Welcome to Needle Drop, our ongoing series about crucial pop music moments on TV.
For all of the laughter, tears, and frustrated think-pieces it would inspire over its six seasons, one of the most indelible moments of HBO's Girls came early in its run, at the end of its third episode, "All Adventurous Women Do." A distraught Hannah Horvath (series star and creator Lena Dunham) listens to music as she hovers over her laptop, contemplating the perfect tweet to sum up her feelings about a recent HPV diagnosis and learning that her ex-boyfriend is gay. She drafts up a few self-pitying thoughts, only to quickly delete-delete-delete.
It's not until she skips ahead to the next song on shuffle, Robyn's "Dancing On My Own," that the music washes over Hannah, inspiring her to type up something more defiant, the episode's titular tweet: "All adventurous women do." Marnie (Allison Williams) comes home seconds later to find Hannah recklessly bopping around the room, joins her, and the two friends dance, carefree, as Robyn continues to play into the closing credit roll.
That sequence aired ten years ago this week, establishing early on that Girls knew how to end its episodes on the perfect note (shout out to music supervisors Jonathan Leahy, Manish Raval, and Tom Wolfe, who worked closely with Dunham throughout the series' run). No matter how much secondhand embarrassment one might feel watching Hannah and her millennial pals fumble through life, the show had a knack for finding the right tune to end its episodes. Whether the songs were raucous and fun, or melancholic and contemplative, many of them lingered long after the credits because of how deftly they keyed into the emotional headspace of Girls' central characters.
On the tenth anniversary of Girls and "Dancing On My Own" searing themselves in the cultural consciousness, we're taking a look back at the series' best closing music cues. This isn't a list of the best songs or the best episodes, but rather a reflection on the instances where story and song were in perfect harmony, highlighting two standout soundtrack selections from each season.
"Dancing On My Own" from "All Adventurous Women Do" (Season 1, Episode 3)
The lead single off Swedish pop savant Robyn's Body Talk album was an instant dance floor classic, and it would go on to score key moments in plenty of films and TV episodes. But there's something about the way it speaks to the heart of Girls, finding Hannah at a low point, momentarily knocking her out of self doubt and delusion, and letting her revel in the absurdities of young adulthood. The scene became such a part of the show's' DNA that Robyn would later be tapped to provide an early "Honey" demo for the final season.
"Montezuma" from "The Return" (Season 1, Episode 6)
As much as NYC was a character unto itself in Girls, this episode proved the show could thrive outside the city. In fact, that's what Hannah was realizing about herself while visiting her Michigan hometown for her parents' anniversary. With a late-night call from Adam (Adam Driver), you feel her being drawn back to the city, but Fleet Foxes' sweeping folk-pop number underscored Hannah's uncertainty over whether she chose the right life for herself: "Oh, how could I dream of such a selfless and true love / Could I wash my hands of just looking out for me?"
"I Get Ideas" from "I Get Ideas" (Season 2, Episode 2)
Occasionally Girls would strike up a music cue as if it were a punchline, like it so drolly did at the end of this early Season 2 episode. After Hannah's attempts to persuade the cops from taking Adam away in handcuffs (like the rest of their relationship, it's complicated) are met with silence, she's left lingering on her apartment staircase. Smash cut to the end credits, and indie crooner M. Ward's jangling cover of the pop standard, "I Get Ideas," a choice that playfully mocks these characters' inability to ever see beyond their fantasies of one other.
"Wonderwall" from "It's A Shame About Ray" (Season 2, Episode 4)
A song so ubiquitous that its very ubiquity has become a meme, you'd think every bit of emotionality would've been wrung out of "Wonderwall." And yet Girls found a way to make the Oasis hit feel poignant all over again — with just the slightest twinge of irony. Hannah's singing the song to herself in the bath when Jessa (Jemima Kirke) walks in, devastated that her marriage is over. Sitting in the tub together, Hannah manages to lighten the mood with talk of "snot rockets," and that's when those familiar opening guitar chords of "Wonderwall" come in. Just try not to sing along.
"How Are You Doing?" from "Beach House" (Season 3, Episode 7)
Girls wasn't quite halfway through its run when it began to lay the groundwork for its endgame with "Beach House," a cutting episode in which the central quartet openly acknowledge that their friendship may be past its expiration date. An unforgettable final shot of a silently synchronized dance routine seems to put the tensions behind them — for now — as composer Michael Penn's delicate score fades right into "How Are You Doing?" With its retro sound and sweet call-and-response lyrics, The Living Sisters track lets us sit in the sisterly serenity just a while longer.
"Blue Moon" from "Role-Play" (Season 3, Episode 10)
Similarly, "Role-Play" marks a crucial breaking point in Hannah and Adam's relationship, one that they'd never fully bounce back from no matter how they might want to will themselves into happy coupledom. "Blue Moon," then, plays like an elegy for their romance — two people held together by little more than their own fear of being alone. From the Album Of The Year-winning Morning Phase, the single finds Beck laying himself bare, coupling earnest, wounded lyricism with folksy yet grandiose orchestration, striking a tone of whimsical wistfulness that feels like the trademark Girls sound.
"She's Got You" from "Cubbies" (Season 4, Episode 4)
A distinctly millennial series, many of Girls' music cues were pulled from indie pop or alt-rock acts of the 2010s, but the occasional dip back into "oldies" spoke to the show's enduring timelessness. Hannah and Adam never quite defined their relationship as she left for the Iowa writer's workshop, but she was still shocked to return to her New York apartment and be greeted by Mimi-Rose (guest star Gillian Jacobs), Adam's new girlfriend. On the nose as it may be, there's perhaps no better song in history to speak to Hannah's surprise and heartbreak than this classic from country music pioneer Patsy Cline.
"Entropy" from "Daddy Issues" (Season 4, Episode 9)
At a certain point, artists began to write songs specifically for Girls, or at least give the series access to one of their unreleased tracks. "Entropy" was one such song, bringing together the softer side of Grimes and Bleachers (aka Jack Antonoff, Dunham's partner for much of the show's run). There's an infectious ebullience to "Entropy," even as Grimes sings of a crushing disillusionment, which pairs well with an episode that ends in a bleak exchange between Ray (Alex Karpovsky) and Hannah: "I'm faking it," he says. "I'm faking everything," admits Hannah in return.
"iT" from "Old Loves (Season 5, Episode 4)
The opener of Christine And The Queens' debut album, "iT" is a fascinatingly complex slow-burn that contradicts itself even as it boldly claims, "I've got it / I'm a man now." It's an exquisite complement to an episode that rewards its characters with catharsis even as it twists the knife. Playing over a montage of scenes with Hannah, Jessa, and Elijah (Andrew Rannells) deep in thought, "iT" offers a peek inside their minds, telegraphing that doing exactly what they wanted in the moment may not have provided the relief they were hoping for.
"Life On Mars" from "Queen For Two Days" (Season 5, Episode 5)
Girls once again delves into the cover-song well to beautiful effect with AURORA's ethereal take on David Bowie's "Life On Mars?" The Norwegian singer/songwriter's interpretation strips the song to its bare elements, breathing fresh life into the evocative lyrics and letting them soar with her disarming vocals. It's all the more haunting as it soundtracks Shoshanna's (Zosia Mamet) somber walk down a street in Japan while the credits roll — the lone instance of Girls playing credits over a scene instead of a black screen.
"Desperado" from "American Bitch" (Season 6, Episode 3)
Girls' most singular episode, "American Bitch" finds Hannah and author Chuck Palmer (guest star Matthew Rhys) going toe-to-toe over consent, power imbalances, and the nature of art. A chronic manipulator, Chuck's last cruel act is to corner Hannah into watching his daughter's flute recital, during which she plays "Desperado" off Rihanna's (still most recent) album ANTI. The actual song slowly fades in as Hannah leaves ashamed, and Girls makes the bold decision to dabble in surreality as a large group of women walk in the opposite direction, filing into Chuck's home.
"Crowded Places" from "Goodbye Tour" (Season 6, Episode 9)
In many ways, the finale of Girls is a coda to its penultimate episode, "Goodbye Tour," which brings the on-again-off-again friendships of its four main characters to a satisfyingly bittersweet conclusion. After Shosh eviscerates the group and their toxic dynamic, they come to an unspoken truce and find themselves dancing — alone but still together — at her engagement party. Michael Penn technically scores the credits here, but it's BANKS' reflective "Crowded Places" that takes us through the end with a gorgeous montage that cuts between the party and Hannah moving upstate. In the process of growing up they grew apart, and "Crowded Places" is the heartrending swan song to this chapter of their lives.
All six seasons of Girls are now streaming on HBO Max.
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Cameron Scheetz is a freelance writer and interviewer, once dubbed "Cameron On Camera" by Dolly Parton. Follow him on Twitter at @cameronscheetz.
TOPICS: Girls, HBO, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham, Zosia Mamet, Needle Drop