Normal People Episode 6 Deep Dive: Connell Had One Job

Yes, I’m still thinking about Normal People. Not just the series now, but even the novel. I’m starting to forget to use quotation marks in my regular writing. It’s getting bad. So here we are back with another few thousand words on another episode of Normal People the Series to distract me.

Episode 6 is a series landmark. This signals the end of the first “block” that was shot, and the final episode with Executive Producer and Academy Award-nominated director Lenny Abrahamson at the helm. It signals the end of the early years of Connell and Marianne, before taking them from kisses and sunshine and putting them both in much darker places in the second half of the series. This is the last time we see them “together” (as Marianne defines it in this episode) until the series finale. Uniquely for the series, this episode is told in flashback. It revolves around a single story beat – what the fuck happened? How did we go from “it’s not like this with other people” at the end of Episode 5 to Marianne sobbing, alone in her kitchen, over a broken glass?

Character-wise, we’re given longer glimpses into the inner demons of both Connell and Marianne; the demons that are going to batter them and their relationship for the next five episodes. We’re also given more time with some of the supporting cast that will be part of the narrative for the next two episodes. Let’s get started.

We open with Marianne sobbing, alone in her kitchen, over a broken glass. Smash cut to a “six weeks earlier” chyron. Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Too Much” cranks up, and we get Marianne back in the same place, same position. Smiling this time, with a much brighter frame, wearing a different top. Love the transition, Lenny. Marianne says “stay“. Connell is spending most nights at Marianne’s place. He says he has to go back to the room he rents with Niall to grab stuff. Marianne hasn’t met Niall yet, but likes him. Marianne: “Is he your best friend, do you think?” This is foreplay. She means “if you stay you can fuck me“. Connell can’t resist and takes the bait. “No. You are.” He gets up and closes the distance. Carly’s voice swells as they snog. “That I’m wild for your skin and the dance that we’re in. So close now, so close now.” Connell picks up Marianne and plants her ass on the counter. Carly keeps going. “It takes me higher, feel the love.” Connell takes his shirt off. “I’m not afraid to know my heart’s desire.” He strips Marianne’s top off. No bra. Natural light is streaming in behind her. They’re in the face-to-face position, and we all know what’s coming. “When I party then I party too much.” Smash cut to black title screen, silence. “Normal People” That’s just fucking ominous. Using a CRJ song to foreshadow bad stuff is brilliant and at the same time a crime. The first time I saw this I was expecting a full-blown kitchen counter sex scene set to “Too Much”. The shot looked and sounded amazing. Then it’s taken away. Tremendous opening sequence. Give Lenny the Emmy. Full disclosure: I love Carly Rae Jepsen. Sue me.

Niall is giving Connell grief about spending every night at Marianne’s place. Niall: “Is she your girlfriend yet?” “No.” “What are you playing at? Are you keeping her on her toes?” “Course not.” “She’s too good for ya.” “Yes, I’m aware.” I love this callback to Lorraine in Episode 3. “And you don’t think maybe you should have asked her? Seeing as how you fuck her every day after school?” Again. “Normal People.” Leave it to Lorraine to be our barometer of what normal behavior should be. Can we hear her yelling at Connell right now? “What exactly is the arrangement? You go over to Marianne’s house, you have sex with her, and you don’t ask her to be your girlfriend? Is that it? xxx You’re fucking her! You’re fucking her, and you won’t even touch her in public! What are you afraid of?” I’m convinced that’s what Lorraine would yell at Connell. Leave me to my fanfic. Of course next scene is Connell talking to… Lorraine. And yes, she’s berating Connell again for not thanking Marianne for the lead on the job he got through Sophie. “(Marianne) has been very good to you, you know.” “Right.” “I just hope you’re a bit more appreciative of her now.” “Yep.” “Well?” “Look, apologies have been made, okay? If Marianne isn’t dwelling on it, I don’t see why you are.” Oh Connell, you idiot. Then we get a very condensed version, barely a stinger, of a conversation they have much later in the novel. “How would you feel if I kept going at ya about some stupid teenage mistake that you made?” Lorraine: “Sweetheart, you are the stupid teenage mistake I made.” Sarah Greene gets the best lines.

We get a short scene where Marianne is telling Peggy and Joanna that she has to go home for two days. “It’s just a boring dinner, and a weekend being a dutiful daughter.” Is Marianne lying to them, or herself? Joanna suggests she go see friends. Marianne says that she has no friends back home. Cut to the next conversation. Peggy is quizzing Marianne and Connell. “You guys are fucking, right? You’re together.” Marianne. “Yes, we are.” Peggy: “Everyone’s speculating, even though you never actually touch each other.” Marianne: “It’s not a new thing. We used to hook up in school. Secretly.” To Connell: “I hope you don’t mind me saying that now.” Callback to Episode 5, when Connell asks Marianne if her Trinity friends knew about their history. Marianne: “Yeah. [I would be embarrassed if they found out.] Because it was humiliating.” Now she’s volunteering that information to Peggy. Fine, she’s supposed to be her best friend. But the only person who had any inkling of their history was Joanna, not Peggy. (In the novel, Connell is thinking here about his never talking about being together with Marianne. She’s very popular and a lot of men want her, so he derives social standing from being with her.) Peggy: “You make a very cute couple.” Connell: “Thanks.” Marianne, raised eyebrows. “Couple.” Peggy, fast on the uptake when it comes to sordid affairs: “You’re not exclusive? That’s cool.” Marianne: “Men can be possessive. Men seem more concerned with limiting the freedoms of women than in excising their own.” It’s like she’s predicting the next two years of her life, our girl Marianne.

She’s defined being together with Connell as they’re fucking, and have been fucking a while, but they’re not exclusive. Connell is a passive bystander and says nothing. (In the novel, there’s a few lines of discussion here about male privilege. Connell then zones out of the discussion. He thinks Peggy is an airhead.) The conversation then veers into male privilege meaning all men are interested in having sex with multiple women. Peggy asks Connell if he’s into that. Connell says “not really“. Peggy says that he can have her and Marianne in a threesome. (That’s not a no, because Connell is thinking that he could fuck Peggy in front of Marianne, but he could never fuck Marianne in front of anyone else. It’s the same part of his brain that prevents public displays of affection with her.) Connell sputters. Marianne saves him by saying she couldn’t because she’s too self conscious. Peggy asks what she’s self-conscious about since she’s “so pretty“. Marianne again predicts her future when she says “I have a coldness about me“. Peggy and Connell say that isn’t true, and Peggy says she just needs to be more in touch with her feelings. Peggy leaves.

Marianne comes back, lays down with her head in Connell’s lap, and she says that she would have done the threesome with Peggy if Connell wanted her to. Connell: “You shouldn’t do what you don’t want to do.” “Had you wanted to, I’d have enjoyed you wanting to. I like doing things for you.” “You can’t do things you don’t want or don’t enjoy just to make me happy.” “But I like making you happy.” Marianne closes her eyes, a contented look on her face. Connell looks like he’s thinking, suddenly rubs his eyes and bolts up from the couch. Marianne asks him what’s wrong. He says he doesn’t know, he felt weird. (There’s that word.) This is perhaps one of the most difficult scenes to interpret without the help of the novel (or the show script). Fortunately, we have that. Connell thinks about hitting Marianne, and that she would let him. The thought makes him recoil. That’s why he stands up and walks away from her suddenly. Novel text: “He has a terrible sense all of a sudden that he could hit her face, very hard even, and she would just sit there and let him. The idea frightens him so badly that he pulls his chair back and stands up. His hands are shaking. He doesn’t know why he thought about it. Maybe he wants to do it. But it makes him feel sick.”

Connell wakes up the next morning. He’s naked in bed with Marianne. He wakes her up, and tries to explain what he felt. Marianne snogs him before he can start. He pulls back and says “You know I really love you don’t you.” He goes back to kissing her, then starts to fuck her with his hand. He slides over into missionary to fuck her with his cock, and they both finish. Marianne: “I think I was starting to have feelings for you there at one point.” The both laugh. Connell: “Should have to repress all that stuff Marianne. That’s what I do anyway.” They’re both complicit in keeping this a FWB situation. The novel clarifies that their relationship at this point is pretty domesticated. Marianne cooks, Connell cleans up, they get on social media, and then they have sex. After sex, they talk about intellectually stimulating things (reinforcing that they’re both high IQ, questionable EQ people), and then they have more sex. The sex is so intense that sometimes they feel they have a romantic connection (whatever that means). That’s what Marianne is referring to in the preceding quote, and Connell feels it to, but they don’t talk about that. Anything but that. As voyeurs into their lives, it’s frustrating, by Sally Rooney’s design.

Next scene, Connell asks Marianne to send him naked pictures, which she agrees to happily. (“I like doing things for you.“) He assures her that he’ll delete them, explaining that it’s for her reassurance. She asks him to send her dick pics, but he probably shouldn’t, saying that she’ll never delete them. This leads into sex again. More reinforcement of Connell’s hold over Marianne, and foreshadowing of her trials in the future.

Connell is laid off for two months, igniting a major plot point. Our avatar, Niall, is telling Connell that he’ll sublet the bed. When Connell says he’d rather go home to Sligo for the summer than ask to crash at Marianne’s, Niall says what all of us want to: “You can’t be fucking serious. You already stay with her five nights a week.” “That’s different, I don’t live with her.” “You think if you move your toothbrush into her bathroom, she’ll get too attached?” “I don’t think that at all, I just wouldn’t want to ask her.” Niall, you, me and everyone else watching Connell drive himself into a wall. “Fuck’s sake, man.” Niall gives up, maybe too easily. How many of us in Niall’s spot would have gone to Marianne and told her his situation, even if Connell disowned us as his friend? I know I would.

A few people say that this is totally unrealistic. It’s one of the very few plot points of Normal People, a device to break up Connell and Marianne for the second time and send them to experience life separately before bringing them back together for the ending. My take is that Rooney goes out of her way to present Connell and Marianne as characters with outsized flaws. One of Connell’s is anxiety over the social gulf between him and Marianne. From the time Rob quizzes him on Lorraine working for Denise in Episode 2, to Marianne’s surpassing him in social standing at Trinity in Episode 4, his bunking in a shoebox with Niall while Marianne lives in a posh apartment with dinner parties every day, having to hold down a job while at Trinity while Marianne’s friends (and all the men pursuing her like Gareth and Jamie) are all rich kids, it snowballs over time. We haven’t even gotten to the Italian villa yet. He has a massive inferiority complex. Does this justify his decision here? That’s up to the viewer. I choose to accept that Connell has the EQ of a doorknob, and suspend my disbelief. I’m just as pissed at Niall for not seeking out Marianne and outing his sorry ass, but that would ruin the plot mechanism. Finally, I’m not letting Marianne off the hook. She’s blissfully unaware of Connell’s neurosis over financial standing at this point, her being the total opposite – she has no concept of the value of money, having never had to pay for anything herself in her life. She’s incapable of reassuring Connell. Now I’m even more pissed at Niall, who’s the only one who could have intervened.

Off to Marianne’s home in Sligo. Her relatives are complimenting her performance at Trinity and reminiscing about their own experiences. The relatives are ignorant of the relationship issues present, particularly between Alan and Marianne. Alan gets compliments as well on his job performance. Mentions of their father clearly triggering Alan. Marianne does the dishes, and Alan comes in to make small talk. Marianne’s expression says nothing good can come of this interaction with Alan. Long shot by Lenny, to convey how alone Marianne is while being accosted by Alan. She gives him lip and he douses her with dishwater. Denise witnesses this, and just walks away.

That evening, we get a scene of Marianne taking a nude selfie to send to Connell. She’s crying, still shaken up by the events of the day. It’s also the only full frontal nude scene of Daisy Edgar-Jones in the show. I’ve been asked what the point of this scene was, given that they were explicitly avoiding gratuitous nudity. I don’t know the actual answer, but this is probably the most vulnerable that Marianne has been so far in the series. She’s back home where she has no friends, her brother just abused her, and her mother doesn’t care. She remembers her last interaction with Connell (at least the last one we saw) and reaches out to him in this way. It’s her nature to do things for other people before taking care of herself. She’s stripped naked now, both physically and emotionally, and she’s sending the memory of this moment to Connell, perhaps as a cry for help. Was the full frontal necessary? Maybe not, but it’s a memorable scene that has not insignificant emotional impact. If you weren’t sure if Marianne was broken, this is further evidence that she is. (For those scoring at home: series count male full frontal 3, female 1.)

Speaking of Marianne being abused, the next scene is her speaking to Denise before returning to Trinity. The exchange is sad and heartbreaking, Denise justifying to her daughter that life is hard for Alan, and that she’s got it easy because she can get away to Dublin and leave Sligo behind. Actress Aislin MacGuckin is excellent as Denise, and probably deserved more screen time. But this isn’t her story. Denise: “It is very difficult for [Alan], Marianne.” “And that’s my fault?” “That’s not what I’m saying.” “You act like it is.” “That’s not how I feel.” “Why are you living life like that, with him dictating everything? Does it make you happy?” “None of this makes me happy.” “Then why are you allowing it to be like this?” “What do you think I should do? Kick him out? How do you think I should handle this exactly? I’d love to have your insight. Because I’m doing the best I can.” No tears at all from Marianne. Heartbreaking, and shows how lucky Connell is with Lorraine.

Marianne is back in Dublin, in bed with Connell. They’re watching a movie. Marianne is sobbing. Connell asks if it’s because the movie got her. She says she’s feeling off. Connell asks jokingly if she’s pregnant. Callback to his dialogue with Lorraine. Marianne says she just got her period. She asks him to get her some tea. They think of having sex, but don’t. It’s kind of a throwaway scene here, but in the novel it’s a connection to Lorraine having Connell out of wedlock. The movie they watched is the 1964 Jacques Demy classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a movie about young lovers. (I won’t spoil it but can highly recommend it if you enjoy unique films about young love.) In the movie, the character Genevieve, played by Catherine Deneuve, is pregnant. So Connell and Marianne talk about what they would do if Connell got her pregnant. What their families would think of that if Marianne decides to keep the baby. It segues into talking about Marianne’s trip home, but she doesn’t tell him about Alan and Denise’s treatment of her. Connell also makes her come with his hand. Marianne says “Imagine how bitter I’m going to be when you meet someone else and fall in love.” Connell replies “I don’t know. This is a pretty good arrangement, from my point of view.” He then notes, internally, that it is within his power to make her happy. There is a lot lost from the adaptation of this scene to screen.

We get a Connell and Marianne montage, including a shot of Connell’s first publisher rejection, which feeds into his burgeoning anxiety. Niall again asks him about moving in with Marianne. Connell cannot express what it is that’s stopping him. We cut to Joanna eviscerating Jamie and his straight white male privilege. All the while Jamie is being handsy with Marianne. Connell makes himself scarce. Marianne finds him on the porch, smoking a fag. He complains about men taking liberties touching her. Marianne: “You don’t want to touch me, but you get to dictate who else does.” “I touch ya.” “As long as there’s about six closed doors between us and another person who might witness you demonstrating some level of affection towards me.” “Grand.” Oy, Connell. “I think I’m gonna go.” Marianne: “Don’t.” “We’re fine.” “Please don’t go.” He stays, but doesn’t ask her. Niall, you, me, and everyone watching: “You have to be fucking kidding me.”

Next day, they’re getting ready to go to Sophie’s pool party. Marianne: “Do you want to skip it?” “You can’t” “Why?” “It’s just a birthday party, Sophie won’t mind.” Connell looks down. Marianne: “You can’t be indebted to someone forever ’cause they get you a job in a crappy restaurant.” “Who said I was indebted to her?” Triggered. “When you’re a famous writer you won’t be indebted to anyone. You’ll be lording it over the rest of us.” Connell conjures the rejection letter in his head. Mescal projects deep angst. He’s poor, and he’s a crappy rejected writer, so he’ll stay poor.

They’re off to the party with the wealthy friends of Marianne. He gets pulled by Sophie into a pool polo game while Marianne sits on the sidelines. Jamie sits beside her and asks her if she’s right for Connell. Focus on Mescal’s face. Connell’s anxiety swells as he’s surrounded by the trappings of excess that he’ll never be able to afford. He spies Marianne, swims over to her, sits beside her and manages the Herculean effort of putting his arm around her and kissing her shoulder in view of Marianne’s friends. She appreciates his effort. Connell: “Marianne?” “Yeah?” “It’s nothing.” Connell gets choked up. Marianne completely misses it. Niall, you, me, and everyone watching: “You have to be fucking kidding me.”

Cut back to the scene from the beginning of the episode. Marianne in the kitchen. We hear a door slam. Marianne goes to the sink, drops the glass, and starts sobbing. We see Connell walking away from Marianne’s flat. Cue end credits. Niall, you, me, and everyone watching: “You have to be fucking kidding me.” xxx

Episode music: “Too Much” by Carly Rae Jepsen (pre-title scene)

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, Written by Sally Rooney and Alice Birch, Director of Photography Suzy Lavelle, Editing by Nathan Nugent, 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. I’m beginning to think this was all a bad idea. xoxox

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: The Sex Scenes Analyzed

Normal People the series (BBC/Hulu) is being lauded for its positive depiction of sex. Having just read Sally Rooney’s source novel, there very little explicit sex in her text. It’s mostly a simple “we had sex”. There’s one count of “get on top of her”, implying missionary, and one of “touched her until she came” during a period, but otherwise, no guidance. So we have to assume that the details of the on-screen sex were left to the writers and directors.

What we do know is that one of the main characters is definitely a submissive. That drives some of the expected sexual positions. Her partners would need to play the dominant, and in fact Marianne instructs them to, saying “anything you want” and “you can do anything you want to me”. This is how the sex breaks down per episode.

Episode 1: None

Episode 2: (All Connell and Marianne)
First encounter: Missionary
Second encounter: Cowgirl into missionary
Third encounter (car): Missionary
Fourth encounter: Face-to-face

Episode 3: None

Episode 4: None

Episode 5:
(Gareth and Marianne)
Before the Party: Missionary
(Connell and Marianne)
After the Party: Missionary into cowgirl

Episode 6: (Connell and Marianne)
Kitchen sink: Face-to-face
Morning: Missionary
Period: Fingering

Episode 7: (Jamie and Marianne)
Rough sex: Doggy (with hair pulling)

Episode 8: None

Episode 9:
(Connell and Helen)
Night: Face-to-face into cowgirl
(Lukas and Marianne)
Bound: Missionary
Aftermath: (not sure what position caused those bruises)
Photo shoot

Episode 10: None

Episode 11: (Connell and Marianne)
Afternoon: Spoon

Episode 12: (Connell and Marianne)
Final: Missionary into cowgirl

While watching the series, I noticed that there wasn’t even a hint of oral sex at any point, which is unusual. Sure, we can assume that it happened off camera. Realistically though, the absence is notable.

On the whole, the viewer may feel that the series has a LOT of sex scenes over its course. But if we look at the spread over time, it’s in bursts reflecting Connell and Marianne’s on-again-off-again relationship. Episode 2 rightfully has the most encounters, four of them, each one different including the scene in the car. Then they break up and we don’t see them bed each other again until the very end of Episode 5, when they reconcile in Dublin. We get the second burst in Episode 6, three trysts, again each one different, including one when Marianne has her period. We need to refer to the novel to know that Connell brings her to orgasm with his fingers, blood and all. Then they break up for the second time, and have sexual encounters with very different partners and experiences. They’re not together in bed again until Episode 11, which ends prematurely. We get one final redeeming encounter in Episode 12.

Connell and Marianne predominantly are in missionary, often linked with cowgirl. This is an interesting choice, because a submissive like Marianne may not want to be on top unless ordered to by her partner. Regardless, this becomes the seminal “home” position for them, especially after the much-lauded first time scene of Marianne. We only see them in two other positions, face-to-face twice (the second time is a picturesque gimmick with Marianne sitting on the kitchen counter), and the ill-fated spoon in Episode 11. Perhaps the spoon was a choice to somewhat link to Marianne’s encounter with Jamie, the only other time she’s taken from behind, which would fit how that ended. Taken as a whole, it preserves the series theme of “it’s not like this with other people”. I would like to think that sex with Connell is the only time that Marianne has ever felt completely safe and fulfilled in bed with someone.

Connell’s only non-Marianne sex scene is with Helen (although we have to acknowledge that he says he’s been with both Rachel and Teresa, but all off-screen so it doesn’t count for the viewers), where they start face-to-face and segue into cowgirl, two positions he’s been in with Marianne. This underscores that Connell’s feelings for Helen are true, and he does love her, but ultimately she doesn’t fit him as well as Marianne, including sexually. I’ve written how Helen was given short shrift in the series compared to the novel.

Marianne’s on-screen non-Connell sex scenes are painful. There’s the throwaway four-second scene with Gareth, with her looking bored and unimpressed. It’s in missionary, an automatic comparison to her experience with Connell, which spells doom for Gareth once he reenters her life. She dumps him a few scenes later. We only see her in doggy once, and it’s the brief, disturbing look at Jamie roughly taking Marianne from behind, with him yanking on her hair. Her expression in those five seconds looks a lot more like real pain than ecstasy. It’s possible the writers allotted the position for this purpose, linking doggy with Marianne’s masochistic streak. (It’s unfair to doggy of course, which is a common, much-loved position.) Jamie, as Marianne’s sadism/masochism partner, is terrible, and it’s clear from what she says during the coffee date that he is not taking care of her at all. The submissive should dictate the rules, and the dominant should listen and facilitate the sub’s experience. As noted above, this later links into Marianne getting into the unfamiliar (to Connell) spoon position, surprising him (he isn’t sure how to proceed), and surfacing her submissive masochistic streak that leads to the termination of that encounter since Connell isn’t equipped to deal with it (and he knows it, good for him).

The two Sweden encounters of Marianne with Lukas are difficult to watch, because she hands control of her body over to a man that not only doesn’t have her best interests in mind, he has no idea how to handle it properly. As Marianne’s bondage/discipline partner, Lukas sucks. The game they play involves verbal and physical degradation. We see him taking her in missionary with Marianne’s hands bound – a perversion of her “home” position with Connell. We see some aftercare, in the shower. But the photo shoot is a disgrace. There’s no safe word, so he must take “no” and especially “I don’t want to do this” at face value, which he does not. As Connell tells her, she doesn’t always have a good radar for detecting psychopaths. She got lucky that he didn’t hurt her more than he already did.

In the novel, Connell says that he eventually learns how to make Marianne submit without hurting her, hopefully meaning he learns safe and proper dominant skills: trust, respect, honesty and clear communication, all with an open mind. The two struggle with clear communication over the course of the series, and the hope is that Connell learned how to support Marianne’s fetishes properly.

Normal People: Series and Novel Differences

A screen adaptation of a literary work is a completely separate entity. I never understood the “movie/series vs. book” debates. You can enjoy both, one or the other, or loathe both. This becomes particularly true today, when IP is king and more studios are inclined to gamble less on work not based on existing successful property.

Normal People was a charmed production, having a critically-acclaimed and commercially successful novel as a forebear, with a rising star author behind it. It was optioned by an Irish production company, whose leader was close friends with an Academy Award-winning Irish film director, who then got the green light from the BBC without any pitching necessary. The series is flying high, breaking BBC3 viewing records, and is rocking a 94% Rotten Tomatoes audience score. To quote Marianne Sheridan, “it’s quite a thing.”

I revisited the novel that I couldn’t get through in 2018, and finally finished it. Having seen the series multiple times before picking the novel back up worked. Knowing the chronological sequence of events, and who said what, helped me overcome the unusual format the Sally Rooney wrote the novel in. Following are some of the things I noted as I read through it.

Perspective matters. Rooney uses a shifting POV, moving between Connell, Marianne and third person fluidly. This is unusual, as authors tend to pick first or third and stick with it. In first person, an effort is usually made to make clear whose POV we’re looking through. On the screen, the director’s POV takes over, and Lenny Abrahamson’s observational style meshes with the gorgeous naturalistic aesthetics of DP Suzy Lavelle to create an intimate, almost voyeuristic aesthetic. This complements the conceit of the book, which is almost completely introspection and dialogue with very little exposition, exposing the reader to the unreliable narrator effect. In the series, we have confidence in what we’re seeing.

A significant part of the characters’ introspection and dialogue in the novel centers on political and economic debates between characters, given that Connell is well-read and Marianne is a history and politics major. The series doesn’t delve that deeply into this aspect. This blurs some characters’ personalities. For example, Marianne is characterized as having no concept of how much anything costs, having never had to pay for anything. Connell and his mum Lorraine get into a discussion of teenage pregnancy, as well as local politics leading up to elections. Connell and Marianne have sex, talk about history and politics, then have more sex. It’s not a great loss given the focus on the relationship of the main characters in the series, but it’s a large chunk of their development left on the floor.

Speaking if Marianne, Daisy Edgar-Jones’s Marianne is decidedly different from novel Marianne, but not in a bad way. She’s just different. Edgar-Jones is physically attractive in every sense of the word, particularly her ultra-expressive eyes. Novel Marianne is beautiful to Connell, but that’s clearly an amalgamation of everything he sees in her and takes many things beyond the physical into account. “In certain photographs she appears not only plain but garishly ugly, baring her crooked teeth for the camera like a piece of vermin.” Other characters pursue her more for her wealth and status, and her sexual proclivities. Edgar-Jones’s Marianne isn’t “garishly ugly” for a microsecond through the whole series, and her teeth are not crooked at all. Which is fine. Novel Marianne, with the help of copious passages of introspection, feels colder, more callous and condescending, clearly emotionally damaged. Edgar-Jones does an admirable job of conveying the inner demons of the character, no small feat, particularly during the coffee date dialogue, her Swedish ordeal, and every interaction with her family. Final note on Marianne. The novel describes her physical deterioration, becoming thinner and thinner, from the time she hooks up with Jamie, all through the time that Connell rescues her from Alan. No one expects Edgar-Jones to do a Machinist Christian Bale since she already has a slender frame, but it’s a notable effect of the novel character’s descent before she’s redeemed by Connell.

The series chose to minimize the screen time of key supporting characters. Helen is the most significant casualty. She was characterized in the novel as Connell’s stable relationship that brought out his best qualities. Marianne was his “wild” relationship, appealing to the parts of him that were broken. He really loved Helen. The series reduces her to the girlfriend that abandons him at his lowest point, after essentially cheating on her emotionally with Marianne. Joanna was likewise a more complete character in the novel. The only remaining friend from the original throng that surrounded her at the beginning of her Trinity years, Joanna corresponded with Marianne almost as much as Connell did. Her partner, Evelyn, was removed from the series. She stood by Marianne when Jamie turned everyone else against her. Joanna could have gotten as much attention as Niall. Lukas was problematic. The novel didn’t expound on his relationship with Marianne any more than them having an “arrangement” to play a “game” where Marianne submitted to him to drive her own self-loathing. It was clear in the novel that Lukas is a pretentious asshole. He cared nothing for Marianne, and she was using him to further her own self-loathing. He ended up enabling it, treating her like crap during sex but still not treating her well out if it. In that vein, he was worse than Jamie, which is saying something. They also changed the trigger that jolts Marianne out of the Lukas arrangement. In the novel, Lukas saying “I love you” to her breaks the spell, since how can anyone who treats her the way he does love her? In the novel, they added the setup where Marianne demands to be treated as someone unworthy of being liked, never mind love. Connell’s email, telling her that just because people treat her badly, it doesn’t mean she deserves to be treated badly, gives her the strength to get out.

So, to the Ending. I’ve said that novel Marianne and series Marianne are different. As such they deserve different endings, and that’s what they get. Because it’s my favorite scene I’ll reference the New Year’s kiss at the bar. In the novel, Connell kisses Marianne, and says “I love you”. She says nothing, and goes though an internal dialogue about Connell redeeming her, and purposely bringing her to the bar for PDA, and not having to wonder about him really loving her any more. This is consistent with novel Marianne, who even at the end of her arc feels far more emotionally damaged than Daisy Marianne. In the series, as I noted before, Marianne tells Connell “I love you too” for the first and only time in the series. I’d call that significant. The bar scene itself is different, with Marianne being received warmly by everyone including Rachel, again consistent with the arc of series Marianne. (Series Marianne also gets the sequence that opens Episode 12, where she tells Joanna that she’s content with her life, and that her first year self wouldn’t believe it. Novel Marianne probably wouldn’t either – this dialogue doesn’t exist in the novel.)

When novel Marianne learns about Connell’s New York MFA offer, she exhibits jealousy when she hears that Sadie told him to apply, including an “are you in love with her?” question, forcing Connell to deny it and defend himself. Series Marianne is surprised, but calls it “brilliant”. She asks the same question, but the series response is changes to “one of my tutors”. When novel Connell again says “I love you” and “I’m never going to feel the same way for someone else” Marianne’s reaction is “okay, he’s telling the truth”. Again, very different from series Marianne. Her response is “I know”, an acknowledgment of her security with Connell. Finally, the novel’s final line is Marianne saying “you should go, I’ll always be here, you know that”. The finale of the series is an exchange, acknowledging that they’re moving forward together, open eyed. Connell going to NY, Marianne staying in Dublin. (Just before that series Marianne also gets an extra line, when asked by Connell why she won’t join him in NY – “I want to stay here, I want to live the life I’m living, it’s quite a thing”.) Marianne also gets the final line here, saying “and we’ll be okay”. Series Marianne has the advantage of Edgar-Jones’s tear-streaked eyes and face saying more than novel Marianne could ever deliver in text. (Nothing in the novel says that Marianne is emotional at all at the end, much less crying. She sounds, still, fairly cold and distant.) And that’s fine. I consider them different characters, for different mediums.

To me those are the major differences. There are a few niggly bits, like changes in names (Rachel Moran to Rachel Moore, Kelleher’s to Brennan’s), non-critical character changes (blond Scandanavian Lukas to black Lukas), even more reduction in supporting characters (Elaine not coming along to the Italian villa, Connell’s first ex Ida) but on the whole it’s a terrific adaptation. Props to Sally Rooney, Alice Birch and Lenny Abrahamson. Every tweak made for the series feels like a positive one.

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.