This review contains spoilers
When news of a television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s superb Ireland-set novel “Normal People” hit my ears, I first thought they could never do the book justice. But when it was released in April 2020, the two main characters’ on-and-off relationship proved me wrong and displayed a master class in understanding power dynamics and how easily your soulmate can slip through your fingers.
The show tells the story of Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne’s (Daisy Edgar-Jones) relationship from high school until the end of college, as the two frequently break up just to get back together again when they realize they can’t be without each other. While this premise might sound exhausting and repetitive, the way the characters grow as individuals during their time apart makes it all completely worth it.
At the beginning, it’s Connell who holds all the cards. He often gently reminds Marianne, whose personality contrasts starkly from his, not to tell anyone about their arrangement, and she obediently obliges. Marianne later tells Connell she was embarrassed by the way he treated her in the early parts of their relationship, and it’s extremely sad to watch her be, in a way, taken advantage of.
On the flipside, Connell’s charm is just so hard to resist that it isn’t surprising Marianne agrees to this deal. Honestly, I would even agree. The relationship ultimately suffers from this initial cruel arrangement, and the theme of selfishness continues to echo throughout the show.
It seems that Connell inadvertently fed off of a young Marianne’s insecurity. Marianne, on the other hand, guards herself from pain and emotion with walls. When Connell penetrates these walls, it’s a high of excitement and curiosity for both of them. We all want to be desired, and when someone you perceive as cool and uncaring desires you, it can lead to a complex dynamic with painful sacrifices made. As someone who leans toward the unemotional side myself, it felt deliciously cathartic watching their initial encounters.
For Connell and Marianne, it was never about just sex, which never felt gratuitous or vulgar. It was sheer romantic (and sexual) chemistry that they shared. This is what makes the show such an anomaly, because on the rare occasion I find myself watching a romance, it’s either filled with eye-rolling levels of cheesiness or unrelatable detachment.
The two rekindle their relationship in college, with Marianne now beautiful and widely admired while Connell struggles to fit in, and their seemingly never ending cycle of pain, heartbreak and trauma begins again. The problem with Marianne and Connell is their complete lack of ability to communicate, and that’s what I find so engaging and real as a viewer. There’s always a point where one is yearning for the other and vice versa, and only occasionally do they get the timing right.
Even so, both characters remain empathetic toward one another even when they aren’t romantically involved, which is vital for their friendship to survive and made my sympathy and appreciation for Connell and Marianne skyrocket. There may be awkwardness or tension when Marianne has asshole boyfriends or Connell gets into a comparatively normal relationship, but the closeness the two share never goes away, which harkens back to the high level of trust the two share.
This trust is especially visible when Connell goes through a period of extreme depression when Marianne’s in Sweden for a semester abroad, but they still communicate constantly. The commitment the two have to keeping the other safe is endearing and beautiful, with their only obstacle being their abysmal communication skills.
When they reunite again, they acknowledge they’re better off as friends. Then they have sex, and the romance is back on — to no one’s surprise whatsoever. Connell ends up getting accepted into a creative writing program in New York, and the true proof that Connell and Marianne love one another unconditionally lies in the gut-wrenching decision the two make together that he’ll go to New York and she’ll stay in Dublin. Of course, I wanted them to stay together forever, but I was glad in a bittersweet way that they would get a break from their poisonous codependency.
Do I think the two had the healthiest relationship? Absolutely not. In fact, their cat-and-mouse game was so painful to watch that I had to walk away several times just to think it over before coming back to enjoy the delicate tragedy of it all. I rooted for Connell and Marianne the entire time, and it’s an open-and-shut case of right person, wrong time.
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The show is something I come back to more often than I care to admit, and no matter how frustrating it is, “Normal People” struck gold on defining what it means to be young and tragically in love.
Emma Trevino is a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @itsemmatr