Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book (by Sally Rooney) that Normal People (now on iPlayer in the UK and Hulu in the US) is based on, so I’m not judging this an adaptation. Normal People has a lot of talented people on the cast and crew – the first 6 episodes are directed by Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did, Frank, Room, The Little Stranger) and the final 6 are directed by Hettie McDonald (Beautiful Thing, Doctor Who, Howards End, Fortitude). The series is co-written by Rooney and Alice Birch (screenwriter of Lady Macbeth and story editor on Succession). The episodes are 20-30 minutes long and this is a big reason for its success. It is tightly controlled, taut episodic television that presents us with vignettes, dipping in and out of two people’s lives across approximately five years. It also makes it extremely binge-worthy and I have got through the whole thing twice (within about a week).
Normal People follows two teenagers – Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) in Sligo, Ireland. Connell’s Mum Lorraine (Rosie‘s Sarah Greene) works as a cleaner for Marianne’s Mum Denise (Aislin McGuckin) but at school, Marianne and Connell don’t have much to do with one another. Connell is a popular football player, but also reads a lot in his spare time and does well academically. Marianne is a loner, who is spiky with both her teachers and classmates.
Episode 1 (High School) – “by the photocopier you said it”
In the first episode, Marianne and Connell share their first kiss and Connell says something which will haunt him for the remainder of the series: “don’t tell anybody in school about this.” Connell knows he will get teased by his mates for being with the girl that they bully. The dynamic between Marianne and Connell is clearly set up to be that he is “the boy from the wrong side of the tracks” (including some lazy shorthand such as his neck-chain). However, despite Lorraine being a single mother who works as a cleaner, they have a very comfortable home and Connell has a car (usually only the richer kids can afford a car while still in High School). Even though Marianne’s house is huge and her Mum works as a solicitor, Connell holds more power in the relationship due to being popular at school. And it is he who is ashamed to be seen with her, rather than the other way around.
Episode 2 (High School) – “now can we take our clothes off?”
In episode two, Marianne and Connell have sex for the first time. It is really at this stage that we truly start to appreciate how vulnerable both Edgar-Jones and Mescal are willing to be onscreen – there is a refreshingly raw and honest reality to the intimate love-making scenes. This is also credit to the direction by Abrahamson. This episode mostly cuts between Marianne and Connell’s burgeoning relationship outside of school, which is contrasted with them ignoring each other in school. It is also in this episode that Marianne encourages Connell to apply to the English course at Trinity College, Dublin, where she will be studying History and Politics.
Episode 3 (High School) – “who is it obvious to?”
Episode three involves a fundraising party at a nightclub which Marianne turns up to in a Little Black Dress, raising eyebrows all around. Later Connell tells Marianne that he is asking popular blonde Rachel to the “Debs” (School Prom/Leavers Ball), which obviously upsets her and signals the end of the “relationship.” Marianne effectively leaves school at this point, only turning up to take her final exams. Episode 3 is one of the strongest, for several reasons. Firstly, Lorraine’s brutal take-down of her son when she realises what he’s up to with Marianne is a highlight of the whole series. Lorraine has no qualms in telling Connell that he’s totally out-of-order and she fully considers how Marianne must be feeling, over the feelings of her son. Another aspect that elevates this episode is that the cinematography by Suzie Lavelle (which is excellent throughout) has a chance to shine in a couple of shots – eg. Connell dwarfed by a huge wall that he’s leaning against, framing his isolation and the last scene of the episode when Marianne enters the exam hall in a bright yellow top, which stands out against the sea of grey uniforms. This is perhaps foreshadowing that once she’s at college, she won’t be a shy wallflower anymore.
Episode 4 (Trinity College) – “maybe that’s normal?”
In episode four, the action moves from Sligo to Dublin. The first half focuses only on Connell and we see him adjusting to university life, including moving in with Niall (Desmond Eastwood) and being shy in classes. This episode appears to be Rooney saying “please notice my thesis and my devices” because it features no less than two conversations about what is ‘normal’ and also Connell talking in class about Austen shifting the focus from Emma to Knightley, LIKE WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THIS VERY EPISODE. Connell reluctantly decides to go to a party in Gareth’s (Sebastian de Souza) accommodation, where he’s introduced to Gareth’s girlfriend…can you guess who it is? Marianne looks different and acts different (she brings extreme Rebecca Hall energy to her college years) – she has friends, boys are interested in her – she has come out of her shell. Marianne and Connell agree to be friends.
Episode 5 (Trinity College) – “gin….and gin”
Connell apologises to Marianne for how he treated her in school and she forgives him. Marianne splits up with Gareth and Connell takes her to a party, where she gets drunk and flirts with him. Connell, being the good egg he is, doesn’t take advantage of the drunk girl, but instead comes back in the morning and takes her home. Marianne is living in a spacious “flat” (which has at least two floors) which her family owns. Marianne and Connell are now back on.
Episode 6 (Trinity College) – “you are the stupid teenage mistake I made”
This episode involves an excruciating conversation about threesomes, prompted by Marianne’s friend Peggy (India Mullen), after which Connell has a bit of a “funny turn.” It also features a dinner party (with Marianne’s family) which rivals Joanna Hogg-levels of awkward meal scenes. This is also the episode which will have you declaring “Joanna For President” – Joanna (Eliot Salt) is Marianne’s best friend and is probably the best person in the series (apart from Lorraine). Connell loses his part-time job in a restaurant and realises that he won’t be able to stay in Dublin over the summer, unless he moves in with Marianne. Because he’s incapable of saying what he’s actually thinking or feeling, he bottles this up. At a pool party (at the home of one of Marianne’s rich friends), Connell tries to summon up the courage to tell Marianne, but instead he starts panicking and she remains oblivious. We are starting to see hints in this episode that Connell has anxiety issues and this is one of the best things that the series explores (a young man who at times struggles with anxiety and depression). This is also one of the best aspects of Mescal’s performance – he is extremely vulnerable onscreen, not just physically (in sex scenes), but also letting us see how much things affect Connell – he gets out-of-breath, he shakes, he cries. Marianne and Connell break up (again), but this is skilfully edited – we see parts of the breakup scene at the start of ep 6, again at the end of ep 6 and then get the full picture at the start of episode seven.
Episode 7 (Trinity College) – “I’m immune to you”
Episode seven is a bit of a low point, in terms of how frustrated you will get with these characters. Marianne is now with Jamie (Fionn O’Shea), a character you will come to HATE. In yet another cringe-inducingly awkward conversation, Marianne tells Connell that she and Jamie are experimenting with BDSM. This episode also features the concept of “schols” which I was pretty shocked at. The top scholars (after the first year of university) get five years free tuition and accommodation. This was apparently something that happened to both Sally Rooney and Lenny Abrahamson at Trinity. Both Connell and Marianne are awarded this scholarship, which obviously affects one of them way more than the other. While out celebrating, Connell is mugged and ends up at Marianne’s. They discuss the real reason for their break up and the fact that Connell has a new girlfriend – Helen (Aoife Hinds).
Episode 8 (Italy) – “the substance that makes the world real”
Episode eight is THE episode that has everyone talking and will probably stand out as the most memorable episode for most people. The cinematography is exquisite throughout and the Call Me By Your Name comparisons are clear. It was not until this episode that it fully dawned on me that Marianne is CRAZY rich and this is the episode where Marianne and Connell discuss their different ways of looking at money for the first time. Connell and Niall are backpacking around Europe (something Connell can only do because of the scholarship). Marianne, Peggy and Jamie are staying at Marianne’s huge, gorgeous family villa in Tuscany. At yet another dinner scene which will be sure to give the participants and viewers indigestion, Jamie is foully snobby, looking down at Connell and Niall for being tourists. Tensions come to a head and Marianne spends the night in Connell’s bed. I love the way the episode is book-ended – it starts with Connell staring at a painting in a gallery alone and ends with Marianne and Connell looking at Duchamp’s ‘Sad Young Man on a Train’ together (as Nurina Pallot’s Love will Tear Us Apart plays). Smoking by the swimming pool, bicycling to the local town, ice creams in the square, the meal under the huge tree, the tiles in the villa, the figs, artichokes, beans and strawberries – the whole thing is an assault on the senses and all of the beauty is juxtaposed with unbearable tension throughout. It is a perfect episode of television and when “best of the decade” lists are released in 2029, this needs to be remembered.
Episode 9 (Sweden) – “you don’t always have a good radar on that”
Episode nine is the shortest (at just over 20 minutes) and I admire the tonal shift that the series takes after the Italy episode. From a Tuscan summer, we’re transported to snowy Sweden, where Marianne is studying abroad. She has yet another boyfriend Lukas (Lancelot Ncube), who she is in a sub-dom relationship with. Connell’s emails to Marianne are used as voice-over throughout this episode. This episode is pretty bleak and things are only gonna get worse on that front…
Episode 10 (Sad in Sligo) – “she’s hard to describe if you don’t know her”
The framing device for this episode is Connell’s visit with a therapist (played by Noma Dumezweni), where we discover that he has been suffering from panic attacks. This episode is something of a showcase for Mescal’s acting. It transpires that one of Connell’s school-friends, Rob (Eanna Hardwicke) has taken his own life and Connell is consumed with guilt because he wasn’t a better friend. Connell’s relationship with Helen is on the rocks. Connell and Marianne go back to Sligo for the funeral and they have a close friendship at this point, forged through emails, phone-calls and FaceTime while Marianne has been in Sweden. Marianne is supportive to Connell through this time of anxiety and depression.
Episode 11 (Sad in Sligo) – “his reading of the game is exquisite for one so young”
Episode eleven is perhaps the strongest episode (after the Italy one). Marianne is back in Sligo for the summer and Connell is coming back every weekend from Dublin to visit. One of the weakest and most underwritten aspects of the whole series has been Marianne’s relationship with her mother and brother Alan (Frank Blake, in one of the rare bum-notes of casting and acting). Marianne’s deceased father had been abusive and Alan is clearly following in Daddy’s footsteps, but comes across as an absolute cartoon villain. Instead of lashing out at a girlfriend (which seems more realistic), he verbally and eventually physically abuses Marianne, all while her mother turns a blind eye. The series is also clearly trying to make a link between familial abuse and the fact that Marianne takes on a submissive role (including wanting to be hit during sex etc) with two of her boyfriends. However, none of this is really given any context or explored in any depth. Episode eleven is kind of the culmination of this subplot, BUT it still manages to be phenomenal, thanks to Mescal and Edgar-Jones. There is a scene which takes place in Connell’s bedroom, where he’s watching a football match with Marianne on a swelteringly hot day (complete with dripping Rocket ice lollies) which is so well acted, it blew me away. This series can be so evocative in its details, such as making Marianne and Connell convincingly flushed and sweaty during sex scenes, everything is palpable and makes full use of the senses. Mescal is extremely skillful at acting Connell’s awkwardness when Marianne tries to get him to be open and honest about his feelings. She asks frank questions and he stutteringly responds, yes it is painful and frustrating to watch, but it’s also a very realistic depiction of British and Irish men, especially of that age. Talking about feelings is still such a huge stumbling block that will be recognisable to many.
Episode 12 (Finale) – “a wonderful hidden life you have access to”
Connell has been having some success with his writing, having some pieces published and editing the university literary magazine. Marianne has to pack up her Dublin “flat” and give the key back to her Mum, who she is now totally estranged from. She experiences a proper family Christmas with Connell’s family and New Year’s Eve with Connell’s school friends, who now accept her and their relationship. Things are pretty much perfect between them at last and then Connell reveals to Marianne that he has been accepted on a creative writing course in New York City….
As I said at the start, I cannot judge Normal People as an adaptation of a novel (which I know has its fair share of both love and hate). Taken on its standalone merits, it is an addictive series which will suck you in, fully consume you for several hours and then spit you out. I definitely experienced a sense of loss when I finished it and couldn’t wait to watch it all again. The acting (especially from Edgar-Jones and Mescal) is incredible, the cinematography is stunning and the music perfectly complements the whole thing. The writing is certainly not flawless and the characterisation of Marianne’s family and her backstory needed fleshing out way more. Alan ends up being nothing more than a pantomime villain, which is out-of-keeping with the quality of the rest of the show. The class differences are also underdeveloped and inconsistent. For me, this works much more as a show about young love than a show about class and also as a portrayal of a young man struggling to be open and honest about his feelings, to the point of anxiety and panic attacks. Connell’s ‘issues’ felt more fully explored than Marianne’s, which is a shame and is definitely a product of an imbalance in the writing. Once again, television puts American movies to shame in its use of sex scenes, all of which have purpose in terms of character development, are very well gender-balanced and are much more realistic than usual Hollywood fare. Overall, a thoroughly binge-worthy television series that I cannot recommend highly enough.
Closing Credit Tracks Ranked:
(Episode 6 just uses some minimal instrumentation over Connell crying and 9 effectively uses silence, over a shot of Marianne in a bleak, frozen landscape)
The opening and closing episodes probably have the weakest tracks, unfortunately.
10. Anna Mieke – Warped Window (Episode 1)
9. Goldmund – Sometimes (Episode 12)
8. Villagers – Everything I Am is Yours (Episode 10)
7. Billie Marten – La Lune (Episode 5)
Things get more interesting from here on out…
6. Lisa Hannigan – Undertow (Episode 4)
5. The Sei – Metronoma (Episode 7)
4. Elliott Smith – Angeles (Episode 2)
3. Yazoo – Only You (Episode 3)
2. Anna Calvi/David Byrne – Strange Weather (Episode 11)
And a perfect song for a perfect episode:
Nerina Pallott – Love Will Tear Us Apart (Episode 8)