So, here I am, still obsessed with Normal People the Series. In an attempt to empty my head this morning so I can hopefully be productive the rest of the day, I’m writing this breakdown of Episode 11.
Why Episode 11? In my breakdown of Episode 5, I said that it was my favorite for its technical deftness, the connections the made to the rest of the story, and the overall flow of the episode. 11 isn’t like that. The technical prowess remains, but there’s not much flow because it’s essentially three scenes, two small ones and one massive one. The two small ones, taken together, are necessary bookends. The massive one is perhaps the most complex scene between Connell and Marianne in the whole series. Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones work with director Hettie Macdonald to create a 16-minute long tour de force that hits with the impact of a freight train. Oh, and 6 of those 16 minutes are dedicated to not-really-a-sex-scene that is perhaps the best embodiment of Lenny Abrahamson’s vision to have seamless flow between verbal and physical communication between the lead characters. I’ve watched a lot of visual medium in my life. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
The closest thing I can think of is a landmark episode of Mad Men, the legendary Season 4, Episode 7 “The Suitcase”. It’s similar in that the two leads, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olson (the amazing Elisabeth Moss) carry the whole episode mostly stuck in one location, going over emotional baggage accumulated over the preceding seasons of the show. It’s not the same – Don and Peggy have no romantic ties whatsoever, and Mad Men is far more plot-driven – but Connell and Marianne are slinging so much baggage at this point they could give Samsonite a run for its money.
The level of difficulty of this scene is so high that even with Paul and Daisy doing jaw-dropping work, there is still so much that can be delved from reading the matching text from Sally Rooney’s novel. I’m waiting for the day that they make the series scripts available. Day one purchase for me. Anyway, let’s go.
Episode 10, aka the Therapy episode, ends with Marianne getting Connell through the death of Rob by keeping him company over Skype as she finishes her year-long Erasmus exchange in Sweden. Episode 11 opens with a vignette of Connell working in the school library, then sending a story to Sadie for publishing. The first real scene finds Marianne back home in their front yard, with a pensive look on her face. She’s accosted by Alan. “You’re pathetic.” The visual shifts to the beach, where Marianne is now talking to Connell, but it’s essentially the same scene. She relates the things Alan says to her. We reestablish that they’re spending time together again in Carricklea, and cut into a brief scene of them on a dance floor. Connell (Aside: Daisy looks smashing in this scene. That dress is aces.)
Cut to approach shots establishing were we are: the Waldron residence, Connell’s room. The last time Connell and Marianne were here together was way back in Episode 2, when life was simpler and their baggage was the size of Connell’s backpack. Connell is watching a GAA Gaelic football match.
Marianne is on his bed. It’s scorching so she’s dressed in a tank top and shorts, no makeup, her hair in a low pony. She looks like her old self, but her expression looks blank. She’s dwelling on what happened with Connell on the dance floor. In a flashback, he whispers something in her ear and suddenly leaves. Their interaction seems awkward. Connell’s attention is half on Marianne, half on the game. Marianne asks Connell if he kissed a girl last night after he left her, which he denies. He tells her to crack open a window because she’s feeling warm. Their expressions look bored. Connell asks Marianne if she got to talk to Eric, who bullied her when they were at school. Marianne says she did, and the he asked for forgiveness, which she gave, saying she doesn’t hold grudges. Connell suddenly gets up and goes out to buy them popsicles.
Ok let’s pause here. What the fuck is going on? They’re not making eye contact, they’re talking about seemingly random shit, and the trademark warmth and cozy, vicious repartee is missing.
Rewind. Connell and Marianne haven’t been together since Episode 6, the “Connell could only manage public physical affection OR asking Marianne if he could crash at her place for a couple of months” episode. He put his arm around her at Sophie’s pool party, then decamped for Carricklea after somehow telling Marianne that they should see other people. It’s his greatest fuck-up, worse than Debs.
Since then, the following things happened to Connell. He got sexually assaulted by Paula Neary; fell in love with Helen; was told by Marianne that she enjoyed being flogged by Jaime; earned his scholarship; got mugged; hiked through Europe; saw how Jamie abused Marianne; was told by Marianne that she felt she was damaged and that her family hated her; lost Rob; suffered severe anxiety and depression; heard rumors about Marianne’s deviant sexual exploits in Sweden; and was dumped by Helen. He’s now on medication (antidepressants?), works in the Trinity library and drives home every weekend to see Marianne, who just returned from Sweden. She just told him that her brother is still abusing her.
What’s Marianne been up to since Connell left her in Dublin? She got a sadist as a boyfriend and got whipped during sex for months; lied about enjoying it to Connell the first chance she got; got emotionally abused by her family when she went home; earned her scholarship; found out Connell had Helen; found out that the reason she lost Connell was he couldn’t ask her if he could crash at her place; got provoked by Jamie into physically launching herself at him; denied herself sex with Connell in Italy; broke up with Jamie, who proceeded to destroy her reputation; was abandoned by all of her Trinity friends not named Joanna; went to Sweden for a year; had a bondage/domination “arrangement” with Lukas; had naked pictures taken of herself; broke off that arrangement with Lukas; passed on going home for Christmas; lost Rob; met Helen; and found out Connell was experiencing severe depression. She comes home from Sweden, and is immediately emotionally abused yet again by her family.
Whew. So, back to Connell’s room. They have ice cream, which has worked well in the past. Marianne meeting Connell in Episode 1 with a tub, then the shared cones in Italy. They know that they’ve changed. They’re working through everything that’s happened to them, and it’s a lot. When Marianne says that people are nice to her now, even if she doesn’t see them, Connell says maybe she should so she’s not lonely. No shit Connell, it’s not like you haven’t known this woman for three years. Marianne asks about Helen, and Connell says that he was still lonely sometimes with her, throwing Helen under the bus. Marianne breaks eye contact by lying down. They’re miscommunicating again, when they talk about the dance floor incident. Marianne asks if she annoyed Connell, and he insists that he wasn’t. Marianne puts her popsicle down unfinished, which is an immediate red flag. Marianne loves ice cream.
Connell says: “I think our friendship would be a lot easier if certain things were different.” “If what was different?” “I don’t know.” Connell continues “things would be a lot less confusing if there weren’t like this other element of the relationship.” Callback to Episode 5, where Marianne says ““I think it would be a bit difficult for us to stay friends if one of us kept trying to sleep with the other one.” For two people who really like having sex with each other, they keep trying to run away from it in their heads. They both agree that they were never lonely when they were together. Marianne says she wanted Connell to kiss her last night, which to me translates to “I wanted you to bang me last night”. Connell goes back on the defensive, noting that whenever they’ve had an extended run of sex, things fall apart. And since they’re not looking each other in the eye, Connell isn’t seeing that Marianne is getting upset. Or maybe he sees it but is determined to reframe their relationship into a platonic friendship. The novel doesn’t give any more clarity at this point either, only that Marianne is getting more stressed out by the conversation. She closes her eyes, and Connell says “you’re my best friend, I don’t want to lose that for any reason.” Marianne has no better response than “yeah. I know what you mean.” When Connell thanks her for seeing him through his depressive episode, it’s the last straw for Marianne. “You don’t owe me anything.” And she gets up to leave. He says “I’m getting anxious now, I hope you don’t feel like I’m rejecting you.” Marianne covers her face with her hands. She’s had enough. “Don’t be anxious, everything’s fine.” She gets up to head home. Really just a poor performance all around for our boy Connell.
I’ll take this opportunity to say that this is Exhibit A for maybe they’re better off as best friends. The question is if they can keep it in their pants when they’re in the same room, even when they’re seeing other people. Evidence points to that being a massive struggle for both of them. They’ve shown that they’re willing to sabotage whatever relationship they’re in when the other becomes available.
So. Marianne looks like she’s okay, saying that she’ll walk home so Connell can finish his game. Of course our boy Connell, just like our girl Marianne in Episode 5, immediately reverses course. As she’s saying goodbye, he reaches out for her hand. Connell stresses the woman out, then changes his mind? Marianne isn’t going to not give him her hand, so she does. Connell kisses the back of her hand. Marianne says “that’s nice” but looks like she’s instantly on the verge of orgasm. Connell, in this moment, is an asshole. He knows she hasn’t had decent sex since, well, HIM, two years ago. He knows she suffered through Jamie and Lukas. Maybe he was doing a noble thing in his head, trying to protect their friendship by eliminating the physical element. All he did was torture Marianne. He forgot (or ignored) the one core truth between the two of them.
They’re both terrible at verbally communicating how they feel. They communicate best when they’re fucking.
Rooney writes a bunch of words at this point in the novel that simply convey that Marianne is very, very, very horny. But since this is now Marianne with all her baggage, that’s not necessarily a straightforward thing.
“I feel like it’s pretty obvious I don’t want you to leave.” “I don’t find it obvious what you want.” Marianne’s brain is now off. This is their first real kiss since Italy. Marianne says “I want this so much.” “It’s really nice to hear you say that.” Connell then steps away to turn the TV off. What? Marianne looks equal parts anxious, confused and thirsty as she sits on the bed.
Connell sits beside Marianne on the bed and resumes kissing her. Connell says “I’ve missed you.” She says “it’s not like this with other people”. The first time she said this was at the end of Episode 5, after the first sex they have in Trinity. Here, she says it again BEFORE they have sex, after all of the time and events listed above. Therefore she can’t be referring to the sex – they haven’t done it yet. What is she thinking? Connell says “I know, but I like you more than other people“. He completely whiffs on Marianne’s meaning. They start stripping, separately, not looking at each other. Marianne is lying on the bed, Connell is sitting to the side. This in itself is strange. In every on-screen sexual encounter they’ve had, when they’ve started clothed, they’ve undressed each other while kissing passionately. Marianne has a strangely vacant look on her face as she takes her clothes off. When she’s finally naked, she flips onto her stomach, into the female spoon position.
Again, what’s going on? Let’s remind ourselves again that they’re in Connell’s room, where they had sex for the first time in Episode 2. Unlike then, Connell doesn’t have a condom. Marianne says she’s on the pill (which Connell was unaware of). So they’re going bareback for the first time. [Flag] Which means Marianne has been going bareback with other partners. Money is on Jamie starting her on the pill when they were together. He seems like that kind of guy. Connell asks “do you want it like this?” On-screen, they have never used either of the two common rear entry positions. Marianne is in the spoon position. Who have we seen with Marianne in a similar position? Jamie was shown taking her from behind. Marianne answers “however you want.” [Flag] Come on Connell, wake up. He looks unsure. Marianne looks back at him in anticipation, her expression still vacant. He says nervously “I haven’t done this in a while”, drawing attention to Helen-shaped ghost in his head. “That’s okay.”
Connell enters Marianne. It’s not clear if he can see her, but this isn’t her usual “sex with Connell” face. There’s an element of pain in it, and I’m not sure it’s physical. [Flag] Like they tend to do during sex, Connell chats it up. “Can we do this next weekend?” Marianne has her eyes closed. “Whenever you want.” “Whenever I want? Really?” “You can do whatever you want with me.” “That’s nice.” [Flag] [Flag] [Flag] Marianne has said this to Connell as least three times. At the farm in Episode 1, after talking to Peggy about polygamy in Episode 6, and during the coffee date in Episode 7. Every time it made Connell feel uncomfortable. In Episode 6 he had a thought that he could hit Marianne and it disturbed him so much it made him recoil. Now he says “that’s nice“?
Marianne: “Do you like hearing me say that?” “Yeah, a lot.” “Will you tell me I belong to you?” “What do you mean?” “Will you hit me?” Connell freezes. Marianne opens her eyes, staring out blankly. It’s like the lights are on but no one’s there. We’ve seen this expression before – Episode 9, when Lukas is denying her an after-sex shower and verbally abusing her as part of their “game”. Connell withdraws. “I don’t think I want that, is that okay? Do you want to stop?” Marianne nods. Connell keeps talking, forgetting that he’s the master of foot-in-mouth. “Are you okay? I’m sorry, I didn’t want to do that. I think it’d be weird… I don’t think that’d be a good idea.” Marianne: “You think I’m weird.” Dude. Just shut up and pick her up and hold her. This isn’t the time for a shrink session. Nope, he keeps going. “I didn’t say that. I don’t know, I just don’t want it to be weird between us.” Marianne buries her face in the mattress. Good job Connell. Marianne gets up, dresses at light speed, and walks home.
This is already way too long, but I need to mention that in the novel, two things are going on. Marianne is surrendering her body to Connell. This is what she’s referring to when she said “it’s not like this with other people”. She gave her body over to Jamie and Lukas, and it wasn’t good. Novel text: “Her body is just an item of property, and though it has been handed around and misused in various ways, it has somehow always belonged to him, and she feels like returning it to him now.” Connell, on the other hand, has known for a while now that what Marianne says is true. He has power over her. She’s a masochist. He’s unwilling to hit her. He ends up hurting her here in a different way. But he is certain he does not want to lose her.
The final scene is straightforward. Marianne goes home, and is accosted by Alan, who demands that she stop seeing Connell for no good reason. Marianne tries to get past him. He chucks the beer bottle he’s carrying at her and misses. She runs up the stairs and into her room. Before she can lock the door, Alan slams it in her face, breaking her nose. She calls Connell and tells him she’s injured. Her drives to get her. At her house, she answers the door and he sees the blood. He sends her to the car, and then moves into the house to confront Alan. “If you ever touch Marianne again, I’ll kill you, he says. Okay? That’s all. Say one bad thing to her ever again and I’ll come back here myself and kill you, that’s it.” He returns to the car and tells Marianne “Everything’s going to be alright. Trust me. I love you, I’m not going to let anything like that happen to you again.”
So what was the point of all that? The episode brings Connell and Marianne back together where it all started, works them through their accumulated baggage and puts them in position for the ending in Episode 12. Marianne puts herself in Connell’s hands, and he fumbles it. She is forced to do it again under duress, and he doesn’t muff the second opportunity. He’s taken Marianne out of her abusive home, so he’s accepted the responsibility to take care of her. That includes her sexual deviance.
Daisy Edgar-Jones put in work in this episode. It’s no small task to physically represent Marianne’s desire for, and surrender to Connell on screen, referencing her past damage at the hands of Jamie, Lukas and her family. We can wonder how many takes it took them to get the final result. xxx
Episode music: “Breathe” by CamelPhat and Cristoph (dance scene), “Strange Weather” by Anna Calvi (end credits)
Directed by Hettie Macdonald, Written by Sally Rooney and Mark O’Rowe, Director of Photography Suzy Lavelle and Kate McCullough, Editing by Stephen O’Connell, Score by Stephen Rennicks, Production Design by Lucy van Lonkhuyzen, Costumes by Lorna Marie Mugan xxx
If you made it this far, I’m sorry for the walls of text. I’m writing all of this to try and get Normal People out of my head. It’s still not working. xoxox