what hulu's NORMAL PEOPLE gets right
The way the critically-acclaimed show approaches sex and mental health is a turning point for what TV can do. SPOILERS AHEAD!
Normal People by Sally Rooney was released in 2018. I picked it up from my favorite bookstore this past fall without knowing that it would soon become a cult classic. Months after I had read it, my sister came downstairs and asked if I heard about this new Hulu show that she had just seen the trailer for. She said it was called Normal People and I immediately gasped— how had I not known that the book I had just finished was turning into a show? I watched the trailer and wasn’t too impressed, but the mere fact that a Sally Rooney novel was being adapted had me jumping out of my chair with excitement. The day it was released, I sat down to watch and limited myself to only two episodes so I could savor it. Of course, I watched four.
It exceeded my expectations. I was shocked when I first saw Marianne, as I remembered in the book she was described as very homely and unattractive. Daisy Edgar-Jones doesn’t come close to either of those things, but besides the fact she’s pretty in the show and ugly in the book, that’s my only complaint with Marianne. The series was so well cast; Paul Mescal fit the role of Connell perfectly. You can feel the chemistry between Marianne and Connell right off the screen. You can guess immediately that the two will end up together from the first time they speak.
The show approaches mental health delicately, easing you into the sensitive topic. Paul Mescal compares Normal People to Euphoria in Wonderland Magazine. “In Euphoria, Rue is depressed and the writer is giving her reasons, because she’s addicted to drugs or the death of her father. Whereas with Connell, Rooney doesn’t give you any big dramatic reasons as to why he is the way he is.” Normal People does a good job of normalizing mental illness in a way that “will reassure young people that you don’t have to have something wrong with you to have depression or anxiety, it’s an illness.” In the 10th episode, we find out that Connell’s old school friend has committed suicide. This guts Connell and with the help of his flatmate, seeks help for his depression. He delivers a powerful monologue- one so sincere that it makes the viewers feel like we’re intruding on his therapy appointment. The only one who is there for Connell, unconditionally, is Marianne. Because of this, their love quickly deepens and intensifies. You can tell that the two are intoxicated by each other. Though they go through multiple relationships with different people, Connell and Marianne seem to always find their way back to each other.
Marianne was a target for bullying her entire life. At home, she is abused. In high school, she was relentlessly picked on. When she begins life at university, she becomes cool and popular, a foreign concept to her. Though she is no longer considered a social pariah, deep down she still feels like an outcast. Her deeply rooted insecurity is emphasized in one of the last episodes when Marianne asks Connell if he would hit her. He recoils and immediately declines, stating that it would be weird. Judging by Marianne’s reaction, you would have thought he actually did slap her. “You think I’m weird?” she asks in a quiet voice. Connell shakes his head and explains, but it’s clear Marianne is still hung up on the thought. She is terrified of reverting back to being weird in anyone’s eyes, but especially Connell’s. Daisy Edgar-Jones’ acting is phenomenal and she does a terrific job of portraying Marianne’s anxiety in this scene. Though there’s plenty of sex scenes in the show, they all have something that most T.V. shows lack nowadays: intimacy. Marianne and Connell clearly love one another and it is evident from the first time they sleep together, which is equal parts awkward and realistic. They are truly connected to one another, which seems to have become less of the standard in modern television and life in general. The show and the novel both do a fantastic job of depicting love as transformative; This is discussed by the leads in Episode 8, when they speak of how different they would be if they had never met.
The most impressive thing that Normal People has accomplished is the extraordinary task of portraying a real relationship in the 21st century — a time where it’s common to be more connected with your phone than you are with the person sitting right next to you. Sally Rooney has created a world that looks like ours but with a difference of people paying attention to one another. Connell and Marianne aren’t on their phones when they’re talking to each other, they’re staring right into each other’s eyes. I’m not criticizing Generation Z, I’m a part of Generation Z— I wholeheartedly know what it’s like to live in a digital world, eyes permanently damaged by the blue light radiating from your laptop. It feels impossible to have a relationship similar to Marianne and Connell, to be as close as they are in this digital age, but as Rooney’s novel and the Hulu adaptation show us, it’s not impossible. ✰
Chloe Rose is a sixteen-year-old writer and filmmaker living in New York. Chloe has been creating art for as long as she can remember; she still has the books made out of computer paper, staples, and crayons that she made when she was seven years old to prove it. She loves lemon Pellegrino, flowers, the beach, and music. You can find her in the poetry aisle of her favorite bookstore.