This Sunday, an era comes to an end as the final episode of Lena Dunham’s HBO comedy “Girls” airs. First arriving in the spring of 2012, the show came to pass after Dunham’s second feature as director, 2010’s “Tiny Furniture,” was a hit on the festival circuit, bringing her to the attention of the cable network and producer Judd Apatow, who paired her with writer-producer Jenni Konner.
The series landed with a wave of hype, billed as a sort of millennial “Sex And The City,” focusing as it did on the lives and loves of four young woman (Dunham as Hannah, Allison Williams as Marnie, Jemima Kirke as Jessa and Zosia Mamet as Shoshanna, plus Adam Driver, Christopher Abbott, Alex Karpovsky and Andrew Rannells as the men that surround them) in New York City, with all the sex and nudity that HBO can get away with. It also came quickly with waves of criticism, thanks in part to a trailer in which Dunham’s character called herself a “voice of a generation,” in part because of the unsympathetic nature of the characters, in part because of the world of privilege and, well, whiteness that it depicted. Over the following six seasons, it has kept the thinkpiece industry alive almost single-handedly, sometimes rightly so: the show could absolutely be tone-deaf, self-absorbed and a little annoying at its worst.
But as Dunham, and her characters, matured, and the initial heat dissipated (with “Broad City” stealing some of its hipster-comedy credentials), it became clearer that, for all its flaws, “Girls” was a phenomenally good television show, one that really spoke to millennial anxieties, obsessions, insecurities and assholery, but one with a fresh comic voice, artful execution and a surprisingly humanist take on the world. Yes, its characters could be awful, but they were all wonderfully drawn, vulnerable, complex people too, and Dunham and her team captured something rare with the show.
We’ll be mourning its passing when it’s gone even as we look forward to whatever Dunham ends up doing next. But to mark the occasion of Sunday’s finale, we’ve looked back at the 61 episodes to date and picked out our 10 favorites ever. Find them below, and let us know your favorites in the comments.
10. “On All Fours” (S2, Ep 9)
We suspect that the influence of “Girls” will continue to make itself felt over years and years to come, but you can already see it: both in the prevalence of comedies that are unafraid to be dramatic (which, with “Louie” and “Enlightened,” it marked an early wave of in many ways), and in a franker attitude to sex on many shows. Those two qualities are exemplified in the penultimate episode of Season 2, “On All Fours,” in a way that felt particularly memorable. It’s not that that it isn’t funny — Marnie singing an excruciating cover of Kanye West & Daft Punk’s “Stronger” for Charlie (Christopher Abbott) at a party is one of the show’s most cringingly hilarious bits. But even that feeds into a Marnie/Charlie hook-up that feels like that relationship at its darkest, while Shoshanna and Ray are on the outs, Jessa has disappeared, and Hannah’s OCD, writer’s block and loneliness punctuate to see her puncture her ear with a Q-Tip, something that might feel like a tiny, insignificant story, but serves as a gorgeous metaphor for her self-destructiveness. Darker still are the glimpses of Adam’s relationship with his new girlfriend Natalia (an excellent Shiri Appleby, who reinvented her career with this and soon ended up in the lead in “UnREAL,”) initially idyllic but eventually culminating in a very explicit and provocative sex scene. Debate over the scene continues to this day, and rightly so — it’s a muddy, thorny moment that presented the show at its darkest, and a reminder that wasn’t just some hipster comedy.
9. “Ask Me My Name” (S4, Ep 7)
There’s a certain myth that “Girls” took a bit of a downturn at some point, and looking back across the show, we’re not sure that there was ever an extended patch where it felt truly off its game. But we’ll acknowledge that Season 4 is probably our least favorite: probably the darkest run of the show in some respects, and deliberately unsatisfying in certain ways. But it was never bad, and often great, particularly in our favorite episode of the season, “Ask Me My Name.” At this point, two-thirds of the way through the season, Hannah is back in New York after her abortive time in Iowa, and starting work as an English teacher, even moving on from Adam seemingly, hooking up with colleague Fran (Jake Lacy). She actually seems to be doing pretty well — enjoying, and seemingly even being good at, the job. But then she persuades Fran to go to an art show with her, an art show that turns out to be by Mimi-Rose (Gillian Jacobs of “Community” and “Love”), Adam’s new girlfriend. Fran sensibly bails, Mimi-Rose has her own ex there (played by Zachary Quinto), and the two women end up spending most of the evening together in a fascinating sort of bonding session/psychodrama. Jacobs was, we’d say, the best part of this season: in some ways an opposite of Hannah, in others too close to her, and the friendship/rivalry established across the season, which gets its best airing here, is one of the most nuanced and interesting relationships in the show, even if it was quite a brief one.
8. “Wedding Day” (S5, Ep 1)
Wedding episodes are often highlights of sitcoms, but the first time “Girls” went there, it was with Jessa’s spontaneous wedding to Chris O’Dowd at the end of Season One, which didn’t quite hit the heights you might hope for. The second time around, for Marnie’s wedding to Desi, it was the full shebang, and while it might not be the richest or deepest installment of the show, it’s arguably the funniest. Some of the tropes here are familiar — Marnie as Bridezilla, last-minute jitters from Desi (and let’s take a moment here to acknowledge how good Ebon Moss-Bachrach was as the single most hateful and infuriating character on TV in recent years who wasn’t a member of House Baratheon — it’s revealed here that this is his eighth engagement), rainstorms. But there’s a relaxed, pleasing energy to the way that the episode juggles the ensemble and the web of relationships, with Dunham’s script — she wrote and directed solo for the first time since the Season 3 finale — dropping some of the funniest lines of the show (Shoshanna has become “even more like a cartoon,” says Jessa, while a brilliantly awkward, stuttering meeting between Adam and Fran is, according to Ray, like “a fucking E.E. Cummings poem”). And despite the looming feeling of disaster given how poorly matched Marnie and Desi are, there’s still a strange sweetness and optimism to the episode as Ray, his heart broken over Marnie, becomes the one to cure Desi’s cold feet. It wouldn’t last long, we’d learn quickly, but it’s an atypically charming opening to a season that might have been the show’s best.
7. “Beach House” (S3, Ep 7)
This past Sunday’s episode, “Goodbye Tour,” made it clear that one of the central themes of the show has been the gradual dissolution of the friendship between the central quartet, a raw but fair reminder that the people you spend your 20s with are not necessarily the people you end up spending the rest of your life with. And the threads that finally snapped this week really started fraying with season three highlight “Beach House.” Another of the episodes that takes the characters out of their comfort zone to excellent effect, it sees Hannah, Jessa, Shoshanna and Marnie head to the beach house of a family friend of the latter for a weekend getaway, only to run into Elijah and a bunch of his friends, causing the group to rub each other increasingly up the wrong way and eventually exploding into a glorious monologue that might have been Zosia Mamet’s finest moment on the show. The script (by Dunham, Jenni Konner and Judd Apatow, with Jesse Peretz directing) expertly builds up the group’s worst kind of behaviors in a way that exacerbates trends that have been building all season or before, and the eventual explosion (“I wonder if my social anxiety is holding me back from meeting the people who would actually be right for me, instead of a bunch of fucking whiny nothings as friends,” Shoshanna tells them, again beautifully setting up the most recent episode) feels like a bomb going off, in a way that must strike a chord to almost anyone who’s gone on holiday with friends and seen long-simmering tensions boil over. There’s a sweet coda, but even then it was clear that the genie was never entirely going back in the bottle.
6. “One Man’s Trash” (S2, Ep5)
As we’ll see across this list, the show was often at its best when it narrowed its focus and followed its characters, or sometimes a single character, in a contained situation, usually away from their usual Brooklyn habitat. “One Man’s Trash” wasn’t the first such episode — Season 1’s very good “The Return,” which sees Hannah return to Michigan for her parents’ wedding anniversary, did that — but the one that people remember most is the startling, almost experimental vibe of this second-season story. If the name isn’t that familiar, it’s probably best recalled as The One With Patrick Wilson In It: it sees Hannah attempt to apologize to a doctor neighbor (Wilson) of the coffee shop where she’s working at this point with Ray, only to end up in a weekend-long affair with him. It was a divisive episode at the time, dismissed as a self-indulgent fantasia. And it kind of is a self-indulgent fantasia, but in the context of what we’ve later come to see with the show — a willingness to go into short-story style tangents and experiment, Hannah’s continuing development — it works beautifully. In part, it’s the detail with which Dunham’s script sketches Wilson (and with which the oft-undervalued actor plays him), in part it’s the contrast, and deceptive similarities, between the characters in the two-hander, in part it’s the superb direction by Richard Shepard, one of the show’s most consistent and reliable helmers. Wilson’s recent Season 6 cameo — he’s, crucially, the one that tells Hannah that she’s pregnant — made clear what an important episode this was in the series’ development.