How “Normal People” Gets College, Depression, and the World in 2020 Right
One of Normal People’s most fraught emotional climaxes arrives in the third-to-last episode of the 12-part Hulu miniseries. Connell Waldron, the show’s leading man played by Paul Mescal, has to brutally come to terms with the suicide of a close friend. This same moment forces him to confront his metastasizing depression. For nine episodes and change we’ve watched Connell raise a stoic facade at nearly every moment he’s on-screen, and it takes a handful of meetings for Connell and his university’s grief therapist to even reach this breakthrough.
At this point in the series, regardless of if viewers had read Sally Rooney’s excellent novel that inspired the series, it’s fairly apparent that a moment like this has been coming for Connell. Over several years, Connell goes from popular high school jock (albeit one who reads voraciously and is in better touch with his feelings than his friends) to, at Trinity in Dublin, a bit of an outcast and a loner.
Meanwhile, Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones, who matches Mescal at every moment), the other half of Normal People’s central romance, experiences a social glow-up of sorts. She’s a caustic recluse during the show’s high school episodes, and her arrival at Trinity is marked by an immediate uptick in her social life; her intelligent but biting, often blunt manner of speaking fails to disappear, but a kinder and more reserved side emerges from Marianne as the series moves forward.
Neither the novel nor the show loses sight of both the societal and interpersonal factors behind why Connell and Marianne cannot remain together, among them the way Marianne’s eccentric, blunt disposition and economic standing suit her (while kicking Connell to the curb) in a world of like-minded students. The show forces the camera to look at Connell’s face rather than listening to his internal monologue. The pain he feels when he can’t have Marianne is everclear, but so is his anxiety whenever he considers the class factors that, in Connell’s eye, render their romance unjustifiable.
This social switcheroo is a mere fraction of why Normal People is deeply entrancing both on the page and on the screen. It nonetheless functions within the bigger themes of the series, by demanding that Connell and Marianne be together, if for no other reason than they are the only ones who can understand each other’s newfound alter egos. Only they know what the desperation and loneliness feel like, even when it strikes at life’s highest highs. Their connection and understanding of each other is frequently why Normal People depicts a magical romance, but the underlying anxiety they share leads to some of the show’s most devastating moments.
The Connell we encounter in Normal People’s first few episodes is a very familiar character in a lot of ways. He’s a central member of his school’s “in crowd” and one of the best players on the school’s Gaelic football club. He is also an only child with a single mother. The two of them have enough money to get by but not much more than that. Consequently, much of Connell’s inner fulfillment comes from reading. For the first twenty-odd years of his life, literature is Connell’s peephole into the rest of the world.
That worldly awareness translates into an empathetic disposition which lacks among the rest of his friends. There are a handful of instances in early episodes where Rob, Eric, and Rachel, members of Connell’s friend group for whom Connell cares less than for Marianne, openly jeer at and bully Marianne, whose lack of friends makes her an easy target. She shoves their shit right back in their face several times, but as satisfying as those moments are, their comments clearly hurt Marianne when she can afford to let go of the steely gaze she wears at school. Connell detects her anguish, but his anxiety about anyone knowing of their relationship means he can comfort Marianne only when the two of them are alone.
The show initially examines Connell’s empathy when he and Marianne have sex for the first time. From a production perspective, their first time is a masterclass in consent. Connell spends every second ensuring Marianne is comfortable — her safety is just as important to Connell as anything. The way the show depicts its many sex scenes is so intimate and careful, and it brilliantly juxtaposes the cautions Connell is sure to take with Marianne with the way Marianne’s other partners throughout the show run roughshod with her body. For several years, the abuse Marianne suffers in and out of bed alters what she accepts as normal behavior, while Connell is the outlier. When she and Connell begin to have their first sex together in a long time, Marianne asks Connell to hurt her, to restrain her; he refuses. The fallout is a race to reclothe and get out of Connell’s room and house, a race that Marianne wins, leaving Connell to his misery yet again.
Connell can’t bring himself to physically hurt Marianne, even when she begs for it. Marianne’s first sexual experience comes with Connell, but Connell is the last person from whom Marianne apparently learns anything about her sexual preferences. The sex between Marianne and Connell is equitable, and it’s more intimate than any other sex on the show. There is a certain lovemaking aspect to Marianne and Connell’s sex scenes, which subsequently lacks when she’s with Gareth, Jamie, and Lukas. Those moments are more deeply rooted in the male gaze, which is a perspective that viewers are unwittingly more used to than they would probably admit. It’s hard for Connell to convince Marianne, who grew up having her self-confidence continually sabotaged by an evil brother and a pitifully passive mother, that she is truly the brilliant soul Connell cares so much for. This development, towards the end of the series, is just one more instance of a point the series drives home over and over again: Connell continually defies the norms of toxic masculinity.
Connell’s bookish nature presents him as a quiet, reserved young man who allows his actions at school and on the pitch to speak louder than his voice. Initially, we simply attribute this to his humble upbringing and social shyness. The latter is true to an extent, but it is merely how Connell’s social anxiety presents itself. As the series progresses and Connell finds himself alone more often than not, this anxiety transforms and grows into something more. He becomes deeply depressed not just because he can’t hold onto Marianne (sometimes through faults of his own), but because he is increasingly lonely in a city where people are continually bustling around on and off Trinity’s campus.
Connell’s growing sadness culminates in the deeply moving breakthrough he has with his therapist. He finally says what he, I, and so many other lonely college students who have read and watched Normal People told themselves for years but feared confessing to anybody else: I hate it here, and I can never go back where I came from. Things aren’t the same. I thought I could start anew, but now I’m terrified of ever trying to do that again because I’m so scared that this is how I’ll feel every time.
Though many have surely realized it by the time that scene arrives, Connell is reticent not because he’s a shy bookworm, but rather because his social anxiety throughout the show is so severe to the point where he is often at the behest of a violent struggle between his inner monologue, what he thinks and what he wants to say, against what he actually verbalizes. There are a handful of moments where he calls people out on their misogyny or coldheartedness, but the show’s most frustrating plot points (two “breakups”) are direct results of Connell’s insecurity and unwillingness to say what he wants.
In an interview with Mescal on The Watch, Andy Greenwald pointed out how Connell often makes slight grunts or seemingly contemplative noises when responding to someone. Connell is not doing it so much in affirmation but as the result of what squeaks out in this battle between his thoughts and feelings and his ability to say them. Even early in the series, in the moments just before their first time, Connell confesses to Marianne that he often doesn’t know how he feels watching certain things unfold, as it’s only after some reflection and the passage of time that he can determine his feelings.
The end of the novel is far less ambiguous than the end of the show — in the former, Marianne tells Connell that whether he decides to go to New York or not, she’ll always be there for him. She says essentially the same thing in the show’s tear-jerking final scene, but the show presents a sense of “Oh god, here we go again.” Perhaps Connell and Marianne are destined to constantly move in and out of each other’s lives. Knowing Connell’s pride and inner conflicts, you can’t help but feel there’s a chance of that. It’s clear as day by now, though, that they cannot live apart for too long, and I’ll be damned if they can’t find a way to live their lives in the only way that makes them both happy: together.