Three performances show what you can do with characters over half a decade.
Say what you will about Girls (and trust me, a LOT has been said by a LOT of dudes), but Lena Dunham and crew have crafted a final season as fresh and endearing as its first. And that’s not even as shady as it sounds. The first succeeded both because and in spite of its expectations and the sixth has followed suit, only now its stars are as good as they thought they were when the show started.
In a final season playing on our presumptions and familiarity, like all good shows with a consistent, if not loyal, fanbase, the actors and actresses starring in it have gotten really good at performing the inconsistent, weird, often hateable characters they’re written. The final episode especially allows its three recurring actresses (Lena Dunham, Allison Williams, and Becky Ann Baker) all their favorite and best ways to embody their characters. Let’s take a look at them, shall we? And please know that, going forward, all spoilers are game.
Marnie (Allison Williams)
The Get Out star has perfected her scary-perfect form of type-A severity in pronunciation, posture, and her dead-eyed stare. There’s no easy way to give off the impression that a character has a stick up their ass without making a face like you’re playing charades, yet Williams does it easily with a thin-lipped grimace. She’s pent up in every imaginable sense of the word (seen in the finale when she affects an odd British accent during some Facetime airline attendant/pilot role play with a mystery man) and can translate that from absurd friendship to horrifying sociopathic extreme.
While she hasn’t had as much success with different character types, her range is still widening and hopefully she isn’t typecasting as evil, cold bitch for long — though, I think with her film debut Get Out’s smash success it’ll be inevitable.
Hannah (Lena Dunham)
When did Lena Dunham become such a good actress? Sure she disrobes at a moment’s notice and the flimsiest excuse, but when her character is allowed to dodge the hyper-sexual caricature whose shock value brought in initial viewers to the show, it allows her to show off the deep emotional connection she’s forged with the character over the years. When holding her newborn son, attempting to breastfeed him, all the narcissistic bitterness of an intolerable twenty-something writer alchemically transforms inside her and spills out in deluges of frustration.
Dunham’s body may have been the focus of many an episode, but her eyes work the magic. Her tears, hurt, and manic joy all come from her eye expressions. The final shot of the series, her baby finally relatching and breastfeeding again offscreen, allows a tenuous peace to spread across her face. Before this she excels at Apatow-style joke riffing, comic asides more in her mumblecore style, an absurdly frustrating discussion with a teenager, and a heartfelt screaming match with her mother. The range of emotions felt in Girls has been crammed into one episode and, even if we didn’t get a sex scene (to which Dunham always brings a lighthearted and unromanticized realism), she excels. But back to that mother-daughter screaming match…
Loreen (Becky Ann Baker)
If there is an unsung hero of Girls (aside from prime spin-off candidate Andrew Rannells who plays Elijah), it’s Hannah’s mom Loreen and the actress who plays her, Becky Ann Baker. You may know her from playing John Francis Daley’s mom on Freaks and Geeks, but Baker’s not a one-mom pony…er, actress. Over the course of Girls, Baker’s Loreen has been fighting against the coddling world holding up Hannah. Suppressing her criticism, her desire for tough love, stuffed her with potential energy ripe for bursting. As her marriage collapsed and she began life anew as, basically, a single mother, she began dabbling in the immaturity that so invitingly welcomed her fragmented and messy daughter.
This allowed Baker to intermingle a drug trip, a spa trip, and the ever-mounting lonesomeness of a late-life separation with her maternal counsel. The growing weight of her personal drama seeps into her body, her very breathing. She sighs heavier or masks her weariness when Hannah looks on. Her biggest moment is when all this quiet denial and substance-numbing finally rubs away, leaving her exposed nerves raw and throbbing. When she flies out to help Hannah with her newborn, she’s not expecting the same bratty Hannah looking to renege on her biological deal. The ensuing tracking shots follow Baker like she’s a protestor breaking down her subject with well-reasoned rhetoric and the decibels to back it up. Even if the circumstances in which she’s screaming at Hannah are suspect or dramatically uneven, Baker unearths a rage made no less fiery by the unconditional love underpinning her voice.
In this, her performance is indicative of the series: even if they’re made to say frustrating, asinine things, the actors of Girls bring the kind of ever-evolving skill you’d expect from artists honing characters over more than half a decade.
Related Topics: Girls