First of all, let me be clear – here in Canada we’re still in the first sweaty, horny blush of consuming Normal People. We know the rest of you have had it for weeks and we were frustrated and jealous. Now the first two episodes have finally been released here (on CBC Gem), and so we’re going to brag and talk endlessly about it like… well… like teenagers who have just discovered sex.
Because let’s be honest, if you didn’t read Sally Rooney’s novel – and I can understand that the idea of a quiet, literary exploration of Irish teens isn’t, on its face, emergency-level compelling – then what you’ve heard about why you should watch the series is the sex. (Warning: the previous links contain spoilers… almost exclusively about the sex)
But those hot-af scenes (I know I’m going to have to listen to Lainey fantasizing about Paul Mescal’s Connell for the next month) aren’t just notable for their own sake, they’re notable because of how they tie into the overall story of Normal People and why it needs to be told anyway.
We meet Marianne and Connell in high school, or ‘secondary’ as they would say, in Ireland – and they’re worlds apart. He’s an accepted cool kid, she’s very much not; whether that’s in spite of the fact that she’s the wealthy smart girl or because of it depends on the particular, personal lens you view it through. But once they get to university and beyond, the tables are flipped. Now Marianne has the upper hand, and knows how to operate in the wider world in a way Connell doesn’t.
What kills me about this is that despite the specifics here – the Irish landscape and culture, the deceptively quiet BBC-esque tone – this is the same teen trope we’ve seen played out in everything about high school we’ve ever consumed. People who haven’t had sex (where sex is a stand-in for adulthood and sophistication in general), who are not-coincidentally often clever, studious, and out-of-step with their teen peers, feel like they’re less-than, and once they have an experience or several, they realize their power and are able to see themselves and everyone around them much more clearly.
Normal People’s treatment of this realization from Marianne is extremely satisfying, and I creepily want to know everything about Daisy Edgar-Jones’ own personal socio-sexual awakening, because her acting is so deep and nuanced and note-perfect that I kind of think she must have been visualizing everyone who ever cast shade at her in her own teenage years, and also at everyone who ever cast shade at me. Meanwhile, Connell, who was somewhat sensitive but still an unremarkable teenage boy back in high school, is floundering to find himself once the confines of school and sports achievement are gone. Tables turned! Comeuppance! Bookishness rewarded!
But what makes this show so compelling and bingeable is that unlike every other time we’ve seen this story play out, the mousy girl’s evolution into a swan isn’t where we fade out. These two have a sexual connection, yes, and their chemistry puts them onto an even playing field – but once that imbalance has been righted, they spend the rest of the story trying to find that equilibrium in the rest of their lives. They know, once they reach university and beyond, that it’s not the be-all to end-all in and of itself, but it’s the key that lets them understand each other. It’s when they’re out of bed that Marianne and Connell have trouble finding their rhythm together, and the subtlety and the tragedy of it is realizing why that difficulty is neither of their faults… but the longing for them to get back to that place is, well, you know, sexy. Because it’s longing.
Come for the sex, and for the game of wondering why Irish people make statements that sound like questions and questions without any uptick in vocal inflection to actually indicate they’re, you know, questions. But stay with Normal People for the study on why, when you’ve met someone who seems like they might understand you more than anyone on earth ever could, it’s so difficult to do the simplest thing, and be together out of bed, in the larger world. It should be so simple, and yet the beauty of Normal People is watching the examination of why it’s not.