This article contains spoilers for Normal People.
“It’s not like this with other people” – a phrase that Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) say to each other repeatedly throughout the twelve episodes of Normal People. This show, too, is not quite like any other.
Sally Rooney’s novel was – is – a phenomenon. Seemingly plotless explorations of relationships, sex and power dynamics, her unique writing style is at once cold and detached as well as incredibly compelling. Her sharply drawn characters exchange dialogue without speech marks – something that takes a bit of getting used to, but that ultimately gives the sense of a barrier being removed from between them and the reader.
This is a love story – crucially, a story of first love. Marianne is an outsider at school; Connell is popular, sporty, and smarter than you might expect. They seem spellbound by each other and an intensely passionate relationship develops between them, but their insecurities – and for Connell especially, fear of judgement from others – mean they keep it a secret. Their crossed wires and commitment issues follow them through school graduation and to college in Dublin, where their significance in each other’s lives continues to grow.
Normal People’s priority is clear from the start – this is about the connection between these two people, and not much else matters. There’s little backstory or fleshing out of side characters, as the camera is too busy with extreme close ups of Marianne and Connell: their silhouettes, their eyes, the back of their necks as they walk. Every shot is constructed with them as the focus: in the scene where they are reunited at a party in college, the chatter and noise of what’s going on around them fades to silence, reminding us that it’s what these two alone are saying to each other that’s important.
Much like Celine Sciamma’s masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the notion of gaze and looking is integral to the romance of Normal People. We’re watching the two protagonists watch each other; seeing the world through their eyes. Rooney’s already terse dialogue from the novel seems to be even more stripped back here, with much of the communication between Marianne and Connell shown through the touch of a hand, stolen glances, or a twisted mouth, unable to express what it’s owner is really feeling.
Mescal’s ocean eyes are balanced by Edgar-Jones’s deep brown gaze; the audience gets increasingly lost in both. Rather than causing a sense of frustration, the slow burn and stunted communication between them asks you to lean in further, turn the volume up louder so as not to miss a word. You attempt to decode every look, every shake of the head – much like Marianne and Connell themselves, desperately trying to figure out what the other is thinking.
What’s really getting everyone talking about Normal People is the sex scenes. Following the lead of shows like Sex Education, the use of an intimacy director (Ita O’Brien) sets the love scenes apart from almost any other in memory. The sex is consistently shot with extraordinary tenderness and care. The second episode sees Marianne and Connell do it for the first time – her first time with anyone – and the slightly awkward, self-conscious way in which they undress each other feels so authentic, it’s almost unbearably mesmerising to watch.
Consent is verbalised clearly and often, which is heartening to see. There’s no sign of the traditional male gaze, or even a specifically female one; both figures feel equally as observed and exposed as each other. Rather than dehumanising close ups on boobs or bums, the focus is on their connection with each other – looking into each other’s eyes, Connell’s slight silver chain, hands on the back of a neck.
Whilst the sex in the show is disarmingly beautiful, it’s also one of the ways the characters exert power over each other – particularly for Marianne. She may have grown up in a family that was much wealthier than Connell’s, but it was also much less loving. Living with her ice-cold mother (Aislín McGuckin) and controlling, sometimes violent brother (Frank Blake) made for a childhood steeped in cruelty, and has left Marianne with deep insecurities about her ability to be loved and cared for.
The further she gets from Connell, the more she leans towards BDSM, though her submission to Connell’s charms is also evident from the early days – she repeatedly tells him that she would let him do anything to her, much to his discomfort. More than just a healthy kink or sexual preference, Marianne’s submissive tendencies appear to reflect her poor sense of self worth, and both protagonists use this against each other in various ways.
Connell is especially aware of his power over Marianne when they first get together in school; he doesn’t really challenge her willingness to be his dirty little secret, refuses to publicly admit his feelings, and he is clearly blindsided by the repercussions of his actions when he asks Rachel (Leah McNamara) to the debs dance instead of her. Perhaps he was expecting Marianne to let him off the hook for such unkindness, as another example of her bowing to his will. On the other hand, Marianne bluntly discusses the rough nature of her sex life with Jamie (Fionn O’Shea) when she meets up with Connell in the seventh episode, talking about taking hits from a belt over coffee. She brings it up knowing full well he can’t resist asking for specifics, and she succeeds in making him feel both self conscious and protective of her. He expresses the latter at her house after being mugged – “You could have a different boyfriend, you know?”; “I’d rather literally anyone else”.
There’s far more than just sexual power at play, though, in the chess game of Connell and Marianne’s relationship. She is rich and he is not, and their romance started largely thanks to the fact that Marianne’s mother paid Connell’s (Lorraine, played by Sarah Greene) to clean their house. Whilst Connell doesn’t seem to resent Marianne for her comparative privilege, he is pushed on it again and again: Rob (Eanna Hardwicke) wonders if Marianne sees Connell as her butler; the pity in Gareth’s (Sebastian De Souza)’s eyes when Connell says he’s having to share a room whilst at college; Jamie making a point of how Connell would be working in a garage living with his mum without the scholarship he worked so hard to earn.
One of the biggest examples of this imbalance directly affecting the plot is when Connell loses his restaurant job, and decides to go back home to Sligo rather than move in with Marianne. His roommate Niall (Desmond Eastwood) calls him out on it – “You think if you move your toothbrush into her bathroom, she’s going to get too attached or something?” – but Connell rejects this. It’s not that he doesn’t want to live with Marianne, but that he doesn’t want to ask her. Maybe he thinks it’s a sign of weakness, is embarrassed by what the request reveals about his financial precarity, or is simply too proud to ask for help – whatever is holding him back, it surely comes down to his anxieties around what others think of him. Watching him almost get the question out and then change his mind at the pool party in the sixth episode is heartbreaking. His fear of rejection leaves him teary as Marianne sits beside him, oblivious – simply happy that he has his arm around her, showing his affection for all to see.
That unasked question brings Connell and Marianne’s relationship to a temporary end when, as he tells her he’s moving home for a while, they both seem to automatically (and wrongly) assume that the other wants to break up. Their shared insecurity around which of them is smarter, better, or actually deserves to be with the other person leaves them unable to voice their true feelings. Trapped by the tongue-tied effect of youth, there is a glorious frustration in how they move between on-again and off-again, though never truly out of each other’s hearts or minds.
By the closing episodes of the series, there is a sense of equality between them. After Connell having verbally expressed his love for Marianne multiple times over the years – though in mostly inopportune moments – we finally see her say it back, as they share a kiss in a pub in their hometown on New Year’s Eve. The moment is interspersed with flashbacks to their very first kiss, a tentative meeting of lips in Marianne’s living room, and we realise how far they both have come together. There is no more need for hiding, or power moves, or playing games; they can finally let each other go.
“We’ll be okay”, Marianne assures Connell, in the very last scene. For the viewer, it doesn’t make saying goodbye any easier.
(Images courtesy of Element Pictures / BBC)