Normal People Episode 12 Deep Dive: This is Goodbye

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

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: Episode 11 Deep Dive

So, here I am, still obsessed with Normal People the Series. In an attempt to empty my head this morning so I can hopefully be productive the rest of the day, I’m writing this breakdown of Episode 11.

Why Episode 11? In my breakdown of Episode 5, I said that it was my favorite for its technical deftness, the connections the made to the rest of the story, and the overall flow of the episode. 11 isn’t like that. The technical prowess remains, but there’s not much flow because it’s essentially three scenes, two small ones and one massive one. The two small ones, taken together, are necessary bookends. The massive one is perhaps the most complex scene between Connell and Marianne in the whole series. Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones work with director Hettie Macdonald to create a 16-minute long tour de force that hits with the impact of a freight train. Oh, and 6 of those 16 minutes are dedicated to not-really-a-sex-scene that is perhaps the best embodiment of Lenny Abrahamson’s vision to have seamless flow between verbal and physical communication between the lead characters. I’ve watched a lot of visual medium in my life. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

The closest thing I can think of is a landmark episode of Mad Men, the legendary Season 4, Episode 7 “The Suitcase”. It’s similar in that the two leads, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olson (the amazing Elisabeth Moss) carry the whole episode mostly stuck in one location, going over emotional baggage accumulated over the preceding seasons of the show. It’s not the same – Don and Peggy have no romantic ties whatsoever, and Mad Men is far more plot-driven – but Connell and Marianne are slinging so much baggage at this point they could give Samsonite a run for its money.

The level of difficulty of this scene is so high that even with Paul and Daisy doing jaw-dropping work, there is still so much that can be delved from reading the matching text from Sally Rooney’s novel. I’m waiting for the day that they make the series scripts available. Day one purchase for me. Anyway, let’s go.

Episode 10, aka the Therapy episode, ends with Marianne getting Connell through the death of Rob by keeping him company over Skype as she finishes her year-long Erasmus exchange in Sweden. Episode 11 opens with a vignette of Connell working in the school library, then sending a story to Sadie for publishing. The first real scene finds Marianne back home in their front yard, with a pensive look on her face. She’s accosted by Alan. “You’re pathetic.” The visual shifts to the beach, where Marianne is now talking to Connell, but it’s essentially the same scene. She relates the things Alan says to her. We reestablish that they’re spending time together again in Carricklea, and cut into a brief scene of them on a dance floor. Connell (Aside: Daisy looks smashing in this scene. That dress is aces.)

Cut to approach shots establishing were we are: the Waldron residence, Connell’s room. The last time Connell and Marianne were here together was way back in Episode 2, when life was simpler and their baggage was the size of Connell’s backpack. Connell is watching a GAA Gaelic football match.

Marianne is on his bed. It’s scorching so she’s dressed in a tank top and shorts, no makeup, her hair in a low pony. She looks like her old self, but her expression looks blank. She’s dwelling on what happened with Connell on the dance floor. In a flashback, he whispers something in her ear and suddenly leaves. Their interaction seems awkward. Connell’s attention is half on Marianne, half on the game. Marianne asks Connell if he kissed a girl last night after he left her, which he denies. He tells her to crack open a window because she’s feeling warm. Their expressions look bored. Connell asks Marianne if she got to talk to Eric, who bullied her when they were at school. Marianne says she did, and the he asked for forgiveness, which she gave, saying she doesn’t hold grudges. Connell suddenly gets up and goes out to buy them popsicles.

Ok let’s pause here. What the fuck is going on? They’re not making eye contact, they’re talking about seemingly random shit, and the trademark warmth and cozy, vicious repartee is missing.

Rewind. Connell and Marianne haven’t been together since Episode 6, the “Connell could only manage public physical affection OR asking Marianne if he could crash at her place for a couple of months” episode. He put his arm around her at Sophie’s pool party, then decamped for Carricklea after somehow telling Marianne that they should see other people. It’s his greatest fuck-up, worse than Debs.

Since then, the following things happened to Connell. He got sexually assaulted by Paula Neary; fell in love with Helen; was told by Marianne that she enjoyed being flogged by Jaime; earned his scholarship; got mugged; hiked through Europe; saw how Jamie abused Marianne; was told by Marianne that she felt she was damaged and that her family hated her; lost Rob; suffered severe anxiety and depression; heard rumors about Marianne’s deviant sexual exploits in Sweden; and was dumped by Helen. He’s now on medication (antidepressants?), works in the Trinity library and drives home every weekend to see Marianne, who just returned from Sweden. She just told him that her brother is still abusing her.

What’s Marianne been up to since Connell left her in Dublin? She got a sadist as a boyfriend and got whipped during sex for months; lied about enjoying it to Connell the first chance she got; got emotionally abused by her family when she went home; earned her scholarship; found out Connell had Helen; found out that the reason she lost Connell was he couldn’t ask her if he could crash at her place; got provoked by Jamie into physically launching herself at him; denied herself sex with Connell in Italy; broke up with Jamie, who proceeded to destroy her reputation; was abandoned by all of her Trinity friends not named Joanna; went to Sweden for a year; had a bondage/domination “arrangement” with Lukas; had naked pictures taken of herself; broke off that arrangement with Lukas; passed on going home for Christmas; lost Rob; met Helen; and found out Connell was experiencing severe depression. She comes home from Sweden, and is immediately emotionally abused yet again by her family.

Whew. So, back to Connell’s room. They have ice cream, which has worked well in the past. Marianne meeting Connell in Episode 1 with a tub, then the shared cones in Italy. They know that they’ve changed. They’re working through everything that’s happened to them, and it’s a lot. When Marianne says that people are nice to her now, even if she doesn’t see them, Connell says maybe she should so she’s not lonely. No shit Connell, it’s not like you haven’t known this woman for three years. Marianne asks about Helen, and Connell says that he was still lonely sometimes with her, throwing Helen under the bus. Marianne breaks eye contact by lying down. They’re miscommunicating again, when they talk about the dance floor incident. Marianne asks if she annoyed Connell, and he insists that he wasn’t. Marianne puts her popsicle down unfinished, which is an immediate red flag. Marianne loves ice cream.

Connell says: “I think our friendship would be a lot easier if certain things were different.” “If what was different?” “I don’t know.” Connell continues “things would be a lot less confusing if there weren’t like this other element of the relationship.” Callback to Episode 5, where Marianne says ““I think it would be a bit difficult for us to stay friends if one of us kept trying to sleep with the other one.” For two people who really like having sex with each other, they keep trying to run away from it in their heads. They both agree that they were never lonely when they were together. Marianne says she wanted Connell to kiss her last night, which to me translates to “I wanted you to bang me last night”. Connell goes back on the defensive, noting that whenever they’ve had an extended run of sex, things fall apart. And since they’re not looking each other in the eye, Connell isn’t seeing that Marianne is getting upset. Or maybe he sees it but is determined to reframe their relationship into a platonic friendship. The novel doesn’t give any more clarity at this point either, only that Marianne is getting more stressed out by the conversation. She closes her eyes, and Connell says “you’re my best friend, I don’t want to lose that for any reason.” Marianne has no better response than “yeah. I know what you mean.” When Connell thanks her for seeing him through his depressive episode, it’s the last straw for Marianne. “You don’t owe me anything.” And she gets up to leave. He says “I’m getting anxious now, I hope you don’t feel like I’m rejecting you.” Marianne covers her face with her hands. She’s had enough. “Don’t be anxious, everything’s fine.” She gets up to head home. Really just a poor performance all around for our boy Connell.

I’ll take this opportunity to say that this is Exhibit A for maybe they’re better off as best friends. The question is if they can keep it in their pants when they’re in the same room, even when they’re seeing other people. Evidence points to that being a massive struggle for both of them. They’ve shown that they’re willing to sabotage whatever relationship they’re in when the other becomes available.

So. Marianne looks like she’s okay, saying that she’ll walk home so Connell can finish his game. Of course our boy Connell, just like our girl Marianne in Episode 5, immediately reverses course. As she’s saying goodbye, he reaches out for her hand. Connell stresses the woman out, then changes his mind? Marianne isn’t going to not give him her hand, so she does. Connell kisses the back of her hand. Marianne says “that’s nice” but looks like she’s instantly on the verge of orgasm. Connell, in this moment, is an asshole. He knows she hasn’t had decent sex since, well, HIM, two years ago. He knows she suffered through Jamie and Lukas. Maybe he was doing a noble thing in his head, trying to protect their friendship by eliminating the physical element. All he did was torture Marianne. He forgot (or ignored) the one core truth between the two of them.

They’re both terrible at verbally communicating how they feel. They communicate best when they’re fucking.

Rooney writes a bunch of words at this point in the novel that simply convey that Marianne is very, very, very horny. But since this is now Marianne with all her baggage, that’s not necessarily a straightforward thing.

“I feel like it’s pretty obvious I don’t want you to leave.” “I don’t find it obvious what you want.” Marianne’s brain is now off. This is their first real kiss since Italy. Marianne says “I want this so much.” “It’s really nice to hear you say that.” Connell then steps away to turn the TV off. What? Marianne looks equal parts anxious, confused and thirsty as she sits on the bed.

Connell sits beside Marianne on the bed and resumes kissing her. Connell says “I’ve missed you.” She says “it’s not like this with other people”. The first time she said this was at the end of Episode 5, after the first sex they have in Trinity. Here, she says it again BEFORE they have sex, after all of the time and events listed above. Therefore she can’t be referring to the sex – they haven’t done it yet. What is she thinking? Connell says “I know, but I like you more than other people“. He completely whiffs on Marianne’s meaning. They start stripping, separately, not looking at each other. Marianne is lying on the bed, Connell is sitting to the side. This in itself is strange. In every on-screen sexual encounter they’ve had, when they’ve started clothed, they’ve undressed each other while kissing passionately. Marianne has a strangely vacant look on her face as she takes her clothes off. When she’s finally naked, she flips onto her stomach, into the female spoon position.

Again, what’s going on? Let’s remind ourselves again that they’re in Connell’s room, where they had sex for the first time in Episode 2. Unlike then, Connell doesn’t have a condom. Marianne says she’s on the pill (which Connell was unaware of). So they’re going bareback for the first time. [Flag] Which means Marianne has been going bareback with other partners. Money is on Jamie starting her on the pill when they were together. He seems like that kind of guy. Connell asks “do you want it like this?” On-screen, they have never used either of the two common rear entry positions. Marianne is in the spoon position. Who have we seen with Marianne in a similar position? Jamie was shown taking her from behind. Marianne answers “however you want.” [Flag] Come on Connell, wake up. He looks unsure. Marianne looks back at him in anticipation, her expression still vacant. He says nervously “I haven’t done this in a while”, drawing attention to Helen-shaped ghost in his head. “That’s okay.”

Connell enters Marianne. It’s not clear if he can see her, but this isn’t her usual “sex with Connell” face. There’s an element of pain in it, and I’m not sure it’s physical. [Flag] Like they tend to do during sex, Connell chats it up. “Can we do this next weekend?” Marianne has her eyes closed. “Whenever you want.” “Whenever I want? Really?” “You can do whatever you want with me.” “That’s nice.” [Flag] [Flag] [Flag] Marianne has said this to Connell as least three times. At the farm in Episode 1, after talking to Peggy about polygamy in Episode 6, and during the coffee date in Episode 7. Every time it made Connell feel uncomfortable. In Episode 6 he had a thought that he could hit Marianne and it disturbed him so much it made him recoil. Now he says “that’s nice“?

Marianne: “Do you like hearing me say that?” “Yeah, a lot.” “Will you tell me I belong to you?” “What do you mean?” “Will you hit me?” Connell freezes. Marianne opens her eyes, staring out blankly. It’s like the lights are on but no one’s there. We’ve seen this expression before – Episode 9, when Lukas is denying her an after-sex shower and verbally abusing her as part of their “game”. Connell withdraws. “I don’t think I want that, is that okay? Do you want to stop?” Marianne nods. Connell keeps talking, forgetting that he’s the master of foot-in-mouth. “Are you okay? I’m sorry, I didn’t want to do that. I think it’d be weird… I don’t think that’d be a good idea.” Marianne: “You think I’m weird.” Dude. Just shut up and pick her up and hold her. This isn’t the time for a shrink session. Nope, he keeps going. “I didn’t say that. I don’t know, I just don’t want it to be weird between us.” Marianne buries her face in the mattress. Good job Connell. Marianne gets up, dresses at light speed, and walks home.

This is already way too long, but I need to mention that in the novel, two things are going on. Marianne is surrendering her body to Connell. This is what she’s referring to when she said “it’s not like this with other people”. She gave her body over to Jamie and Lukas, and it wasn’t good. Novel text: “Her body is just an item of property, and though it has been handed around and misused in various ways, it has somehow always belonged to him, and she feels like returning it to him now.” Connell, on the other hand, has known for a while now that what Marianne says is true. He has power over her. She’s a masochist. He’s unwilling to hit her. He ends up hurting her here in a different way. But he is certain he does not want to lose her.

The final scene is straightforward. Marianne goes home, and is accosted by Alan, who demands that she stop seeing Connell for no good reason. Marianne tries to get past him. He chucks the beer bottle he’s carrying at her and misses. She runs up the stairs and into her room. Before she can lock the door, Alan slams it in her face, breaking her nose. She calls Connell and tells him she’s injured. Her drives to get her. At her house, she answers the door and he sees the blood. He sends her to the car, and then moves into the house to confront Alan. “If you ever touch Marianne again, I’ll kill you, he says. Okay? That’s all. Say one bad thing to her ever again and I’ll come back here myself and kill you, that’s it.” He returns to the car and tells Marianne “Everything’s going to be alright. Trust me. I love you, I’m not going to let anything like that happen to you again.”

So what was the point of all that? The episode brings Connell and Marianne back together where it all started, works them through their accumulated baggage and puts them in position for the ending in Episode 12. Marianne puts herself in Connell’s hands, and he fumbles it. She is forced to do it again under duress, and he doesn’t muff the second opportunity. He’s taken Marianne out of her abusive home, so he’s accepted the responsibility to take care of her. That includes her sexual deviance.

Daisy Edgar-Jones put in work in this episode. It’s no small task to physically represent Marianne’s desire for, and surrender to Connell on screen, referencing her past damage at the hands of Jamie, Lukas and her family. We can wonder how many takes it took them to get the final result. xxx

Episode music: “Breathe” by CamelPhat and Cristoph (dance scene), “Strange Weather” by Anna Calvi (end credits)

Directed by Hettie Macdonald, Written by Sally Rooney and Mark O’Rowe, Director of Photography Suzy Lavelle and Kate McCullough, Editing by Stephen O’Connell, Score by Stephen Rennicks, Production Design by Lucy van Lonkhuyzen, Costumes by Lorna Marie Mugan xxx

If you made it this far, I’m sorry for the walls of text. I’m writing all of this to try and get Normal People out of my head. It’s still not working. xoxox

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.

A Different New Normal (People)

Normal People the Series

(Warning: Spoilers for both Normal People the series, and I would assume the novel.)

I picked up Sally Rooney’s novel “Normal People” in 2018, and bounced off it. The clash was stylistic. Her prose is formatted in this unusual staccato of short paragraphs, shuttling time frames and the complete absence of quotation marks that made it difficult to get into the novel. I understood that the acclaim could not be misplaced, but I chalked it up as basic incompatibility between myself and the author and abandoned it after maybe 30 pages.

Fast forward to 2020. It’s a very different world. Stuck at home and struggling with my own novel, I’m pairing writing sessions with various media to distract my attention when I’m getting bogged down. Hoping that the transition to a visual medium would bridge my sensibilities with the material, I added the new BBC/Hulu production of Normal People to my list. Executive Producer Lenny Abrahamson directed (and was nominated for the Oscar) the 2015 novel adaptation Room, earning Captain Brie Larson her Academy Award. That was a harrowing movie. He’d also direct part of the series, and he’s Irish. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be as mediocre (or bad) as the flood of original teenage-centered content proliferating on Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services.

Now that I’ve seen all twelve 30-minute episodes, I’m happy to report that my fears were unfounded. Normal People the series is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on “television”.

The visuals are spectacular. The DPs outdid themselves. And Abrahamson delivered, crafting a look, feel and style that fans of Room will be able to connect to that film. The other director, Hettfie MacDonald, aligned her episodes’ elements with Abrahamson’s and brought her own masterful touch to perhaps the weightier half of the show. I’ll also give top marks to the editing and production design. Technically, this show can go toe-to-toe with anything out there.

The two relatively unknown leads are spectacular. The term “chemistry” always gets thrown around when actors are paired for a love story. These two have it, so I guess congratulations are due for the casting directors as well. Paul Mescal delivers a singular performance as the male lead. But as these things go, it’s the female lead, Daisy Edgar-Jones, that’s going to (unfairly) get a lot of the press. Mescal is a rugged-looking actor that delivered one of the most sensitive and vulnerable male performances I’ve seen. Edgar-Jones, who looks like a Gen Z hybrid of Anne Hathaway and Dakota Johnson (yes, the bangs her character wears throughout the series is part of it), keeps pace with him and then some. Her face is so expressive that they pared down dialogue lifted from the book, instead allowing the actress to deliver the thoughts with her eyes. This is Jennifer Lawrence-caliber talent.

The story isn’t unusual, a coming-of-age tale of two star-crossed lovers who can’t help but keep sabotaging themselves time and again, mostly due to poor communication. Both are written as book-smart (each earns a scholarship at university in their own fields) with different core mental health challenges. Mescal’s character Connell Waldron is an Irish boy with social and verbal communication issues, offset by a talent for the written word and a supportive family. Edgar-Jones’s character, Marianne Sheridan, is a confident outcast carrying emotional damage from domestic abuse (inflicted by her entire family and a lot of other people, including Connell), which bleeds into her sexual identity. There’s very little plot here, and we’re asked to suspend disbelief that two intelligent characters spend almost the entirety of the series fumbling observation, sensitivity and communication when it comes to each other. The performances of the two leads enable the viewer to do just that.

Fans swear by the dialogue written by Rooney, for its authenticity. Same for the sex scenes. On the screen, it falls to the actors and the director to deliver on the reputation of the written text. The author can rest easy, as they’ve done a bang-up job. One of both of the leads are on screen for the entirety of the show, and their interactions with each other and with the supporting cast carry the gravity of their characters’ history and experience.

Much has been made of the sex depicted, and Edgar-Jones has the harder job here, needing to venture into Marianne’s BDSM experimentations both physically and verbally. I will agree for the most part that every sex scene carries something new in service of the story or the characters, as Marianne and Paul yo-yo between each other and different sexual partners. (They get into exclusive relationships with others, but almost never describe themselves as exclusive when they’re together.) The sex runs the full spectrum, from tender to harrowing, and is never meant to be titillating. There’s so much emotional baggage in every tryst that if you’re along for the ride, you can’t ignore it.

I was also impressed that Abrahamson identified the work of photographer Nan Goldin as his reference for shooting the nudity. I would translate that as: we’re not showing you the actors’ naughty bits to get a rise out of you; you’re watching two people having emotionally-charged sex with a truckload of intention behind it. It would be stupid for, say, the actress to keep a bra on. Or to never see the man’s dick.

Case in point. The most hard-to-watch sex depicted in the series, to me, is four seconds of Marianne being fucked from behind by her sadist boyfriend. She’s fully clothed, you don’t see her breasts unlike pretty much every other sex scene she’s in. You see her face, and her partner’s hand gripping her hair and yanking hard. This was set up in a prior scene by Marianne telling Connell that her new beau likes to slap her around and use a belt on her, and that she “was into it”. After watching Marianne give Connell her virginity in a much-lauded first time scene full of tenderness and sensitivity, seeing her expression while being treated like that (with her consent) is like a gut punch. For extra credit, you can assume that she was taking it in the ass. After all, she seems to tell her partners “you can do anything you want to me”. Remembering and connecting details about the characters in this show isn’t pretty.

And yes, in the end they land the plane. The final episode is the “feel good” one, where the story (for now) comes to an end. It’s not closed, and there’s no real certainty, but the viewer is rewarded with seeing the characters finally overcoming their own flaws and being able to see a future together in some capacity, at least for the moment.

I don’t know what kind of criteria the Emmys and the BAFTAs will adopt in the time of Covid-19, but it would be a travesty if Normal People the Series wasn’t lauded with some nominations. Mescal and Edgar-Jones are very young, and for both this is their first lead role. But both are deserving, as is the show itself. With the profile of the series elevated by the celebrity status of the noval and source material author, especially in the UK, there is hope for recognition.

I’m giving the novel another shot. I’m pretty sure now that the BBC series stands on its own, and the work that the cast and crew put into it may just get me past the lack of quotation marks this time. It’s a non-zero chance.