcultures. They’re also damning depictions of the perplexing, sometimes perilous dilemmas young women like these have to learn how to deal with on the rocky road to self-knowledge.