Movies and TV have taught us that love conquers all — specifically, all your issues, insecurities and flaws that keep you from being your best self. The plot for every romantic comedy is the same — boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy realizes what he needs to correct within himself to win girl back — which suggests that the happy ending arrives only when we become better people. Apparently, if we just find the right person — and improve ourselves for them — we’ll finally find the kind of love we’ve always deserved.
That’s all fantasy, of course, but I wonder how much we buy into it. If you’re single, is it because you’re somehow deficient? Conversely, if you’re with someone, are you an evolved member of the species? And just because you’re with someone — maybe even, speaking of Hollywood clichés, your “soulmate” — are you suddenly freed of the hang-ups and doubts that plague everyone? Does love repair the things we can’t fix about ourselves?
Hulu’s new miniseries Normal People (which premieres April 29th) is heartbreaking in many ways, but one of its strongest elements is its rejection of this idea that true love cures the woes that reside inside each of our heads. Told over the course of about five years — from the end of high school to the end of college — it tackles the tricky task of depicting the courtship of two people who should be together but can’t quite make it work.
The risk of a show like Normal People, beyond its subversion of the typical boy-meets-girl narrative, is that it will try a viewer’s patience: Either break up or stay together, but for god’s sakes, just make up your mind. But as Normal People evolves over its 12 episodes, each clocking in around 30 minutes, it becomes plain that this isn’t really a will-they-or-won’t-they? romantic drama. Rather, it’s a story about all the reasons smart, thoughtful people torpedo their chance at love. In the case of Marianne and Connell, it’s because they’re both swallowed up in a depression they can’t articulate but never stop feeling.
Based on Sally Rooney’s popular, celebrated novel, Normal People treats young love as the momentous, slightly melodramatic epic it surely is when you’re that age. Daisy Edgar-Jones plays Marianne, who, when the show begins, is in her final year of secondary school — we call it high school in the States — in a small Irish town. Unpopular and picked-on — she’s smart and aloof, and also a bit socially awkward — Marianne contents herself with the fact that, once she heads off to university, she’ll find her tribe of like-minded intelligent, cultured individuals.
Her family is rich, though, and she begins to build a rapport with Connell (Paul Mescal), whose mother cleans her mansion. Connell is working-class but part of the school’s cool contingent — he’s handsome and the star of the football team. It would hurt his rep to be seen hanging out with her, but Connell is drawn to Marianne. Maybe it’s because she’s far more beautiful than she (or anyone) realizes. Maybe it’s because she seems so much more interesting than the other girls at school. Or maybe — and it’s not clear at first that he’s fully cognizant of this — they see in each other something that’s affecting them, too.
They start a sexual relationship, and although he tells Marianne he loves her, he makes her promise that she won’t mention at school that they’re hooking up. Why? He’s too wrapped up in being considered cool — what would his friends think if they saw him with her? — but his reticence goes beyond simple immaturity. There’s something about Connell that seems permanently bottled-up. Early on, Marianne pegs him as shy, but for him, the problem cuts deeper — he has a hard time knowing what he feels. “I struggle with that, actually,” he admits to Marianne, almost as if he’s talking about another person. “I might look back on something and think how I felt at the time. But when it’s happening, I never have any idea.”
Without saying so, she understands, because she has a similarly withdrawn, distant demeanor. A classmate describes Marianne as being cool, but also kind of cold. They might be present, but neither of them is quite there.
That’s a difficult way to start a love affair — two characters separately walled off from everything around them, trapped in their own malaise — and it quickly becomes the key conflict in Normal People, which follows Marianne and Connell as they make their way to Trinity College Dublin, where she comes into her own and he suddenly feels like the small fish in a big pond. Their fling ended before secondary school did, but they’ll find ways to re-enter each other’s atmosphere, falling into the same circle and occasionally into bed.
If this were a typical Hollywood movie, you’d swear they were destined to be together. But guided by directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald — he handles the first six episodes, she does the final six — Normal People adopts a gloomier, more resigned attitude. Both of these characters are wrestling with an unspecified sadness — something that keeps them from fully connecting with anyone, except maybe each other — and so their bond is as much physical as it is sympathetic. On some level, they “get” one another in a way no one else does, which makes it that much harder to commit to their on-again/off-again relationship. The parts of themselves they’d potentially open up to one another are the parts they’re trying to protect and never show anyone.
I can imagine that some viewers will grow exasperated by Marianne and Connell. Bright, articulate and good-looking, they don’t seem to have any “real” problems. So many people in the world have it far, far worse than these two. Sure, her mom is chilly, and there’s a brief mention that her father used to beat his wife. (There’s also an implication that the violence was visited upon Marianne and her brother — or at least witnessed by them.) But she’s a bright and talented young person with her life ahead of her. And, yes, he’s working-class — his young single mom had him when she was a kid — but as he develops confidence at university, he becomes a successful writer. Overall, they’re pretty privileged, so who cares if they have a case of the sads?
But even though the miniseries sometimes indulges in its perfumed melancholy — lots of pristine piano instrumentals on the soundtrack and scenes of hushed anguish — it’s to Normal People’s credit that the showrunners never nail down precisely what is eating up Marianne and Connell. They both have their reasons for being depressed — for seeming alienated from the world around them — but their damaged psyches transcend the usual dime-store explanations we get in fiction. It’s not one big thing — it’s a million unspoken little things, which start to feel like the truth if you reach your 20s and have always lived with it. They should be happier than they are, but they’re not — just like a lot of other seemingly “normal” people.
Normal People argues that young love is often cursed by the fact that its participants are still deep into figuring themselves out. The show features plenty of sex — which is frank, intimate and legitimately sexy — but it often advances the story in ways we rarely see. Sex isn’t just a set piece or a steamy interlude but, rather, a way for the characters to work though the sadness and insecurities they feel. Sometimes, it can even be a clue into their mindset: Marianne’s burgeoning proclivity for BDSM suggests how she deals with her emotional pain. (FWIW: The story’s connection between “unconventional” sexual appetites and being damaged was criticized when Rooney’s book came out. The miniseries strives to be nonjudgmental in that regard, but Marianne’s interest in BDSM at one point lands her with a bad boyfriend, the implication being that she needs to adopt a “healthier” or “more normal” sexual interest.)
And while the sex is titillating, it’s also emotional: Just because Marianne and Connell are attractive and privileged doesn’t mean they can’t be broken, too. As with so many of us, they’re learning that sex, like love, isn’t something that frees you from the things you hate about yourself.
So many love stories are about the couple deciding, you know what, we should be together — as if love was as easy as running through an airport to declare your feelings in some grand gesture. To use the aforementioned Hollywood cliché, Marianne and Connell are meant for one another — they’re soulmates — but they’re both hobbled by the inexplicable pain that keeps them from behaving the way lovers “should.” (At different times, one or the other will short-circuit the relationship — it should be absolutely maddening, unless you realize that it’s always a product of their deeply ingrained hang-ups, which they’re not always aware of.)
I admit that, occasionally, their inability to simply express themselves frustrated me, but Edgar-Jones and Mescal do such a good job of communicating the tortured feelings bouncing around in their characters’ skull that you recognize the misery they’re going through. I won’t reveal how Normal People resolves itself, but no matter the outcome, there’s a bittersweet truth at the show’s center that Marianne and Connell cannot escape: Even if they end up together, they’re still profoundly alone.