When the doors began to shut and masks were adorned for the rare ventures out of the house last March, most of us found ourselves spending more time within the same four walls than we ever had before. The overcrowded commutes were replaced with hour-long daily walks. Banana bread baking became the new desk admin. Life became mundane. The threat of infection rivaled by the immense fear of loneliness that became a firm hand on the shoulder, steering us away from the windows where the outside world stared back at us, still, quiet and increasingly alien. Perhaps this is why in mid-April when we were introduced to two lost, detached teenagers who found solidarity in one another in their small Irish hometown, with the promise of warmer weather and venturing outdoors on the horizon, we were sent into a frenzy.
Normal People. The title alone highlighted the absurdity of the national situation. With talks of social distancing becoming the “new normal,” how could anything feel normal anymore? What did it mean to be a normal person now? Turns out, the most normal thing in the world is the feeling we all get when we are most at home, in a place of complete contentment and safety, and for Connell and Marianne, their place of solace was found in one another.
The most normal thing in the world is the feeling we all get when we are most at home, in a place of complete contentment and safety, and for Connell and Marianne, their place of solace was found in one another.
The thing that made Marianne and Connell most accessible to viewers is how laid bare their intimacy is. The cinematography made sure to include some of the most airbrushed moments of on-screen love scenes, such as the clumsiness of banging heads and the opening of condoms. The rawness of these moments brings intimacy to the forefront of our minds during a time when physical contact is prohibited, making it appear all the more delicate and beautiful.
Sally Rooney’s effortless dialogue allowed us to relive the nostalgia of first love through the two, everything that felt so right, and all the things that went so wrong. It wasn’t just the beautiful moments that resonated with us. At times, Connell and Marianne’s infectious infatuation is as much with each other as with their academic success, reflecting the anxieties of a generation of young people who are striving for the highest grades and the esteem of higher education. Their desire to success is fuelled by a need to escape. First, from their small town of Carricklea where they feel disassociated from the identities imposed upon them- Connell as the stereotypical popular, athletic, charming type, Marianne as the outsider, who’s cold and odd. And later, they want to escape once again, into what they believe to be a simpler life after University.
What the show drew upon beautifully, however, was the reality that both characters are using fuel for academic success, for self-reinvention, to avoid circumstances that are encroaching upon the characters’ mental wellbeing. Connell feels trapped by the tight parameters of his reputation and the expectations of his peers. His underlying sense of inadequacy whilst watching his mother working away, cleaning the house of the girl he loves. Whilst Marianne comes from a place of financial security and privilege, she lacks the most fundamental of rights- safety. Her home is an emotional and at times physical battleground, as she is bullied by her brother and unsupported by her detached mother. When neither can explain vocalise these things, they turn instead to the comfortable silences that spans the time between filling a physical, emotional need, and the intellectual stimulation of conversation. How comforting it was to know that they had each other, each in a large way exactly what the other person needed to survive, but in the most important ways, not at all what they needed to evolve.
In the months following the release of Normal People, the media response was unprecedented, and it turned out that it wasn’t just the characters that had become icons of the time. Instagram accounts began popping up for @mariannesbangs and, notoriously, @connellschain, with the latter raking in 175,000 followers. Connell’s chain may have made it to the Gram, but Paul Mescal’s portrayal of anxiety was so moving that amongst the critical recognition, there was an acknowledgment of the necessity to start those conversations about men’s mental health that had been delegated to adverts for razors. The duality of his life pre-university versus during, where his anxiety escalated to the point of panic attacks, combined with the grief of losing one of his childhood friends from back home, portrayed different aspects of decline. It wasn’t an instant change but a gradual fall, one that left viewers thinking, “What if it was me? What makes me different to him?”
Through Connell, Rooney opened a dialogue to the realities of many people stuck in lockdown, battling demons of loneliness and fear on their own, but also to the dangers of being trapped in an unsafe environment. Marianne could not avoid her brother or his unprovoked mood swings, and had nobody to advocate for her. Her mother had suffered similar abuse at the hands of Marianne’s father and what appears callous and indifferent is in fact her own trauma manifesting in the choice not to intervene. After a particularly brutal fight ends with Marianne bleeding in the safe haven of Connell’s car and she decides to tell all to Connell, we feel relieved. Things get better for her. But what about the people who don’t have a Connell? This idea was replicated in the ongoing circulation on domestic violence awareness posts across social media, a message to all who weren’t safe that they could give a sign, and somebody, even a stranger, would advocate for their safety.
What is clear, even a year on, when we are reminded of the show’s success with its growing list of award nominations, is that Normal People came to us when the world needed not a fairytale but an honest look at what it means to be human.
Though the wider conversations were particularly relevant to the lockdown situation, they always returned to the same core truth – Marianne and Connell were in love, whether they were meant for each other or not, and love is sometimes the easiest thing to believe in. Absorbing ourselves in those few episode of first love, lost love, refound love, and finally, the uncertainty of losing it once again, gave us a brief chance to escape into Marianne and Connell’s world of reminiscent youth and deep, all-consuming emotion. Perhaps it was the safest place to be when our own world is a very uncertain place.
What is clear, even a year on, when we are reminded of the show’s success with its growing list of award nominations, is that Normal People came to us when the world needed not a fairytale but an honest look at what it means to be human. To feel what a human does, and to experience the highs and lows of youth, and to be vulnerable. Normal People gave us something imperfect in the most abnormal of times, with the hopeful possibility that perhaps, things really do get better.
Photgraphy by Enda Bowe for Hulu – Normal People adapted from Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel