This is a darkened picture of a man kissing a woman's forehead againsst a pinkish sky. This represents Connell and Marianne in "Normal People".
Mateus Souza

The romance between Marianne and Connell feels personal

Is every good TV show based off a book? Because Normal People is said to be brilliant and it’s upsetting to think that I missed out on reading Sally Rooney’s original novel at the height of its conversation. Luckily, though, the TV show adaptation is so special, it feels like a privilege to watch such an intimate story; to get to connect with what feels like a very private part of Rooney.

The series is about the vulnerable, poetic, but imperfect love story of two Dublin teenagers from high school to their graduate studies. It’s a quiet and seducing tale about Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a precocious and outspoken young girl and Connell (Paul Mescal), a popular athlete and how they are able to find love and a sense of belonging with each other. In the 12 episodes of the premiere season, Rooney and screen writer Alice Birch are able to touch on a surreal perspective that connects viewers with the characters. It’s dazzling, how they are able to almost make the viewer feel witness to the lives of the characters, creating a sense of familiarity as if you knew the characters and have experienced their pain with them.

Their story is heavily sentimental. The transition between the different emotions in the show is lavished with sweeping scenes that force compassion. It’s so intense, I had moments where I wanted to cry with Marianne and where I had a foolishly wide smile on my face when things were finally falling in place for the two (it was a journey … Edgar-Jones and Mescal are fantastic actors). The series actually falls in line with that of a cinematic saga; it’s an extended romantic adventure that’s so powerful, it forces a compulsive watch. Still, the story is messy and rife with blemishes.

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Marianne and Connell have a very tender but fraught love story. She was the lonely rich girl in school that no one seemed to like; too smart, too opinionated and quick to anger. She wanted people to see her, recognize her good natured character and finally get a friend but no one except Connell was willing to understand her. Of course, he wasn’t perfect and he didn’t always treat her with care. After all, he hardly knew what he wanted or how he felt about anything but he was determined to be normal and to disappear among his peers until her could find himself, or at least that’s what he thought he wanted.

With Marianne, Connell came to learn that he was lonely, that he hadn’t registered his own feelings and had overlooked himself. The fact is both of them are so heavily insecure, their relationship turns from becoming a simple secret sexual affair (as simple as a secret relationships can be) to almost, dangerously obsessive. Marianne kept trying to surrender herself to Connell at each turn in their relationship, to be swallowed by Connell’s affection but since Connell is intensely anxious and lacking, he’s unable to offer anything more than fleeting moments of pleasure. It’s disconcerting and causes you to waver between supporting the relationship since they find a sense of calm with each other but also exciting frustration because their relationship is humiliating and damaging for Marianne.

Honestly, Marianne’s story is moving mainly because of how sad and romanticized her pain is. She is so smart, she excites jealousy within her violent partners but she’s also deeply traumatized and layered with grief that is never fully addressed in the show. In fact, we learn about the abuse in her household much later in the series, but it feels as though she is withholding her more unsettling violent history. The entire series seems to always be bordering on something but never quite achieving it and so it heavily translates to the characters. Marianne almost reveals her entire traumatic history… but not quite. She almost overcomes her dysfunctional relationship with men… but not quite. Connell almost commits to Marianne… but not quite. It’s an unending cycle of “almosts” and it’s a little bit tiring because at the head of all this, you feel like Marianne is being forced to settle: for Connell’s love, for a passive role in their relationship, and for her terrible friends. She is always settling but never realizes this.

Just as troubled, Connell is a coward. He has a very difficult time expressing himself and lacks the emotional intelligence to be forthcoming to Marianne so, their relationship is doomed to misinterpretations from the start. With the exception of the ending of the season and when they are making love, he never seems to be attentive to Marianne’s needs. Still, it’s not a small thing that he smoothly demonstrates what it looks like to respect women. When he wants to touch Marianne, he asks for her consent, he checks in often to make sure that their sexual experiences with each other is good for the both of them and so, despite his failings, he impresses a pleasant feeling throughout most of the show. His well meaning personality makes it possible to see that they are supposed to be perfectly flawed for each other, soulmates even.

Their love strikes me as melodic; with deep tonal color during the depressive moments and steady and lively grooving rhythm which is in line to the wavering tone of the song U by H.E.R. It radiates an eerie feeling of warmth and affection. So the romance between Marianne and Connell feels personal.

As such, it’s almost easy to understand why Connell regularly pulls away from Marianne. Perhaps he’s scared of the dominating position she puts him in. Everyone confuses Connell to be a confident boy because of his athletic build and his height and you’d think he’d be confident given his attractive and infectious presence but he’s just shy and sensitive. It’s why he was shaken when Marianne volunteered to be his vessel without giving him the context of her violent history. So it makes sense that it would take years of knowing and growing with each other for Connell to better understand Marianne.

It’s easy to say that Normal People is precious. The careful attention to heavy themes like depression, loneliness and abuse in the storyline creates a sort of magic that causes you to pause and reflect, it’s almost a religious experience and it’s fascinating. Marianne and Connell serve as surrogates of feelings of doubt and hopelessness; they illustrate the monotony and uncertainty of life, the parts of it that we distract with work (which they continue to do throughout the series). The emotional pull of their story is almost exhausting because of the slow rumination on the anguish between them at every moment of their journey and yet it’s captivating. It has an unspoken premise though: that the codependency between the pair is sweet but unnaturally consuming. So since, Marianne and Connell are never consistent, we’ll be able to test whether their love is really fated like they believe it is.

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