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