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.