Normal People the Series: Favorite Episode

I’ve written five long posts on Normal People the Series. I’m obviously obsessed with every aspect of the show. Picking one episode and tagging it as “the favorite” is like picking a favored child, especially since every one is a critical piece of the story of Connell and Marianne. However, when I consider every aspect of artistry, including the technical, and the overall flow of the episodes, I enjoy Episode 5 the most. It’s got everything, a microcosm of the whole series. As a bonus, it also features my favorite among “the old scenes” as Daisy Edgar-Jones called them, at the very end.

The end of Episode 4 has Marianne waking up in the middle of the night and sober-texting Connell, her not-ex ex. Connell calls her, saying he hasn’t gotten a midnight text from her in a long time. Their conversation opens Episode 5, with one of the better Marianne quotes from the series. “I’ve missed having you in my life, and that maybe it would be nice to have you in it again. We haven’t done the whole friendship thing, I guess I was just wondering if we could.” Watch Marianne’s eyes during the conversation. There’s a longing there.

During the episode Marianne pulls Connell into her “friend group”, then sets him up with Teresa, which she’ll regret later. We get a four-second sex scene between Gareth and Marianne, with Marianne looking thoroughly unimpressed. Connell starts to rise as a star in the English program, while Marianne starts to realize that she may not be satisfied with just friendship with Connell. He’s proven to be smarter than even she thought. Marianne has a totally banal talk with Gareth (see the contempt in Marianne’s eyes, just after telling Jamie that Connell is the smartest person she’s ever met). Sadly for Gareth, immediately after a brilliant hard cut, Marianne is in a chat with Connell. (Kudos to the editors, stringing Marianne talking to Jamie, Gareth and Connell all in a row to provide contrast of the depth of her connection with each.)

In one of the best conversations in the series, they discuss life at Trinity and how Connell is struggling to adapt. Connell has found a footing academically, but socially, he’s still lost. “I barely know what to say half the time.. xxx I feel like I’m walking around trying on a hundred different versions of myself. It’s just not working.” In a swap of positions, she says that she’d be embarrassed if her friends find out she and Connell were involved in Sligo. She and Connell finally talk about the demise of their relationship in Carricklea. “Apparently everybody knew about us anyway.” “Were they horrible about it?” “Believe it or not no one even cared.” Connell apologizes and she forgives him. Closure and healing for them, cleaning the slate. Great performances from the leads, especially Mescal. The man’s going to be a star.

This allows Marianne to break up with Gareth. (We can all see where her thought process is going.) Gareth quote during the breakup: “You are literally like a completely different person right now.” Call back to her talk with Connell in the previous scene. “Do people even care?” Next scene, just after the break-up, she heads to the party she and Gareth were supposed to attend with… Connell. She’s drinking heavily from a flask of gin (Chekhov’s flask in the novel) while walking with him to the party, badgering him about Teresa and flirting all the way. At the party they split up and Peggy hands her a joint. This leads into one of my favorite scenes: drunk, high Marianne, trying to seduce Connell, who’s not having it. “I want you to fuck me.” “Not tonight, you’re wasted.” “Is that the only reason?” “Yeah. That’s it.”

Connell walks away from her. (In the novel her high comes down into stoner sleep, and she passes out in the bathroom.) She wakes up with what looks like a hangover. As he promised, Connell is there waiting to take her home. When they arrive, Marianne apologizes for the drugged, drunken advances from the evening before. “Sorry about last night.” “Forget about it.” “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.” Oh, Marianne.

They go inside. Marianne takes a shower. We get an amazing, subtle scene shot close-up with photography I’m very envious of (shout out to director Lenny Abrahamson and DP Suzy Lavelle), when she strips and steps into the shower. We see her hair flatten out and her makeup melt away, the mascara streaming down her face. (Callback to the first seconds of Episode 2, where young Marianne struggles and eventually gives up applying mascara before going to see Connell, and when Connell first sees Marianne in Episode 4 with perfect mascara, transforming her into Trinity Marianne.)

She emerges from the shower wearing a black-and-red robe. Connell is sitting and waiting. (What happened to the coffee Connell?). She walks up and stands in front of him. She looks like HIS Marianne again. None of her Trinity friends around. No boyfriend. Makeup stripped away. Hair down and wet. Alone with him. Most importantly, sober and deciding that she wants this. True to his word from the night before, he opens her robe and tastes her. Appropriately, this to me stands as the most passionate sex scene in the whole series. There’s no more awkwardness between them. (The last time we saw them together was Episode 2, in Sligo, a lifetime ago.) The coupling is comfortable. Familiar. It’s like coming home after being away for a long time. Everything about it works. The palette. The lighting. The photography (still very close, neither director uses long shots for intimate scenes). The pace. And yes, the performances. At the risk of getting into too much detail – here they go missionary, then cowgirl. In Episode 2, the second time they’re together, they go cowgirl, then missionary. Even the fucking sex scenes are bookended. The attention to detail is breathtaking. (Guess what positions they’re in for the final sex scene in Episode 12?)

In the aftermath, we get Marianne’s now-familiar tagline for the first time: “it’s not like this with other people”. We also get a foreshadowing from Connell. “I think we’ll be fine.” Not until Episode 12, Connell.

Episode music: “La Lune” by Billie Marten (early montage), “Nikes” by Frank Ocean (at the party), “Make You Feel My Love” by Ane Brun (end credits)

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, Written by Sally Rooney and Alice Birch, Director of Photography Suzy Lavelle, Editing by Nathan Nugent, Score by Stephen Rennics, Production Design by Lucy van Lonkhuyzen, Costumes by Lorna Marie Mugan xxx

Normal People the Series: Top 10 Favorite Scenes

I wrote a whole post about Normal People the Series, the best television I’ve seen in a while, and definitely the best Quarantine Content I’ve consumed. I’m slightly obsessed right now with how good the show was, so here’s my five favorite scenes. There’s no criteria other than my personal tastes, reflected by how many times I’ve replayed the scenes to catch some detail that I maybe didn’t notice during previous viewings.

Warning: Spoilers for Normal People the Series, and for the novel as well.

10. First Encounter (Episode 1)

The Scene: Connell visits Marianne’s house for the first time. We find out his mum Lorraine is a cleaner for the wealthy Sheridan family.

Why I like the scene: With all of the available content out there, the first episode of a series needs to grab the viewer as soon as possible. This is our first opportunity to see Connell and Marianne interact, and it’s immediate heat. Director Lenny Abrahamson pulls us into the series with Marianne’s eyes. The moment she lays those big brown orbs on Connell, we know something is up in her head. We are also introduced to the signature close-up shots and shallow depth of field that create the intimate photography for the series. Marianne makes enough doe eyes at Connell that you can believe whatever it is she’s eating (in the book it’s chocolate spread, here it looks like ice cream) is a proxy for him.

Normal People the Series

9. Lorraine dresses down Connell (Episode 3)

The Scene: In the car, Connell tells his mum Lorraine that he’s taking his classmate Rachel Moore to the Debs (aka the senior prom). Lorraine dresses him down and gets out of the car.

Why I like the scene: One of the more important secondary characters, Lorraine is Connell’s grounding, and we see why he’s basically a good person. She’s the cool mum, characterizing his relationship with Marianne as “you’re fucking her”, calling out his shabby treatment of her at school, and telling him he’s a disgrace and that she’s ashamed of him. Lorraine is the only character that’s on Marianne’s side from beginning to end.

8. Skype Support (Episode 10)

The Scene: Prescient given that most of the world is quarantined today due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Connell is having a very bad time, having lost his friend Rob to suicide, and his girlfriend Helen to his own emotional issues. His therapist asks him if he has a friend that he can talk to. Marianne sees him through while she’s on the Erasmus student exchange program in Sweden, via videoconferencing.

Why I like the scene: Both characters are under duress at this point in their lives, while apart. Marianne keeps Connell company, being on video while he falls asleep, and being there to say greet him good morning when he wakes. Given the difficulties they’ve had when apart, this is a major milestone in growth. Connell also saw Marianne through her own emotional maelstrom in Sweden, which we’ll get to later. So we learn that they learned skills to navigate a year-long LDR (the length of Marianne’s exchange program), which will impact a scene we’ll talk about later.

7. The Coffee Date (Episode 7)

The Scene: This happens after Connell returns from his exile in Carricklea, having been forced to head home after failing to ask Marianne if he could live with her after he’s laid off from his job. They even see each other in Carricklea when Marianne goes home for her dad’s Catholic services, and don’t talk about anything substantial. Months later, they meet up at a roadside coffee place in Dublin.

Why I like the scene: This is a classic example of the characters’ communication issues. They should be talking about why Connell left, and what happened to both of them in the aftermath. Discuss why they were together in a car in Sligo and didn’t say anything to each other about what they were feeling. Instead, months later, Marianne meets Connell with the clear objective of unsettling him by telling him about her new sadist sex partner, and how she’s now into pain during sex. Connell misses all the signals as well, as he’s been used to doing whenever he’s face to face with Marianne. Edgar-Jones is throwing fastballs here (those eyes), piloting Marianne in trying to hurt Connell for abandoning her while asking him to save her at the same time. When your ex makes it a point to tell you that you used to fuck her, that her feelings were real between when she had sex with you, and that she’s pretending to like it when her current partner whips her with a belt when screwing her, you have to be totally oblivious to miss the signals. (My God Connell, you clueless moron.)

6. Connell turns down Marianne (Episode 5)

The Scene: Marianne gets drunk and high on weed at a party after breaking up with Gareth. She desperately propositions Connell, who turns her down multiple times.

Why I like the scene: Daisy Edgar-Jones gets a chance play Marianne without the customary dark cloud hovering over her, with funny dialogue going from jealousy (“do you like [Teresa] better than me?”), to competitiveness (“was she better in bed than I am?”), to confusion (“let’s go upstairs” – “we actually are upstairs”), to lust (“I want you to fuck me”), to disappointment (Connell leaves) in under a minute. Drunk and high Marianne is really entertaining. We’re left to wonder how she’d act if she took a hit of Peggy’s cocaine. This leads into make-up/guilt sex in the morning, beginning the second phase of the two leads being unofficially together.

5. Connell meets Marianne at Trinity (Episode 4)

The Scene: The first half of Episode 4 is Connell walking around Trinity College in Dublin alone, trying to orient himself. He goes to a party, having been invited by Gareth, one of his classmates. We’re given foreshadowing by Gareth when Connell says he’s from Sligo. Gareth’s girlfriend is also from Sligo.

Why I like the scene: This is the first case of the gravitational attraction the two leads exhibit throughout the series. It’s also a showcase of their abysmal (and somewhat vicious) communication style with each other. Note that this is what passes for an apology between the two of them. Connell and Marianne verbally spar, needling each other about the circumstances of the demise of their relationship at Carricklea. They take shots at the people they are/were with , and acknowledge that they probably communicate best when they’re fucking.

4. The Swedish Photo Shoot (Episode 9)

The Scene: Marianne’s Swedish hookup Lukas puts her in a naked photo shoot. Their sex is a carryover from Marianne’s stint with Jamie, with her demand to be treated as “the opposite of liked”. Connell writes Marianne an email, talking about the things she said to him in Italy, reminding her that she’s loved. Marianne terminates the photo shoot and ends the relationship.

Why I like the scene: The Sweden episode is a hard watch, with Marianne alone, far away from home, and deep in her darkest place. In the book there’s a lot going through her mind, but here Edgar-Jones has to convey it all with her eyes and face. It’s Christmastime, and Marianne tells her family she’s not coming home to avoid the abuse. Connell writes her an email, referencing things she told him in Italy about not being able to get anyone to love her, telling her that she deserves love and that a lot of people love her. This triggers during her bondage photo shoot, when Lukas is in the process of tying her up. She finally says no, as Connell’s words play over the scene. The editing interweaves Marianne submitting and extricating herself from Lukas’s will, which is kind of how Rooney writes and is an interesting experiment. Ultimately, this yanks Marianne into a better place, giving her the ability to support Connell through his valley of darkness in the succeeding episode.

3. Marianne’s First Time (Episode 2)

The Scene: Marianne finally gets to take her clothes off, which she’s wanted to do since Episode 1, and give Connell her virginity.

Why I like the scene: Destined to be in the pantheon of “first time” scenes, this is everyone’s favorite, including Mescal and Edgar-Jones. I like it because it sets up every single sex scene down the road for both characters, as a reference point for innocence lost. Director Lenny Abrahamson said that the scene is designed as a conversation that starts as verbal (when Marianne first sits down on Connell’s bed with a cup of tea) then shifts to continue and end as physical (Marianne’s climax almost 8 minutes later). A lot has already been written and said about this scene, so I don’t feel a need to rehash here.

2. The Ending (Episode 12)

The Scene: Connell got an invite into a prestigious New York program, which he is inclined to pass on. Marianne, in a much better place now, content with her studies, friends (Joanna), family (the Waldrons) and hobby (swimming). She convinces Connell that he should go, for his own good. She wants stay in Dublin to finish her studies and live her life. They’ll be apart, but they’ll be okay.

Why I like the scene: This is closure without the Happy Ever After, which feels like the appropriate way for us to leave Connell and Marianne. They’ve learned how to be together, they’re communicating here in ways that they’ve never been able to do in the past. Connell faces his fears of being alone (again) in a big city where he knows no one, half a world away from Marianne. Marianne now recognizes the love of the people around her, and has learned to love herself enough to choose her own path, even if it might lead away from Connell. They’re exhibiting hard-earned maturity, and are more secure now in each other than ever before, accepting that they’ll be together as friends, if not as lovers, for the rest of their lives, no matter where they may be.

Meta note: This is a superior ending to the original novel ending, where Marianne, after an inexplicable fit of jealousy, tells Connell to go to New York, because she’ll be waiting for him when he gets back.

1. The New Year’s Kiss (Episode 12)

The Scene: Connell (and Lorraine) invite Marianne to spend the holidays with them in Carricklea. After she experiences a proper Christmas, Connell asks her to come to the New Year’s celebration at the local pub, Brennan’s. Marianne looks apprehensive, but acquiesces.

Why I like the scene: This is full circle for our leads. Connell and Marianne walk into Brennan’s and are greeted by all of the familiar faces from school. They are accepted as a couple, and Marianne is hugged by the girls, including Rachel, no longer a pariah. Connell is comfortable with his arm around Marianne. He has also gotten past the death of Rob, who was part of this circle of friends. At the stroke of midnight, Connell and Marianne kiss, and we’re treated to a flashback of their first kiss, interwoven with the present one. Connell tells Marianne he loves her. Marianne, for the first time, tells Connell she loves him. You can grow up and come home.