Our pull towards falling in love with Normal People, explained.
When asked about the concept of normalcy within her 2018 best-selling novel Normal People at the London Review Bookshop, author Sally Rooney answers that she’s always loved “to read and to write about are experiences that, are in fact, completely banal but that don’t necessarily conform to our narrative about what normality is [… ] Experiences that maybe feel weird while they’re happening but are in fact utterly run of the mill because they happen to everyone”. Normal People is exactly that. Although Rooney humbly claims the title was the final piece of text attached to the book, it could not be more apt in relation to the plot.
BBC/Hulu’s 2020 adaptation of Normal People is, without a doubt, loyal in every aspect to the original text and as a result is an extremely normal drama on the surface. Set in Ireland (specifically Sligo and later Dublin) Normal People follows outcast Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and popular Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal) as they begin a love affair which follows them from their last year of high school to their final year of University.
In spite of the straightforward plot, Normal People is anything but ordinary, with its unique and honest look at the highs and lows of young love, sex and adulthood. The series proves to be a refreshingly intricate look at the reality of relationships in an era overloaded by made-for-Netflix heart-warming stories of meant-to-be romances ending with a picturesque white wedding.
Normal People is arguably divided in half, with the first six episodes directed by Oscar-nominated Room director Lenny Abrahamson and the remaining six directed by equally talented Hettie Macdonald (who I discovered directed the ‘Blink’ episode of Doctor Who with the stone angels that left children of the 2000s with a generational distrust of statues).
The first few episodes depict Marianne and Connell’s shift from the intensities of first love and teenage years into the distance of young adulthood. Each episode is soaked in emotion whether it be love, heartbreak or lust. The camera is constantly close to the two, often on their face in a slightly claustrophobic manner. When the two talk alone, everything else is silent, making their every movement and speech magnified. It’s intoxicating and suffocating and personal – everything about first love. When heartbreak ensues, the viewer is sure to feel it as deeply as the two and recount times when they’ve faced rejection, feared the disapproval of their peers or felt hidden by someone they liked.
Outwith its portrayal of romance, critics and viewers alike have praised Normal People for its depiction of consent and sex, specifically in episode two, as Connell and Marianne have sex for the first time (in the most realistic teenage boy bedroom ever to grace TV – complete with slightly out of date wallpaper and blu-tacked, ripped football tickets above the bed). Connell tells Marianne, who is having sex for the first time, “If you want to stop, or anything, we can obviously stop […] If it hurts, or anything, we can stop. It won’t be awkward, just say”. This simple communication is a masterclass in consent and should be shown to young people everywhere.
Although the Daily Mail claims it to be “BBC’s most explicit drama ever with 41 minutes of sex”, Normal People is no Fifty Shades of Grey, instead challenging the often taboo and seedy connotations of sex and rebranding it instead as, well, normal. As a result of the steamy scenes, Paul Mescal (Connell) has become somewhat of a sex symbol with his characters signature necklace – aka Connell’s Chain – earning an emoji and hashtag on Twitter, its own dedicated Instagram account and the show’s costume designer comparing it to ‘James Dean’s T-shirts in the 1950s’.
However, the warmth of first love is contrasted by the latter episodes of Normal People, which become slightly more serious in tone and explore darker topics like mental health, abuse, and the downsides of relationships. As they attend university, the protagonists’ roles appear to switch as the once outcasted Marianne becomes popular but struggles with her own self-worth and finds herself in a series of unhealthy relationships and friendships. Daisy Edgar-Jones portrays this shift in Marianne perfectly, vulnerable in her nuances in being “cool”, while continually maintaining her flawless Irish accent.
Subsequently, the once popular Connell struggles to fit in with his privileged, and somewhat ignorant, university peers and, in a particularly raw episode, battles severe depression. It’s an extremely relevant depiction of male mental health, especially in current times as the charity Samaritans revealed in 2018 that UK men are three times more likely more likely to die by suicide than women – and four times more likely in Ireland. Paul Mescal is nothing short of perfect in his first television role, as he embodies the sadly common, societal-rooted pressure on young men to internalise anxiety and depression, often resulting in a feeling of isolation and a struggle to communicate their feelings. Its relatability is remarkable and should be highly commended.
The soundtrack is as emotionally complex as the plot itself. The honest and beautiful score of Irish composer Stephen Rennicks accompanies the relationship, often with soft piano and strings – as uplifting as it is upsetting. The soundtrack is composed of a small mix of recognisable tracks and musicians (Nick Drake, Elliot Smith, Yazoo) and a large mix of local artists, with Irish talent (Fionn Regan, Cian Boylan, SOAK, The Sei and many more) and even Glasgow bands (CHVRCHES and Cloth) taking centre stage.
In a sense, watching Normal People feels similar to a friend recounting details of the highs and lows of their relationship to you over the phone. You can’t help but absorb the details, celebrating with them when things are going well and sympathising with them when things take a turn for the worse. It accurately captures the often-unexplored shift from the somewhat comfortable last year of high school compared to the uneasy reset of university, the very real and valid emotions of first love and the uneasy reality of most relationships.
As Sally Rooney notes, “Nothing that happens to them is exceptional at all … I’m interested in writing about just regular stuff … I’m interested in inhabiting the idea of normal and sort of trying to expand or subvert or question it from within it”. Undeniably, Rooney’s novel and its faithful adaptation does exactly that. From going to pubs or prom (or ‘Debs’), losing your virginity, first love, the complexities of mental health, toxic relationships, feeling out of place, breakups and makeups or just learning to let go – it’s so every day that it applies to everyone, yet feels almost cosmically grand and unique. Normal People is, indeed, the most absorbing and mundane tale of love you’ll ever see on television. As a result, normal people will see themselves in the relationship onscreen and, perhaps, during this isolation, feel closer to each other than ever.