Ranking the All-Time Personal Growth of the ‘Girls’

After six seasons of controversies, hot takes, empowering female nudity, depressing racial politics, and a few near-perfect bottle episodesGirls has finally taken its final bow. Girls grew immensely over the years, transforming from a tragically self-conscious drama about privileged brats into a slightly more self-aware and compassionate story about (still privileged) young women adulting for the first time. But while the show itself became vastly more mature, the same cannot be said for all of its protagonists. Here are our final personal growth rankings for all of the Girls characters, based on their respective farewells in the last three episodes.

Ray

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Ray was always the most kind-hearted and sympathetic character in the series, and arguably the only one who was capable of real growth. In the first season, he was an aimless 30-something who de facto moved in with his 22-year-old girlfriend without actually telling her he was homeless. Now, thanks to a combination of organic growth and a convenient death, he is a public official who owns his very own business. And in his personal life, while we all feared he would end up with the too-young Shoshanna, or worse, the monstrously selfish Marnie, he found a kindred spirit in Abigail, who is basically a nicer, more down-to-earth, and age-appropriate version of Shosh. After his trainwreck of a relationship with Marnie, he got an uncharacteristically schmaltzy rom-com happy ending on a carousel, as it should be.

Hannah

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When we first met Hannah, she was your typical [or stereotypical, in my opinion! –Nerdy Spice] privileged young New York transplant: an aspiring “great” artist without a particularly good work ethic, a former precocious teenager who never bothered to learn how to support herself. In the pilot, she railed at her parents for refusing to foot the bill for her expensive New York lifestyle after she had been out of college for two years, and arrogantly said she was entitled because she “could be the voice of her generation.”

If Ray has had the most consistent growth in the traditional sense, Hannah has experienced the most growth according to Girls‘ jerky one-step-forward-one-thousand-steps-back model of maturation. She becomes financially independent from her parents, and then can’t hold down a job and lets Marnie pay her bills for months without even thanking her. She finally breaks free from her destructive relationship with Adam, only to let him back in the second he wants to be her boyfriend. She commits to a healthy relationship with Sandy, only to break up with him in the most racially insensitive way possible when he offers constructive criticism on one of her essays. She takes a steady job at GQ, only to quit when it offends her artistic sensibilities. She tells Adam to leave her alone when he enters stalker territory, and then pretends they’re twoo wuv again right after that disaster with Natalia (more on that later). She manages to get into the writing program at Iowa (IOWA), and then quits for God knows what reason. For the first three seasons, every time she showed the slightest sign of becoming a reasonable adult, she overcompensated with at least three acts of compulsively selfish and immature behavior.

That is, until the fourth season, when her father realized he was gay, and her parents got divorced. After a lifetime of her parents shielding her from reality, she was forced to be the adult and take care of their emotional needs every once in a while. This was a turning point for the character, which set her on the path to extricating herself from Adam for good, providing genuine support to her friends, and, most importantly, actually being a writer rather than just talking about it. She wrote the Modern Love article, she got steady freelance gigs and actually completed them, and she took misogynistic sexual harassers to task. While she won’t be winning any humanitarian awards anytime soon, by the end of the series Hannah was finally able to look outside of herself for minutes at a time.

By all appearances, the finale is a fitting end to Hannah’s arc. Just as she learned to take care of her parents, she’s now putting her own needs aside to take care of Grover. She lands a cushy job teaching internet writing at a university upstate (which, like, that’s not even remotely how that works, but whatevs), so her writing career is relatively on track. She finally lets go of her life in New York, and most of her so-called “friends,” by realizing that her life in Brooklyn wasn’t always that great, and that her relationships were extremely tenuous, held together by mostly-unpleasant history and irrational feelings of obligation.

That being said, I can’t help but think how much more meaningful this ending would have been if Hannah hadn’t gotten pregnant. While Hannah has become much more tolerable over the years, the audience was always encouraged to be more invested in her as a creative being than a moral one. Even when I didn’t care about the character, even when I thought she might not strictly deserve a happy ending, I always thought she was hilarious, intelligent, and deserving of some sort of professional success. If the final season had seen Hannah become an adult for the sake of her professional career, rather than for the sake of her child, that would have been both more feminist and more fitting to the rest of the series.

Because if you think about it, wouldn’t all of the developments in the final few episodes have been much more compelling if the baby hadn’t been in the picture? Adam and Hannah would have recognized that a reconciliation is a mistake, not because he’s not ready to be a husband/father, but because he’s not ready to be a human being. The decision to take the professorship would have had very different stakes; instead of deciding whether she should give her baby a better life complete with a house, a backyard, and health insurance (which isn’t much of a choice at all), she would have been deciding whether the drama and excitement of her life in New York was more important to her than an amazing professional opportunity. It would have been a perfect coda to her time in Iowa, a second chance in which she finally makes the right choice.

Not to mention, the pregnancy did serious damage to the show’s feminist legacy. Girls‘ feminism has been spotty and very white, but it’s always been present, and yet the two characters with the happiest, most “mature” endings had a baby and got married, respectively. And while it does demonstrate character growth for Hannah to make sacrifices for someone else, did it really have to be a baby? In the finale, Hannah literally tells a young runaway that mothers give up their entire identities and “take care of you for the rest of your life, even if it causes them endless, endless pain!” Even if I could forgive the fact that motherhood is a terrible, cliched way to mature a female character, this retrogressive view of motherhood as a woman’s entire identity is ridiculous and outdated. Hannah-the-person showed tremendous growth in this episode, but if that means Hannah-the-writer is effectively dead, then it was a somewhat Pyrrhic victory. I guess we really can’t have it all.

Marnie

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In some ways, Marnie has grown more than Hannah over the course of the series. When we met her in the first season, she was a self-involved, phony, WASPy brat who got exasperated with Jessa for bailing on the abortion Marnie carefully hosted and planned, like a younger, more toxic version of Bree Van de Kamp. In the series finale, she proves herself to be the only character capable of actual selflessness when she uproots her entire life to help Hannah with her baby. She admittedly didn’t have very much else to do at the time, and she drives Hannah batshit by passive-aggressively judging her all the time. But when she becomes desperately unhappy and lonely, she still tells Loreen that she can’t leave Hannah and Grover because they need her, and she “doesn’t need to be happy right now.” I doubt that that thought has ever occurred to any of the other Girls, Hannah included.

However, I can’t give Marnie first or even second place, because her journey getting here has been so fucking weird. She started off a perfectly recognizable character–a girl who graduates from a liberal arts school with an art history degree, who believes she’s destined to lead an artistic, bohemian Brooklyn lifestyle. Until she realizes that she wants designer clothes and a 401k, that is, and gets a “real job” posthaste. Marnie was safely on that trajectory for the first couple of seasons; she works for a gallery until she gets laid off, and then promptly has a breakdown and returns to a secure, boring relationship from college. She wants to be a free spirit, but isn’t capable of existing without security and a plan. If Christopher Abbott had stayed on the show, I’m sure she would have gotten a boring job, married Charlie at age twenty-seven, worked until she started popping out babies, and registered as a Republican while claiming to still be “socially liberal.”

But when Christopher Abbott abruptly left the show, Marnie’s character arc changed in in explicable ways. She tried to become a singer, which should have been a brief and embarrassing failure, but instead lasted several seasons and led to some success. (The fact that Alison Williams has a remarkable voice made this plotline doubly confusing. It was almost impossible to interpret the “cringey” scenes where she sings at inappropriate times, because she is actually pretty great.) She married a pill-popping pseudo-artistic manbaby and then promptly divorced him. This led to one of my favorite episodes, “Panic in Central Park,” but it also made her the second Girl to get married by the age of twenty-five and divorced within a year, none of which makes any sense for their demographic.

Once Charlie was gone, the writers didn’t seem to know what to do with Marnie. Her character varied wildly over the years, sometimes episode-to-episode, never really sustaining a believable core. First, she was Girls‘ answer to Bree van de Kamp, then the deluded wannabe artist, then the monstrously selfish young divorcee who can’t keep her life together. If you described her character arc on the show to someone who never watched it, they might think you were talking about a different character each season.

However, a lot of that is redeemed by the last episode. Not only does Marnie learn to place others’ needs above her own, she has a realistic attitude about her dead-in-the-water singing career, and tells Loreen that she plans to go to law school. So I suppose the writers did have a conventional 401K ending planned for Marnie all along, they just took a very strange, circuitous road getting there.

Shoshanna

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Shoshanna beats out several characters on this list because she has always been the most naturally kind and sympathetic of the Girls, and because she was the only one of them to realistically reflect on their relationships and call everyone out for their bullshit. In “Goodbye Tour,” when she told Hannah, Marnie, and Jessa that the four of them “can’t be in the same room together without one of us making it all about them,” we all cheered. Finally, someone noticed that this friend group is barely more than a frenemy alliance, and that they all bring out the worst sides of each other.

That being said, her ending was problematic in several different ways, starting with her rapid-fire engagement. The surprise engagement was an amazing payoff for her absence this season, as it effectively showed just how far apart the Girls have grown from each other. However, I was not on board with everyone acting like the engagement was some kind of marker that Shosh has her life together more than the others. Shosh has her life together because she has a steady job, she knows how to behave like a decent human being, and she has the self-awareness to cut off toxic relationships. But it’s hardly a sign of maturity to marry someone you’ve known for five minutes when you’re Shosh’s age, even if he is awesome enough to plan for extra guests.

Similar to that ridiculous networking party earlier this season, Shosh’s ending represented both the best and worst of her character. Back in season two, Shosh learns that she won’t graduate from college on time, and proceeds to blame the other Girls for her own failure to attend class. This was the beginning of Shosh’s recurring and very unattractive tendency to blame Jessa and the others for her own choices, which explains why she was generally much crueler than she needed to be in “Goodbye Tour.” She throws nasty barbs at Hannah’s outfit several times, complaining that she’s dressed “like a member of the Teen Mom cast” for her engagement party, even though she very well knows Hannah had no idea she was walking into an engagement party. And while we all agree with her decision to cut the other Girls off, she should be doing it because they’re terrible, selfish people, not because her new friends are “pretty, have jobs, and wear nice purses.”

So while Shoshanna has grown from the insecure, silly teenage girl we met in the pilot in the sense that she’s a confident, professional young woman, she also seems destined to become what we all thought Marnie would grow up to be: a harsh, petty Brooklyn yuppie who eventually monetizes her mommy blog and judges other women for bottle-feeding their children.

Jessa

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Jessa is essentially the inverse of Shoshanna: she had the furthest to go at the start of the series, but considering that, her ending is shockingly optimistic. When we met her in season one, she was the human equivalent of a forest fire, irrepressible and consuming everything in her path. The third season episode, “Females Only,” in which she berates other addicts in rehab for their “meth-faces,” whininess, and homosexuality, sticks out in my mind as Jessa at her most bracingly toxic.

She underwent some real growth after she got clean, but then regressed spectacularly when she started dating Adam. I don’t judge Jessa quite as much for dating Adam as many other fans do (Hannah was in a serious relationship with someone else, after all, not to mention that Hannah straight-up SLEPT WITH JESSA’S CURRENT BOYFRIEND right before the finale), but there’s no denying that Adam encouraged her bad behaviors, and vice versa. They romanticized their “passionate” natures, excusing all of their selfish impulses with platitudes about “really experiencing life.” They essentially just replaced their old addictions with each other, getting high on their own tragic specialness.

That being said, the last few episodes finally started Jessa on a journey to self-awareness. In “What Will We Do This Time About Adam,” she tries to have an ill-advised bathroom hookup while Adam is wooing Hannah, similar to her bathroom hookup before her abortion in season one. But this time, she can’t bring herself to relapse into old behaviors, and pretend that nothing matters. Whether she and Adam are right for each other or not, she allows herself to admit that their relationship, as well as her fractured relationship with Hannah, truly matters to her. She quits school, not because she can’t follow through with anything, but because she realizes she’s “not ready to help people.” And she finally gives Hannah a real apology, maybe the first of her entire life.

Jessa still ends up low on the list, simply because realizing you’re sort of a sociopath is the beginning of a long journey, not the end of one. But maybe even more than Shoshanna, there may be hope for her yet.

Elijah

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I mean, Elijah’s always been the best, in the sense that he’s the funniest and easiest to watch, but he didn’t grow all that much as a character. In the final season, he got the lead in a Broadway play and resisted the temptation to get back together with his terrible ex-boyfriend. But… he was also horribly selfish and cruel to Hannah, even going so far as to tell her she was going to be “a terrible mother.” So we’ll call it a wash.

Adam

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Adam Driver is an amazing actor, the most naturally gifted on the show (except maybe Andrew Rannells). So it’s understandable that Adam became a fan favorite, in spite of the fact that he’s a misogynistic scumbag and always has been.

Adam started off the series as “that asshole Hannah was fucking”–an insensitive, self-centered guy who was basically using Hannah as a piece of ass. Then, he became her boyfriend because he couldn’t stop thinking about her (which isn’t really very realistic, considering how most of those situations end up, but whatever). But their relationship is still extremely depressing, especially when Adam drags a somewhat reluctant Hannah into his transgressive kinks. And when Hannah finally breaks up with him, because their relationship is unhealthy as f*ck, Adam proceeds to stalk her, refuses to accept that they’ve broken up, and even enters her apartment without her permission.

Then there’s Natalia. Since she’s not a regular character, it’s sort of easy to forget how harrowing their encounter really was, and that Adam may very well have damaged this woman for life. There have been many great thinkpieces about this episode, so I won’t do a blow-by-blow breakdown here, but their sex was (at the very least) not completely consensual, and extremely painful to watch. The moment when Natalia pulls up her dress and says, “I don’t think I liked that. I really didn’t like that,” is one of the most brutally honest moments of the entire show. Which, of course, is completely undercut by Adam swooping in to play the romantic hero and “save” Hannah from her mental illness in the very next episode, because that’s how mental illness works.

Adam’s scene with Natalia was amazingly written, and it should have been the beginning of the end for his character. It should have served as the revelation that Adam’s brand of darkness is not a redeemable vulnerability, but a dangerous sadistic streak and possible hatred of women. But instead, the show pretty much forgets about poor Natalia’s trauma to make him the ultimate love interest, a fiercely passionate and complicated man that we’re supposed to have a crush on.

While I don’t think the writers ever put enough import on that scene with Natalia, they still had enough self-awareness to have Adam end as he began: kind of a POS. He forgets all about Hannah until he makes his stupid indie movie that rewrites their dark and complicated history into a twee 500 Days of Summer wannabe, and invades her space in an appropriately stalker-ish way so he can emotionally blackmail her into watching it. He convinces himself that he’s still in love with Hannah because she’s pregnant, and he has some old-fashioned bullshit notion that a man should “be there for her” (if it’s not Laird, it might as well be him, right?). Then, he tells Jessa that he’s going to cheat on her with his ex-girlfriend, as if that somehow makes it better, and crawls back to her when it doesn’t work out. It’s an appropriate ending for Adam, who always fancied himself a lofty romantic, but is really just another selfish, violent asshole.

Desi

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Has there ever been a less sympathetic drug addict than Desi? Fuck Desi forever. The end.

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