03/18/2013 12:36 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2014

Why The 'Girls' Happy Ending Wasn't Actually A Happy Ending

The second season of "Girls" concluded with a happy ending on Sunday night, minus the happy ending. Which may be what threw some people off immediately following "Together," an episode that is being called "out of character for the show" or "a let down" by some fans and critics. To wit, the show's key couples -- Hannah and Adam and Marnie and Charlie -- got back together, complete with a triumphant piece of rom-com scoring from Michael Penn. Adam actually ran to Hannah's rescue, the type of swooping, swoony gesture you might see in a movie starring Ryan Reynolds.

Except while the images were happy, the underlying themes were not: Hannah, Adam, Marnie and Charlie are all back to square one. Any personal gains they've made in the year that the show has depicted were erased with one single montage. It was "Girls" as "The Graduate": the characters won the battle, but lost the war.

That's kind of what made the season finale of "Girls" so strong. Lena Dunham spent an entire year putting her main characters on a clear course of maturation, and then hit the delete key on all that in 30 minutes. She's committed to these characters for the long haul and playing with established television tropes about relationships and soul mates. Television is a medium that revels in pairing off and non-growth: it's why Jim is married to Pam instead of living with Karen; it's why Ted is looking for the mother at Barney and Robin's wedding. "Together" turned that ideal on its punctured ear. It was expert television satire, but one that didn't sabotage the character work done over the last 20 episodes. Hannah, Adam, Marnie and Charlie aren't ready to grow up; they all want what's easiest for them at this moment. After a year of becoming adults -- be it at work or in new relationships -- they all reverted back to their bad, youthful habits. (Jessa, it should be noted, did as well; she's absent and wandering, just like she was before the series even started.) Underneath all the unbearable covers of "Stronger" and OCD as deus-ex-machina, these characters are still busy trying to become who they are.

In fact, only Shoshanna and Ray seem to have learned anything at all -- and, of course, they're the one couple left without a traditional happy ending. Ray, for all his negativity, has found a new ambition within himself; it's hard to think he would have accepted the Cafe Grumpy job before going to Staten Island. ("Brooklyn Heights is classy; fuck it, I'm in" is the new best Ray line ever, replacing "slim leg.") Shoshanna, meanwhile, is a long way from watching "Baggage" in her sweats. When she started to dump Ray, it was in classic Shoshanna fashion: timid and uncertain. By the end, she had raised her voice in actual anger for the first time in the history of the show and also thoughtfully explained everything that was wrong with their relationship. The Shoshanna we first met in the pilot episode would have never done anything so uncouth; the Shoshanna of right now did, and then later hooked up with a casual acquaintance. (Which isn't to say Ray and Shoshanna are in the clear either; for all we know, season three of "Girls" will find them falling back into old patterns as well.)

"You know when you're young and you drop a glass and your dad says, like, 'Get out of the way,' so you can be safe while he cleans it up?" Dunham's Hannah said during the finale. "Well, now nobody really cares if I clean it up myself. Nobody really cares if I get cut with glass. If I break something, no one says 'Let me take care of that.'"

The season finale of "Girls" reconnected characters who want someone else to take care of their messes; unfortunately for them, it didn't clean up the broken glass.