Saturday, July 2, 2022

Normal People


Connell and Marianne are two high school students in Ireland. They fall in love in high school and this series follows them into Trinity College and several path crossings over the next several years. That is the basic plot of Normal People a 12-episode series on Hulu television.  When it first came out it was accompanied by a lot of hype about the intensity of their relationship.  I decided to give it a while and consider it at a later date.  But then I realized I was watching one of the costars Daisy Edgar-Jones in two different series – War of the Worlds and Under the Banner of Heaven.  At that point I decided to start Normal People.  Connell is played by Paul Mescal.

I hope to give my impressions of why this is such a good story without getting into a play-by-play of the plot, but I am sure there will be inevitable spoilers. A summary of each episode is available on Wikipedia.  I also don’t plan to belabor any points about psychiatric diagnosis or treatment because unless a film is explicitly about psychiatry that kind of analysis does not strike me as being very realistic.

The series begins introducing us to the lives of Marianne and Connell in high school and their home lives. We learn that Marianne’s family is fairly wealthy and that Connell’s mother works for them as a housekeeper.  Marianne’s mother is a barrister.  Her older brother Alan also lives at home. There is tension due to a distant relation with her mother and an openly hostile relationship with her brother who is overtly abusive. In two scenes Alan physically assaults Marianne.  At school, Marianne is irritable and sarcastic. She argues with teachers and criticizes them in front the class to the point that she is disciplined. When her peers react with criticism, she is critical of them and does not hesitate to point out that none of them are equal to her academically.  She is very bright, and is aware of the fact that Connell is her only real academic competition.  She isolated without an obvious peer group.  

Connell is successful athletically as well as academically.  He has a peer group that is supportive of his athletics, but intrusive and critical of his private life.  As he and Marianne have some initial awkward exchanges it becomes obvious that they are attracted to one another. Marianne initiates the sexual aspect of their relationship – even though she has no prior experience. She agrees to tell nobody about their relationship at Connell’s request, because of his concern that it would be awkward with his peer group. Throughout this period of time, Marianne observes his activity at school where he is popular but gives no indication that they have a relationship.  The first break in their relationship occurs when Connell fails to ask her to a large social event and asks a girl who is more acceptable to his peer group.

One of the key early points in the film that distinguished this drama from a more typical young adult love story was Connell’s mother confronting him about the way he was treating Marianne. She expressed extreme disappointment that he was having a sexual relationship with her and hiding their general relationship from his peers at school. He protested and asked her if she should not take his side and her reply was not one that I have seen in any previous movies – there were some things in life that you should feel badly about and this was one of them. Eventually – the discord in the relationship amplified by his peer group – some speculate that they are having a relationship.   After their first break up, they will have 2, 3, 4 and even 5 more times to makes things right.  During some of those times, they date other people and we see them trying to relate to those new partners and realize that it is not close to what they had with one another.  That often led to conflicts with the new partners when they directly observed Marianne and Connell interacting in social settings and their continued attraction and concern for one another was obvious.

Marianne and Connell’s personalities are similar in many ways.  Both seem to be prone to anxiety and depression and Connell seems to be more aware of this. He openly talks with her about having severe panic attacks just walking down the street in Dublin and how that might affect his decision to travel to New York for an MFA program in creative writing. After the death of one of his friends from suicide he has an episode of severe depression and is supported by Marianne via telecommunication while she is studying in Sweden.  There are many situations where the couple’s tendency toward self-criticism and self-loathing is clear. For Marianne that includes either acquiescing or explicit requests to be treated badly by her partners. In one critical scene she requests that Connell do the same and we learn it is something that he cannot do.

This series highlights the importance of emotion and does a good job of portraying high levels of emotional intensity early in the relationship with some moderation over time. There are scenes where the emotion is overwhelming and the causes are not explicit.  Throughout many of their breakups – an emotional event occurred but the specific cause was never addressed or addressed in a much later episode.  These emotional events also occurred with other people and the viewer gets potential explanatory bits of information along the way.  As an example, over time we learn that Marianne’s father who is deceased had a history of being abusive toward his family. We see how she is treated by an emotionally distant mother and her abusive resentful brother. Over a Christmas holiday an open rift with her family occurs and she moves in with Connell’s family. She is with them when she encounters her mother walking toward them in town. Her mother glares at her but walks by without speaking.  As they drive away Marianne asks Connell’s mother about what the people in town think of her mother and the reply is ”she is a bit odd.”  More than enough information there to speculate about how Marianne might have been impacted by the family environment.

One of the dimensions that comes up in a film like this is the intersubjective state with the audience that is created by the actors.  The themes in this film are so realistic and compelling that it would be a rare person who does not experience associations to what has happened in their life.  How can you find an ideal partner at many levels and never seem to develop a lasting relationship?  How do you recognize aspects of your own experience and personality that consistently get in the way? How do you give yourself enough credit in life and realize that you will make it?  Can you realistically assess what happened in your family of origin and how it might affect you in the present day? And at an even more basic level – have I had relationships like this in my life? Do I wish things had gone differently? Would my life have been different if that relationship had succeeded?  That is just a short list of questions that could occur while watching this series.  

I imagine that any review of this series discusses the nudity and implied sexual activity.  Viewers should expect much more nudity than is seen on typical American network television or in most movies. It is one of the warnings. I have seen the series referred to as “pornographic” in some social media sites. That really diminishes the importance of this drama.  It is easy to lose the importance of a complicated relationship in the context of sexual activity and this story is definitely about much more than sex.  The sexual activity is critical in developing the story of these individuals and their relationship as a couple.

These are just a few areas that came up in Normal People and also explain the title. Both Marianne and Connell consider themselves to be defective in several ways. They also realize that their love for one another has allowed them to accomplish more through mutual support than they might have accomplished on their own. Despite many scenes of tension, anxiety, depression, and anger most observers will realize that they are just a couple of normal people with real life problems and a lot of those problems come down to how they negotiate this relationship that on one hand is passionate. loving, and supportive and on the other is complicated by life circumstances and frequent misunderstandings. I was pulling for them for all 12 episodes. I won’t tell you how it ends – but I was pleased with the ending. I know there is a lot of fan support for a season 2 – but I have also read that the author and screenwriter said that the original intent was to just produce one season.

The best single sentence characterization about this series is that it is about a young couple who function much better together than they do apart – but they have not figured out how to stay together.  This was a compelling story – and I looked forward to every episode.  


George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


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