I’d originally hoped to do the series finale as my last deep dive. I now realize I’m not going to get to do all the episodes, so I’m going to have to choose the ones I really want to write about. I’ve got a couple that are partially written, but I was so close to finishing 12 because I’ve watched it the most times that I decided to close the book on it, for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a masterfully written ending. It continues to take beats from the novel, but changes things substantially. Props to Alice Birch, who also writes on another show I enjoy, Succession. Second, and this is related to the first, it diverges from the novel. Structurally, definitely, just by adding scenes not seen in the book. More importantly, it differs tonally from the novel’s ending. The mood of the ending scene, and the emotions of the characters are radically different. Having Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, who took viewers on a roller coaster for eleven episodes, get to deliver one of the most sincere, tender closing scenes in recent memory is a gut punch that the novel just can’t match.
The creative and technical teams outdo themselves here. This episode travels, revisiting multiple locations, delivering bits and pieces of closure and catharsis. There are few dissonant notes. We’ll even forgive the overt manipulation in one scene, just because it’s so well done. Hats off to Hettie Macdonald and Kate McCullough who delivered the second half of the series with the same attention to detail and storytelling adeptness that Lenny Abrahamson and Suzy Lavelle brought in the first half.
The other main reason that Episode 12 deserves a deep dive is that of all the episodes, it’s the one that’s most different from the book. All of the scenes are either unique to the series, substantially different from the novel, or add details that fundamentally shape the narrative in ways that the novel did not. The final chapter of Normal People the novel is told entirely from Marianne’s POV, and is therefore open to “unreliable narrator” elements especially when it comes to Connell. Episode 12 is fully third person, carrying no voice-overs, phone calls or emails (unlike the narratively complex Episode 9), eliminating the internal dialogue. This gives Macdonald, Birch, McCullough, Mescal and Edgar-Jones the freedom to craft the series finale in a completely different direction from the novel, one that I feel is fully appropriate for the series versions of Connell and Marianne.
When we left Connell and Marianne in Episode 11, they were driving away from Marianne’s abusive family. We fast forward in time, joining them again in the car. Marianne’s broken nose looks none the worse for wear. Marianne’s read one of Connell’s stories, and is complementing him on it and urging him to submit it for publication. They seem comfortable together, after the events of last episode.
It’s Marianne’s birthday. She and Connell are gathered with their friends. Niall, Elaine, Joanna, and surprise, Evelyn. (Evelyn is Joanna’s partner from the novel. She’s not identified in the scene.) Niall asks her what her gifts were. Connell got her a book of Frank O’Hara poems. She says her family doesn’t go in on birthdays so no gifts from them. The whole thing is warm and relaxed, completely unlike Marianne’s Trinity circle. No one misses Jamie or Peggy.
That evening, Connell is brushing his teeth. This is an unfamiliar bathroom; they’re not in Marianne’s flat. Amusing callback to Niall: ““You think if you move your toothbrush into her bathroom, she’ll get too attached?” Marianne joins Connell, and gets a text message. It’s from Denise, and it’s not a birthday greeting. “Send me back the keys to the Dublin flat as soon as possible.” Marianne proceeds to put moisturizer on her face. Connell says “I’m sorry“. Marianne says “I’m okay.” Her family no longer triggers her. They’re no longer living in the flat anyway. Connell kisses the back of Marianne’s neck. Fionn Regan’s “Dogwood Blossom” fires up for the last time.
Final sex scene between our star-crossed leads. We see them in missionary, then they flip and Marianne ends up on top in cowgirl. This is the reverse of Episode 2’s second sex scene, where they started with Marianne on top, then flipped into Connell on top in missionary. The lovemaking is how we remember it from Episode 5. Aftermath. Connell is lying on the floor, his head in Marianne’s lap. She’s sitting on the floor, her back resting against the bed. This is a naked reversal of their positions after the scene with Peggy where they talked about the threesome, and where Connell recoiled after thinking about how he’d like to hit Marianne. After Episode 11’s debacle, which mirrored that moment, they appear to have found a good place for both of them, sex-wise. Connell: “Did you like that?” Marianne: “Yeah. Very much.” He satisfied her without hitting her. Connell has his eyes closed. Marianne is running her hand through his hair, looking at him, thinking about… what? What it would be like without him by her side? “Dogwood Blossom” continues to play. “Keep climbing into my head without knockin’, And you fix yourself there like a map pin, On this ghost of this street where I’m livin’, I’m in a chrysalis and I’m snowed in.”
We see Marianne swimming alone in a pool, doing a steady breaststroke. She pulls up at one end and comes up for air, taking her goggles off. She watches an elderly woman that just came out of the pool, toweling off. The woman is alone. Marianne seems lost in thought, as if considering the concept of being alone as she grows old. “Dogwood Blossom” continues to play. “Darling, darling that dam’s gonna give, It’s inevitable the way that you live.”
Marianne is sitting in a lecture. Joanna is sitting beside her. “Dogwood Blossom” ends. “Bottles in brown paper and a mouth that slurs, All the shit that it stirs, Let that dogwood blossom.” The song arcs across Marianne’s new everyday life. Connell and sex, swimming, classes, Joanna and movies. The women leave the lecture hall and walk together. They make plans for the evening: Marianne goes for a swim, gets takeout, then meets Joanna for dinner and a movie. Joanna: “Did we get married and become 50 years old without noticing?” Marianne breaks into a big smile. “Maybe. I actually love it.” “Do you think our first-year selves would hate what we’ve become?” “I think first-year me would have been amazed. ‘Look at her, she’s actually content.'” She sounds happy. The trappings of first-year Trinity Marianne are gone. The wealthy friends, the parties, the booze and drugs, her flat, the men chasing her, and the notoriety around Trinity. She’s now just another fourth-year student finishing out her degree.
Connell and Marianne are in a study hall. Connell gets an email, accepting him to a MFA program in New York City. Marianne didn’t know he applied. He says it was suggested by one of his tutors, and he didn’t think he would be accepted so he was too embarrassed to tell Marianne in case he was rejected. Marianne: “It’s brilliant, Connell.” “You can see me in New York, can you?” “Yeah, actually. I can.” Connell grows anxious. “Now is not the time for me to go halfway around the world and live in a city where I don’t know anyone.” He recalls arriving in Dublin and feeling lost in Episode 4, and says it will be far worse in New York. Marianne tells him to put it away for the moment. Connell: “I’m not going.” “Okay.” Her expression says that she isn’t going to forget the discussion.
Next scene finds Connell being feted by Sophie in a large gathering of the literary society. He’s become the editor of their magazine, Icarus, and everyone is excited about the upcoming issue. He looks uncomfortable being the center of attention. Marianne is standing in a corner, smiling, and raises a glass to Connell’s success. He smiles back. She mouths “I’m proud of you” to him from across the room. It’s a callback to their days at school, where Connell was the popular one, and she was the loner. The difference is now she’s far more secure in who she is, and in her relationship with Connell.
They’re back in their shared home. Ir’s a lot smaller and plainer than Marianne’s old Dublin flat. The large, familiar kitchen where so much drama occurred in Episodes 4 through 7 is gone. Connell sits at a little table slicing carrots, while Marianne is at the stove in the back. A little Christmas tree stands in the background, lights twinkling. I enjoyed looking at their stuff. Microwave, toaster, French press, two kinds of cereal, an electric hot water pot and a yellow box of something from Tesco. Marianne is walking around in fuzzy slippers. Connell asks her if she’d like to spend Christmas with the Waldrons. Marianne is hesitant, unsure if Lorraine would want her. She has holiday PTSD from her family’s gatherings. Connell says it was Lorraine’s idea. Cut to them in the car, driving at night, with a back seat full of Christmas gifts and Al Martino’s “You’re All I Want for Christmas” on the radio. Marianne cracks up. They both laugh. She looks out the window at the Christmas sights around Foxfield. She never enjoyed this when she lived at home in Merrion Square with Denise and Alan. They arrive at the Waldron home and are greeted at the door by Lorraine. She gives Marianne an extra-long hug. “Thanks for having me.” At dinner the family talks about how well Connell is doing as editor of the magazine, a much happier reflection of Marianne’s last meal with the Sheridans when Alan doused her with dishwater. They play charades. Marianne’s sticky note says “Santa Clause” and Connell’s says “Edward Scissorhands“. We get one final look at Connell’s room, with Marianne sitting in it wearing an ugly yellow Christmas sweater. Connell checks in on her, in his ugly snowman sweater. “A proper Christmas,” she says.
Cut to morning. Lorraine, Connell and Marianne are walking down a now-familiar street in Carricklea, talking about plans for New Year’s Eve. Connell mentions that their old school friends congregated at the pub, Brennan’s, every year. Marianne says “I’m just not sure I could see a New Year’s in a Brennan’s.” They run into Marianne’s mum, Denise, on the street. Lorraine wishes her Happy New Year. Denise ignores her, gives Marianne a steely side-eye, and walks away. Back in the car, Marianne asks Lorraine what the people in town think of her mum. Lorraine diplomatically says that Denise is considered “a bit odd“. Marianne says “oh” and looks out the window. Connell says nothing.
Marianne is walking alone along the beach where we saw her and Connell last at the beginning of Episode 11, when she told Connell that Alan continued to abuse her and Denise condoned it. She watches the waves crash along the shore as she walks. We get a gorgeous wide shot of the beach, Marianne a small figure in the distance. Do the Marianne alone shots foreshadow the ending?
Marianne arrives back at the Waldrons’ home, now her home too. As she walks up the stairs, Connell asks her if she’ll come to Brennan’s for New Year’s Eve with him. She hesitates. Connell says “you should“. Marianne says “far be it from me to disobey an order“. She has the shadow of a smile on her face, happy to be following an order from Connell. In this small, significantly modified scene from the novel, we get a hint of how Connell and Marianne may have worked her submissiveness into their everyday lives.
We cut to Connell and Marianne walking into Brennan’s hand-in-hand, the first time we’re seeing them touching in public since Sophie’s pool party way back in Episode 6. Connell lets go of Marianne’s hand to greet Gary. Marianne hesitates, then sees Rachel, Karen and Lisa. She walks over to greet them. She gets a hug from Rachel, then Karen, then Lisa. Everyone is warm and welcoming. Lisa hugs Connell before he and Marianne go find drinks. Connell puts his arm around Marianne’s shoulders like he’s been doing it for years. Marianne puts her arm around his waist. Eric greets Marianne enthusiastically at the bar. We last heard Marianne mention Eric in Episode 11, saying he sought her out to apologize to her. Connell and Marianne are accepted as a couple. She’s no longer a pariah. They’re both comfortable showing physical affection in public. Everyone in the school friends group, especially Connell, appears to have accepted Rob’s passing. At the stroke of midnight, Connell and Marianne kiss, and we’re treated to a flashback of their first kiss from Episode 1, interwoven with the present one, their first public kiss. Connell tells Marianne he loves her. Marianne, for the first and only time in the series, tells Connell she loves him too. They continue kissing, then we see Marianne’s face as they hug. She looks happy, safe and content in Connell’s arms. This is my favorite scene in the whole show. You can grow up and come home.
We see Marianne from behind, looking out the second floor window of the Dublin flat. She’s watching Connell load boxes into his car. She’s moving out, so she can return the key to Denise. We cut to Connell and Marianne sitting on the floor of the flat’s living room, where so much happened from Episode 4 through Episode 7. They’re wearing dark blues and greys, approximating the palette of their school uniforms. No makeup for Marianne, looking almost 18 again, except for the full fringe. She’s looking around the room. Connell asks her if she’s all right. Marianne says she is, she never felt right living there, and that the flat never felt like home.
Marianne looks pensive. Connell asks her what she’s thinking. She says she’s been thinking about New York, and how she keeps imagining Connell there, writing. Connell watches her face, then looks away, saying “right“. Marianne reads him. “You’ve been thinking about it.” “Yeah, but that doesn’t mean…” Connell trails off. Clearly part of him wants to go. Marianne just keeps looking at him calmly, listening. He continues “It just feels too hard. Everything recently has been hard, or it’s been an effort.” He looks Marianne in the eye. “Maybe this year just needs to be straightforward.” Marianne responds, holding Connell’s gaze. They’ve never verbally communicated this clearly, ever. In Episode 6 she missed every single verbal and physical cue Connell made when he needed to ask her to crash at her place. Now, she’s seeing everything clearly. “There’s been a lot of stuff that’s been difficult. And painful. And this would be difficult and amazing.” Connell: “Potentially, yes.” He’s looking right at her and giving in. Marianne: “It’s New York. It’s writing. It’d be fucking amazing Connell.” Camera holds on Connell’s face as Marianne is telling him this. He knows what she’s saying in between the lines. He needs to go do this, for himself. He nods. “Yeah. Yeah, maybe.” The camera is on Marianne as he says this, her face still steady, as if she knows she has to be strong in the moment as she begins to let him go. She knows what he’s going to ask. “Would you come with me? We could be there together, and you could study or work, and…” Holding the camera on Marianne here is brilliant. Her expression doesn’t change. She already thought about it in advance and knew her answer.
Marianne shakes her head “no“, looking at Connell. Full eye contact. “Why?” he asks. Connell looks curious, not angry, distressed or sad at her refusal to join him in NY. “I want to stay here.” She’s confident and sincere in her response. “I want to live the life I’m living. It’s quite a thing.” Connell laughs. He laughs as if he expected her answer, but was still pleasantly surprised. He looks happy that she chose herself this time, finally. He exhales and rubs his eyes, coming to terms with the fact that he’s going to NY alone. “And I’m getting better at it.” Connell agrees with her. “Yeah.” He’s staring into the distance, seeing his life in NY without Marianne beside him. LONG pause, before “I’d miss you too much.” He looks back at her. “I’d be sick.“
“At first.” Marianne is steady. She’s not crying. She’s lending him her newfound strength, reassuring him. “But it would get better.” She’s letting him go. Connell nods and agrees. “Yeah. It’s only a year, and then I’ll be back.” He means back, physically, but also back with you Marianne. Camera pulls back. Gorgeous natural lighting.
This can go two ways. Marianne could say “Yes. I’ll be waiting when you get back.” She doesn’t. She picks the other option. She looks away for a second, before looking Connell in the eye again. “Don’t promise that. You don’t know where either of us will be. Or what will happen.” She’s explicitly talking about their relationship. Connell may not come back after a year in NY. She may not be in Dublin in a year. They may be with other people. They may even be different people. Connell looks away, silently agreeing. Goldmund’s “Sometimes” starts up in the background. They were holding it together as they decided their paths, particularly Marianne. Now they’ve agreed. Both of them start crying, starting to accept that this is the right choice for both of them. This is the first time they’ve been together, and mutually concluded that it’s best for them to go their separate ways. Previously it’s all been miscommunication and immaturity. This is goodbye.
They resume full eye contact. Through the tears, they’re both smiling. Gratitude. Connell: “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.” Marianne: “No. That’s true. I mean, you’d be somewhere else entirely. You’d be a different person. And me too.” Both of them think of the absurd places they’ve been in the past three years, both alone and together, supporting each other, and how it’s all led them to this place and time. Marianne, looking back at Connell. “But we have done so much good for one another.” She reaches out to put her hand on his face. Connell: “You know I love you.” This line is deliberately constructed for Marianne. It’s not “I love you” which we had in the previous scene. Camera back on Marianne, who closes her eyes. This is the only person on the planet that she can accept those words from and know them to be true. “And I’m never gonna feel the same way for anyone else.” Marianne: “I know.” For Marianne, acknowledging that she knows and believes Connell loves her is more powerful than her saying she loves him too. She’s believed herself to be unlovable for so long, and it’s been a fundamental part of her identity, that being secure in the truth of this assertion by Connell is the greatest gift anyone has given her. Connell exhales and looks away. He’s doing this. They’re doing this. He laughs, looks back at Marianne, nods and smiles. “I’ll go.” Marianne acknowledges with her own nod. “And I’ll stay.” Back to one final shot of Connell’s face. He’s stopped crying. And back to Marianne, who has also stopped crying. Acceptance. “And we’ll be okay.” She’ll be okay without him. He’ll be okay without her. They’ll be friends forever, regardless of where life leads them.
Final long shot of our leads sitting on the bare floor of the dark Dublin flat, moving boxes in the background. They’re both packing up their lives and moving on, with uncertainty but also with hope. Marianne’s right hand is on Connell’s arm. He puts his left hand on hers, wipes his face on his sleeve, then looks back at her. She kisses his hand. They continue to look at each other, a final memory to take with them when they leave. Cut to black. Fin.
The final scene is one of the most soulful, tender scenes between two characters that I’ve had the pleasure of watching. The writing of Alice Birch, first of all, is nuanced and exacting. Words are borrowed from the novel, but they’re repurposed to build to a crescendo of emotions, then catharsis at the end. I don’t know who chose the specific details of the performances, but when the characters look at each other and look away, when they smile and cry, and the pauses in their deliveries add so much to the scene. The supernatural chemistry between Paul and Daisy is undeniable, but there’s also the deep understanding and love of the characters they’re playing, the shared history that they leverage to the hilt.
The series finale shares very little with the novel’s ending other than a few lines, and those lines are delivered in very different contexts. For example, the now-iconic “but we have done so much good for one another” was internal dialogue for Marianne in the novel; it was never said to Connell. But that’s a long discussion that merits its own post.
Episode music: “The Subterranean Heart” by Mount Alaska (opening car ride), “No Such Thing” by Yumi and the Weather (birthday party), “Love Really Hurts Without You” by Billy Ocean (birthday party), “Dogwood Blossom” by Fionn Regan (love scene, Marianne montage), “You’re All I Want for Christmas” by Al Martino (Christmas drive), “Can’t Move On” by Wild Youth (New Year’s party), “HNY” by Stephen Rennicks (New Year’s kiss), “Sometimes” by Goldmund (final scene and end credits),
Directed by Hettie Macdonald, Written by Alice Birch, Director of Photography Kate McCullough, Editing by Nathan Nugent and 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 starting to work. xoxox