This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Ash ♥️’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Today began like most these days; with a rotation of a Taylor Swift album. Today, one song from 1989 stood out, and I found myself putting it on repeat – 31 times to be exact (I actually fact checked this on my Last.fm). For some reason, the lyrics to ‘This Love’ hit me harder than they ever had.
And then I realised it was because it reminded me of Normal People.
I’ve watched countless films and TV shows about first love – it is often the most potent kind out there and therefore ripe for documentation and analysis. But very few have cared to look at how that love might interweave in and out of ones life with such delicacy as Normal People does. It seems to understand that the interweaving is not (always) a result of falling back into old habits, but through such an inherent care for another person that you’ll be there for them in any way they need you to be. Call it co-dependency or call it familiarity, but eventually these relationships, whether they continue in their romantic permutation or not, become fundamental to how one sees themselves, so much so that to love, to be loved, to be desired and to be accepted can fall entirely within the control of how that one person perceives you, and this is especially true for Marianne. Her constant need for reassurance from Connell fills a gaping hole in her life where love and compassion from family and friends should be, and it could be argued that her string of increasingly shitty boyfriends after Connell once again comes back into her life implies that his love and care for her can sustain her, even when her partners berate her verbally and physically. It was hard not to see myself in Marianne for a number of reasons, and the act of watching her repeat mistakes I have made in my own life made some moments of Normal People feel as if my arm had been sliced open and salt had been poured directly into the cut. It’s romantic as hell and incredibly unhealthy, but given Connell hides their teenage relationship out of shame, Marianne’s behaviour clearly tracks.
‘These hands had to let it go free and this love came back to me.’
A big part of losing a first love, because it is so potent, is that tiny bit of hope you may hold onto that they’ll come back. Some carry it with them until they die. Few are lucky enough to get a second chance. One of the most heartbreaking elements of Normal People is watching Connell and Marianne mess up over and over, even after they learn from the mistakes of their past. Teenage stupidity gives way to arrogance, which leads to misunderstandings, which gives way to depression, to healing, to dependence, to acceptance. These seasons of their relationship are punctuated by how differently the sex scenes are shot, from the awkward beginnings of their teenage years to the abundance of skin in college, at the height of their lust for life and each other. Each time it feels like new versions of the same people, colliding once again due to an unshakeable bond no matter who they become. An unspoken complacency settles into their relationship that just assumes they will always be there for one another, even if they aren’t together, in the same town, or in the same mental state. It’s a rare bond.
‘Lantern, burning, flickered in my mind, only you.’
Connell and Marianne constantly tell each other that ‘it’s never like this with anyone else’. This is almost always just before or after sex, which forms such an important aspect of their relationship that it gets a solid chunk of screentime through the series. It’s obvious, however, that they’re talking about more than just sex, and Marianne’s blank face when she’s having sex with other partners only confirms it. What also works so well in adding depth to this relationship is just how freely Connell tells Marianne he loves her, and her reluctance to say it back (even if she’s verbally very forward about other things such as her sexual desires). Marianne isn’t shown talking to her other partners during sex and often seems unsatisfied if she does speak to them after, the complete opposite to how she acts with Connell. With stretches of minimal dialogue and long pauses between characters, it would be easy to see Normal People as a great show to throw on and pay little attention to; however, these moments of silence, the dread as her brother passes her in the hallway, her eyes pleading for an end to her boyfriend’s abuse when her mouth isn’t strong enough to say no, make this show that much stronger.
‘Been losing grip, on sinking ships, you showed up just in time.’
The back half of Normal People sees Marianne and Connell become each other’s lifelines in more ways than one. It’s physically tough to watch Connell sink into a depression after the loss of his friend, and while it could be argued that the underdevelopment of his girlfriend Helen (she made such little impact on me that I had to look up her name) is one of the show’s weaker spots, but I disagree entirely. The fact he has a whole other relationship outside of Marianne and it never gets fleshed out speaks volumes to the importance and impact it has on his life, and even if their tearful breakup feels unearned as a result, it makes sense.
‘When you’re young you just run, but you come back to what you need.’
Whether or not Normal People fleshes out its leads to the same degree (one of my few issues with this show is how little it focuses on Marianne’s struggles; she’s conventionally pretty so her self-esteem issues must come from her home life, which only ever boils over twice), it’s an undeniable, heartbreaking and incredibly enjoyable 6 hours. It’s also worth noting how absolutely incredible Paul Mescal is as Connell. I wish I had better adjectives because he deserves them all but I found one of my very first instances of crying in this show to be when he tries (and fails) to explain to Marianne the trouble he has getting in touch with his feelings. The way he makes Connell into a man who grows by leaps and bounds throughout the series is truly a sight to behold, and if I didn’t know any better, I would have honestly believed this was filmed over many years. It is impossible to tell a love story like this without becoming a character study, and Normal People juggles its responsibilities better than most shows that run for multiple seasons. It indulges in the fantasy and heightened romance that comes with the potential reconnecting with a first love, but keeps it grounded and realistic by never making any stupid decision Marianne or Connell makes feel overly dramatic. I am desperate for a rewatch but will need a considerable amount of time to recover from the impact it has left on me this time around.