I have told everyone I know to watch Hulu’s Normal People. Not surprisingly, the question I get the most often is what is it about? and I always seem to find myself at a loss for words. “It’s about two people, Connell and Marianne… through high school and beyond and they’re, like, soulmates basically, but their relationship is complicated and it’s more about them growing together. And it’s Irish, so that’s fun!” I sincerely apologize for how much I undersell it when I describe it that way, but I really don’t even know how to put it. Now that I’ve read the book and watched through the show twice, I will try to explain in words why this story has touched me the way that it has.
To put it simply, Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) are, well… normal people. They don’t have some extraordinary adventure that grasps you and pulls you in, some great mystery that needs to be unveiled. Their story is much more subtle than that. Introduced as a forbidden love story between the shy popular boy and a strange, socially ostracized girl, before you can take a step back and breathe, really think about what you’re watching, there is an overwhelming sense that you know these people. That any moment, they could walk out of the screen and feel just as real, just as familiar, as they do when you’re watching them. Normal People brings you into the lives of Connell and Marianne, offering a glimpse into who they are as people. Its power comes from its ability to grasp the intricacies of young love, the beauty of knowing another person, and the fear that comes with bearing your soul to another person.
If I had to describe the show in one word, I would say intimate. Known for its many sex scenes (41 minutes in total) and nudity, some are quick to write the show off as lewd, inappropriate, and almost pornographic. But the reality of the matter is that sex can be a huge part of what it means to be in a relationship and what it means to be in love, and it shouldn’t be excluded from narratives about maturing and coming of age in the modern era. For Connell and Marianne, sex is not only how their relationship begins, but it is a way for them to express their love to each other and the series shows us this in a way that is beautiful and painstakingly intimate. It’s not just thrown in for shock factor or to make the show more exciting, it doesn’t just feel like something you have to awkwardly sit through until the plot resumes. It’s much more like a dance: beautiful, and necessary. Sex is important to Connell and Marianne’s life. For Marianne, her sexuality becomes linked with her trauma and her need to please others. For Connell, sex is how he learns to love other people. The scenes don’t make the show feel explicit or performative, they further the plot and further the development and our understanding of the characters. Many times in the film did it feel physically difficult for me to watch, not because of the content, but because I felt like I was intruding on something that I wasn’t meant to see. The following quote from the book, which comes after one of their friends, Peggy, suggest that they have a threesome, took my breath away when I first read it:
“But he could not, he’s immediately certain, ever do anything to Marianne with Peggy watching, or any of her friends watching, or anyone at all. He feels shameful and confused to even think about it. For the privacy between him and Marianne to be invaded my Peggy, or by another person, would destroy something inside him, a part of his selfhood, which doesn’t seem to have a name and which he has never tried to identify before.”
This is what makes Normal People so beautiful, and why I believe the essence of their relationship can be captured so well on screen as well as in print: Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie MacDonald make each seen feel so private, like we as spectators are lucky to even be allowed to intrude. My feelings towards this show are ones of gratitude, first and foremost, as I feel so lucky to have witnessed this story. Normal People is not just something you watch and forget about, and Connell and Marianne are more than just characters that live within a TV show or a book. They are fully fleshed out, flawed, complex, and real. It is rare that I encounter a story that I truly feel thankful that I found it. But with this one, I do. So thank you to Sally Rooney, to Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie MacDonald, to the cast and crew of this show, because I am grateful that I was allowed to invade the privacy that you created.