Normal People: Escaping Normality Through Being Known
“It’s not like this with other people,” Marianne tells Connell on multiple occasions. She is right: regardless of how much time passes or how many other people they date, Marianne and Connell cannot help but gravitate towards each other again and again. In spite of the relentless conflict and personal barriers that they face, the two have an unmatched connection that goes beyond friendship, beyond romance, beyond sex. They see each other when they can’t or don’t want to see themselves. They have their own world together.
An adaptation of the book by Sally Rooney, Normal People follows the romance of Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) living in a small town in Ireland. In high school, the two are very different: Marianne, while brilliant, is sharp and individualistic, friendless and bullied. Connell, though also brilliant, is easy going and well-liked, accepted by the popular group at school. At the same time, Marianne’s family is rich while Connell’s is poor; the two initially meet because Connell’s mother works part time cleaning Marianne’s family’s house. In spite of all of this, they are magnetized to each other and sleep with each other nearly every night, but Connell insists on ignoring Marianne at school for fear of being made fun of by association. Once the pair graduates and moves on to college, however, their social roles essentially reverse: Marianne’s sharpness and intellectualism are sophisticated and cool in college, while Connell’s anxiety and low income make him insecure and isolated. Though they move between different romantic partners, they always find their way back into each other’s lives.
The joy and the heartache in viewing Normal People comes from watching two individuals who are so brutally in love with each other never but are never quite able to make it work for good because of their own fears and insecurities. Connell, despite all the ways that he is successful and likable (“it’s impossible not to like you,” Marianne tells him on multiple occasions), is incredibly insecure, not only about his intellectual and academic capacities, but about his capacity to fit into the world at all. This seems to stem in part from mental health issues such as social anxiety and depression, as well as shame and self-doubt due to his economic status. Paul Mescal plays Connell as almost always a little detached, a perpetual sense of being alone and confused about his place. Meanwhile, Marianne comes from a toxic, abusive household and has issues with her own worth that stem from this but are no doubt compounded by Connell’s rejection and gaslighting of her in high school. Even when she comes into her element in college and becomes well-liked, the string of incompatible, aggressive men that she dates reveals the depth of her trauma and her need to please others at her own expense, especially sexually. I do believe that BDSM is somewhat unfairly pathologized within the show, leading to an oversimplification of her struggles compared to the nuance and growth that Connell is afforded. Nevertheless, it does show the insidiousness of abuse in affecting Marianne’s personal relationships and creates another contrast to her relationship with Connell. All of these issues make it difficult for them to tell each other that they love each other, that they want each other completely, and for them to accept those truths.
Their individual troubles manifest as specific blockades between them. At one point, for example, Connell loses his job and can’t afford to keep renting out his room. Though the clear choice is to ask to stay with Marianne for a few weeks, he won’t because of financial shame. While Connell is hurt that Marianne doesn’t ask him to stay with her, she isn’t even aware of the situation and thinks Connell wants to break up with her. Another time, in an emotional moment, Marianne starts to leave, and when Connell finally says, “I think it’s obvious I want you to stay,” she replies, “I don't find it obvious what you want.” While Connell is disturbed by Marianne’s lack of self-worth and willingness to compromise her own desires, Marianne is confounded by Connell’s preoccupation with what others think of him and his self-doubt. Connell cannot relate to Marianne’s toxic past and its effects; Marianne cannot relate to his financial situation (“I don’t even think about it,” she at one point says about their socioeconomic dynamic, before she quickly acknowledges her own ignorance. People in Connell’s position will understand, when you have any kind of close relationship with someone substantially wealthier- you think about it at all the time.)
But all of this makes it even more remarkable how, on an intrinsic, more incommunicable level, they understand each other and enrich each other’s lives. They are two people who are afraid of being known and afraid of knowing themselves, but they love each other in spite of it. One of the biggest ways that their connection is communicated is through sex, which is a major part of the show. Their sex scenes are frequent, explicit, and long, and yet never gratuitous. Rather, a true intimacy shines through- this is one of the ways that they connect to each other, especially since they are often so fraught with difficulty when expressing themselves through words. It is a stark contrast to the way that sex is often portrayed in film and TV: meaningless, or an oversimplified attempt at meaning in order to symbolize something- desire, lack thereof, personal transformation. In Normal People, Marianne and Connell’s sex does not need to symbolize something because it is significant in itself, with every moment having an effect, an emotion and thought process connected to it. Connell asking for consent is not just a precursor to make the sex acceptable to viewers, nor is it just a precursor to reassure himself that he is not doing something wrong- he wants to make sure that he is doing things right. He truly cares for Marianne and wants to ensure she is not just ok, but happy and safe. Simultaneously, he draws boundaries for himself, such as when Marianne asks him to hit her and he says that he doesn’t want to.
Marianne helps encourage Connell in being confident with his intellectual and academic abilities that he doubts so often. While Connell is afraid to speak in class due to feeling insecure in his place being there, Marianne thinks that he is the smartest person that she knows. While Marianne is coming from an abusive household and thinks that she is damaged because of it, Connell is truly committed to keeping her safe and reminding her of her worth. There is a tenderness and care for each other that never leaves, even when they are hurt and upset with each other. When they are far apart, Marianne stays on a video call with Connell even after he falls asleep so that he will not feel alone. Connell never relents in telling Marianne how much good she deserves, especially when she thinks otherwise.
Ultimately, Marianne and Connell’s relationship is not magic or a cheap trope of impossibly perfect soul mates, but it is between two real, very flawed people who know each other in spite of their repulsion to being known, and do this knowing with love. For all of the miscommunication and struggles that they face, there is an underlying sense of unmatched peace with the other, reflected by the quiet, soft rolling hills that surround them in their hometown: when they are together, it feels like they are gaining respite from the rest of the world. They are two people who have never felt like “normal people” in the way that they exist and connect to the world but manage to intricately connect with each other in spite of that. It is rare, and they both recognize it. They cannot fix or save the other person from their demons, but regardless of whether or not they end up together, as Marianne says, they “have done a lot of good for each other.”