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Dunham became terrific actress on ‘Girls’

Nothing can quite make up for the political chaos that has swept Washington so far this year. But as Donald Trump has settled uneasily into his presidency, I’ve found some comfort in television, where women feel liberated from demands that they be likable or gorgeous or that they wear skirts in the workplace.

Aubrey Plaza slithered her way through “Legion” as a scary, sexy parasite. Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley showed us all the different ways the light could glint off their brittle edges in “Big Little Lies,” a show with a quietly radical, feminist anti-climax. On April 23, “Silicon Valley” will return, and with it, Amanda Crew and Suzanne Cryer’s performances as female investors navigating the crazed, mostly-male jungle of Silicon Valley.

And 2017 has given me fresh appreciation for a long-running performance that is coming to a close: Lena Dunham has always done excellent work as Hannah Horvath, the narcissistic, potentially brilliant avatar of herself she plays on her show “Girls.”

It has sometimes been difficult to see “Girls” itself through the thicket of analysis that has grown up around the show during its six-year run. But as Hannah has become a more settled and serious person, less-prone to cocaine binges in mesh tops and rants that are the equivalent of emotional suicide bombings, Dunham’s acting has become even clearer and more luminous. Just as “Girls” is about to end, she has put on a year-long clinic in why we ought to miss Hannah Horvath, even if the character often drove us nuts.

I’ve written before about my emotional relationship with “Girls,” which became more volatile over time as I felt as though I grew up but the characters did not. I’d start a season, feel absolutely infuriated by the characters’ backsliding and self-sabotage, and by the end of the run, find myself totally recommitted to the relationship. This was never more true than in the fourth season of the show when Hannah managed to blow up not merely her tenure at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop by alienating her fellow students, but also to nearly get herself fired from a promising substitute-teaching job.

But just when I felt as though this was a fictional friendship I could no longer sustain, “Girls” gave us “Home Birth.” In that episode, Hannah helps her ex-boyfriend Adam’s (Adam Driver) sister Caroline (Gaby Hoffmann) get to the hospital to deliver her daughter early. She and Adam meet over the baby’s incubator, and Adam tells her — as he does at various moments of insecurity throughout the show — that he wants to get back together with her.

Dunham’s face is already soft and relaxed from speaking to the baby, and as Adam makes this suggestion, her mouth collapses in on itself, folding in at the corners and the lips. When she rejects him, she’s firm but not unkind; her eyes turn down at the corners, and she flushes and tears up but doesn’t lose control. In a subsequent scene with Fran (Jake Lacy), her new boyfriend, it’s as though Hannah’s face has bloomed again, unfurling from her sad conversation with Adam. It’s a transfixing, unflashy performance.

The skills Dunham showed off in the fourth-season finale have been in full flower this year, and perhaps it’s not a coincidence that I haven’t traveled my normal sine wave of emotion about “Girls” in its final outing.

In the third episode of the season, when Hannah confronted author Chuck Palmer (Matthew Rhys) over a piece she had written about his alleged sexual misconduct, her body language was tighter and firmer than when she refused Adam. When Hannah did unfurl, the physical comedy of the scene that resulted was surprising and funny.

Two weeks ago, Hannah — who is pregnant — and Adam revisited the same emotional territory of the fourth-season finale when he tracked her down and offered to raise the child with her. This time, the show relied on Dunham’s face to do more and the script to do less: As they discussed the logistics of such an arrangement over soup at a diner, it became clear that the fantasy they have spun together can’t sustain them any longer than a day.

Without saying as much out loud, Hannah’s face crumpled, her cheeks and forehead turned red and blotchy, and she wept silently. The entire drama of the scene happened in her expression, and without Dunham’s malleability and carefully calibrated breakdown, it wouldn’t have been clear what had happened, or so clearly devastating that this couple had finally come to the end of their very long road.

That episode made me watch Dunham’s performance in the penultimate half-hour of the show even more closely than usual. There’s no moment as obviously actorly as the diner scene, but as Hannah wanders around New York for the last time, Dunham convinces us that it’s right for her to move away in a dozen little ways: Her face falls once her friend Elijah (Andrew Rannells) leaves a scene, freeing her to stop making an effort; she smiles, laughs, telegraphs with her eyebrows as she flirts wordlessly on the subway; her bad dancing, a recurring joke on the show, acquires a new grace after a fight with her friends confirms for Hannah that she has made the correct decision; her smile and the precise gestures she makes as she directs the movers in her new home have a lovely confidence.

I hate that “Girls” is ending right at the moment when Dunham is playing Hannah with such precision and lovely vulnerability. But in this end is a beginning: Maybe in a new, less-autobiographical role, Dunham will be able to show her critics the character she creates and the wonderful actress she has become.

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