The ballad of Hannah and Adam

Girls has thrived in the gray areas. Will it finish in black and white?

Hannah and Adam
(Image credit: HBO/Girls)

"I'm tired of gray areas," Hannah tells famous author Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys) in "American Bitch," the third episode of Girls' sixth and final season. It's an unexpected announcement coming from a show that lived in gray areas for so long, and which looks likely to be on the cusp of trading in its trademark ambiguity to tell us, in its final season, what it really thinks. In good old black and white.

From its premiere, the buzz around Girls has revolved around what the show intends: Is Girls parody? Oblivious? Crushingly self-aware? All of the above? It felt like the point was partly not to pronounce; the show was strikingly resistant to narratively disciplining its interesting but infuriating protagonists. Phil Maciak once described Girls as operating "with a persistent unresolved chord at its foundation," and he's right: This is a show built on withholding narrative as well as moral resolution. It's cagey about how it's judging its protagonists, and while many viewers have spent seasons longing for these characters to get their comeuppance, the show has refused to gratify that punitive impulse. For all their mistakes, the girls (and boys) have avoided major consequences: Marriages dissolve without too much trouble, and babies are born and vanish conveniently offscreen.

That line of Hannah's about gray areas, then, names the series' biggest departure in its final stretch: Having wearied of indefinite suspension, the show is ready to finally close some of its open narrative and moral brackets. That's happening in several ways. For one thing, the consequence-free New York in which these characters have lived is gone: People are getting pregnant and dying so much that a show where little normally happens is starting to feel like a soap opera.

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For another, Girls is revisiting old questions and echoing them with moments that feel like answers.

Take "American Bitch." The episode felt like an ugly but necessary bookend to the exceptional "One Man's Trash," the now-famous bottle episode in Season 2 that also features Hannah connecting with a wealthy older man in his residence before things go sour. It goes without saying that "American Bitch" is a darker take. As if to drive home how little of the magic remains, Patrick Wilson, the actor who played Joshua in "One Man's Trash," reappears as an ER doc to tell Hannah about her surprise pregnancy. There's no better way to kill a fantasy than to have the object of it inform you that you're pregnant, have a UTI, and need an abortion.

Then there's the question of female friendship, which felt, at least in the early years, like an essential part of the Girls project. "A friendship between college girls is grander and more dramatic than any romance," Hannah wrote in the middle of an OCD episode back in Season 2. The show's central relationships have since thinned and soured. What little remained of Hannah's mission statement got annihilated by her magnificent indifference to Jessa in "Full Disclosure."

But the most obvious index of how much this show, which spent years talking back to its critics, is finally talking back to itself, is the Jessa and Adam movie. What's interesting about it isn't just the content, or the meta spectacle of the actress playing Hannah advising Hannah while they both wear yellow dresses in "Gummies" — although this last is a pleasingly literal manifestation of Girls talking to Girls. Nor is it the revelation that Jessa's artistic contribution to the script is nonexistent, or that she's threatened by "Mira's" achingly real intimacy with Adam.

No, what's most interesting about those scenes is their return to the last time Girls memorably refused to leave an area "gray": I'm talking, of course, about the Season 2 finale, "Together," in which Adam ditches his girlfriend Natalia to "save" Hannah from a full-blown return of her OCD. That finale appeared to temporarily turn Girls — usually a genre-resistant show — into an almost embarrassingly obvious romantic comedy. (There was even a chase scene!). It was baffling, a stunningly unironic choice that seemed to authorize Adam and Hannah's relationship as the "real deal" when there had been dozens of hints that they were dysfunctional at best.

That finale dealt a blow to critics (myself included) who'd contended that the show was ironizing the conventions of "women-centric" shows. It seemed all too sincere in its belief that Adam and Hannah belonged together — and that we should be glad to see them reunited. For many, it became the point when they stopped watching.

Girls was always going to have to revisit that peculiarly decisive moment in its otherwise indecisive history. In its final season, it's tackling that head on. In "Gummies," Jessa basically articulates the viewer's position when we watched that scene four years ago: "I don't understand why there's this whole romantic bit where you swoop in and save her and act like you guys are meant to be together, when this is a movie about a shit relationship," she says to Adam.

Before reviewing his response, here, just for reference, is how Adam described his relationship with Hannah back in Season 2, when he first went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting:

I had this girlfriend who at first I didn't like very much, or, I didn't take her very seriously, I guess. She just seemed like, you know, a piece of ass. But she was persistent, man. And she just hung around, and hung around, and showed up at my place — and gradually, it started to feel better when she was there. It wasn't "love" the way I imagined it. I just felt weird if I didn't know what she was up to or whatever. And I liked knowing that she was just gonna be there, and warm, and staying the night. And she acted like I was teaching her everything. About f--kin' history, about sex. She didn't know what street Central Park started on, or how to use soap. And I showed her. And I wanted that chance to show someone everything. But she changed her mind about me, and it was that fast. I'm so exhausted.

Not a pretty account, but it's truthful enough. There's enough off-putting material there to keep us from rooting for a reunion of these characters — at least, as they existed then. The question becomes: Have they changed? Have they improved? Usually, on Girls, the answer is no: This has been an arc-resistant show. Lena Dunham has always seemed more interested in exploring the persistent force of personality than she has in growth as such. Marnie's spurts of progress dissolve into old patterns. Jessa is as unregenerate as ever. But what about Adam? It's clever of the show to give us access to Adam's perspective through footage from Full Dis:closure, because we can compare it to what he's said before.

Here's how Adam described the evolution of his relationship to Hannah a season later, in Season 3's "Role-Play." Note that it retains the earlier sense of how love developed for him — and confirms that he believes himself to be on some kind of arc: "You have an old idea of who I am," he says.

Sex was the thing that kept me from drinking. That's why I why I f---ed women I met in bars or whatever … And it was with us for awhile it too. But then, we fell in love. And then I just wanted to have sex with just you, as us. Just f--k, and be sweet, or whatever. If the sex we were having wasn't working for you, I'm f--king sorry. I didn't realize I was disappointing you so badly.

And here, finally, is how Adam described a relationship that didn't work out to Marnie — back when she was getting over her breakup with Charlie — that indirectly suggests how well he feels he knows Hannah:

Then one day after being f--ked up for months I realized something. I didn't know her. She didn't know me. Just because I tasted her cum and spit or could tell you her middle name or know what record she liked, that doesn't mean anything. That's not a connection. Anyone can have that. Really knowing someone is something else. It's a completely different thing. And when it happens, you won't be able to miss it. You will be aware. And you won't hurt or be afraid. Okay?"

I'm rehashing these because it's quite rare to get real access to Adam's point of view, and it's worth doing because Jessa's objection to his script in "Gummies" is right: The authorial impulse behind the scenes he wrote makes little sense if we're truly meant to understand Adam and "Mira's" to be a "shit relationship" (as Jessa calls it).

If anything, Adam's script seems to be secretly rooting for an Adam-Mira reunion. For one thing, Adam still sees himself as Hannah's savior. For another, the force of a scene like the one where Mira says she worries she's going to ruin his life (and he replies that he doesn't care) depends on the extent to which you want them to end up together. "Gummies" opened with Marnie trying to get Ray to recite romantic lines about dying inside a lion's mouth. But Adam's are, in their way, just as cheesy. "I don't care if you ruin my life. At least you'll have been in my life," his character says.

When Jessa says she doesn't understand the point of that scene, Adam attempts an explanation.

"The scene is about the fact that these two people, while they have a very strong animalistic connection, they're ultimately only going to hurt each other. It's about the tragedy of realizing that the relationship is too intense too survive," he says.

"Adam, that's us," Jessa says. "We're the intense ones."

Jessa's right again. If the movie is meant to be about their relationship — hers and Adam's — this scene between him and Mira undermines that narrative objective.

There are two possibilities, then: The first is that Adam is sticking to Girls' longstanding commitment to stasis and "gray areas" by insisting that, while his and Hannah's was not a "shit relationship" — which is what Jessa wanted it to be — neither was it good. Adam is doubling down on complexity and refusing to pronounce. If this is the case, the show seems likely to mirror him: It will likely stick to its guns, refuse to indulge our hunger for character arcs, and stop short of anything like a resolution or reunion.

The other possibility is that Girls is preparing to steer the Adam-Hannah dynamic into a latter-day version of the rom-com ending it flirted with in Season 2. There are signs this might be happening. The story Adam seems to be telling in Full Dis:Closure doesn't square particularly well with the account he gave of the relationship at his AA meeting above. The movie is our only way to measure the distance between Adam as he was and Adam as he is; it is, in other words, the show's opportunity to feature an actual character arc that might be capable of meeting Hannah's (whose priorities have drastically changed as a result of her pregnancy).

It's fitting that we don't know how either the movie or the TV show end yet because Jessa couldn't be bothered to read the script. But if the reunion happens, here's hoping it's done carefully — and that Girls' sudden interest in plot twists includes some believable inner change. It seems right for the show to look at itself in the mirror and take stock of the area it's traversed; I just hope that, for all its eagerness to close those brackets and finally resolve, it keeps some of its trademark gray.

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