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Normal People - 1.09 - Review

After a sweltering summer (in more ways than one), this episode of Normal People opens in a much cooler (read, freezing) setting with a six month flashfoward to December. Connell and Marianne's relationship becomes epistolary, and more sporadic at that, as she seems to retreat further into herself while on her Erasmus year in Sweden. Clearly, the previous summer had a pretty considerable impact on her already fragile self-confidence.

At a party where she seems lonely but is probably consciously choosing to only hang out with herself, she meets a guy who wants to buy her a drink, and tells her just that. I don't know what it is with me and Marianne's boyfriends, but aside from Connell, I dislike every single one of them. Considering their personnalities though, this says more about Marianne's terrible taste and ulterior motives (in the sense that she's constantly finding ways to demean herself through other people's eyes) than my inability to like any of her choices.
Gareth? Pompous prat.
Jamie? Insufferable idiot.
Lukas? He agreed a little too fast, and much too willingly to how Marianne was asking him to treat her. And there's no redeeming "but he didn't want to lose her" dimension here either, since they barely knew each other and clearly weren't soulmates.

Sidenote: let's take a moment to admire Marianne's very fluffy and quite honestly, gigantic coat here. It could probably actually fit 2 to 3 Mariannes, easy, and serve as a sleeping bag in case you got stranded outside in the cold, Swedish night, for instance.
But back to the plot and not my coat-musings, it's actually kind of impressive to observe the gap Marianne is willing to jump between Connell (who, as we know, is a little challenged in the communication department, but his heart is in the right place and they're perfectly matched intellectually and emotionally. Not to mention, he isn't too hard on the eyes, either.) and this string of mediocre guys who treat her like crap (admittedly, because she asked them to). It's like she makes a point of finding the worst possible alternatives, only to have Connell show them up in each and every way, even when he and Marianne are just friends. In fact, this has been said time and again, but it's desperately sad to see how much Marianne actually thinks she deserves to be treated this way, and is unworthy of being loved. Her whole "unlovable" schtick is pushed to the extreme with Lukas in this episode.

- What do you want? I really like you.
- That. I don’t want that. I don’t want you to say that. I want, if anything, the opposite. Of that.

She's been considered as expendable by her family for so long, rejected during her early school years so badly, that she's incapable of recognizing that in no way does she deserve to be treated like that, and definitely shouldn't ask for it. I really, really need her to get therapy because these are obviously deeply-rooted issues that won't go away just because she's with the "right" guy and are likely part of why things haven't worked out with Connell so far. It's one thing when she's dating Satan and his cohorts, who are actively despicable, but when she's with a guy who does care deeply about her, there's just no way anything healthy could ever come out of it either, as long as she's in this state of mind. And I just don't believe it'll go away, even after the end of this episode where she seems to realize she can't keep doing this. No real progress was made (unless you count hitting rock bottom, I guess. Which is something, of course, but I wish the realization was accompanied by something more tangible so it could last longer and be more meaningful), so it doesn't feel like she's truly gotten better.

Back in Dublin, Connell is taking his relationship with Helen to the next level, i.e. Meeting The Dad. If Marianne's choice in boyfriends (or, to be accurate, sex partners) is baffling, so is Connell's. Helen seems perfectly nice and everything, but she's also utterly forgettable and, let's be honest, quite incredibly boring. There is no chemistry there, no spark, no tenderness, no nothing. I was going to say she could be a roommate, for all she matters, but Niall is an actual roommate and he rates light-years above her in relation to Connell. Still, it's meet the parents time and Helen's dad obviously appreciates what Connell has to offer... especially compared to her previous boyfriend, apparently. While I'm curious to know who she could've dated that her parents wouldn't approve of, since she's such a goody two-shoes that I can't picture her with any kind of misbehaving miscreant. Helen, who for some reason decides to adopt Marianne and Connell's masochistic streak, on the other hand, is curious about what Lorraine thought of Marianne. If she was hoping to become Lorraine's favorite daughter in law, she is sadly disappointed as Lorraine loves Marianne and already mothered her when Connell was out of the picture. Additionally, Helen has apparently never met Marianne because she's baffled as to why Lorraine would feel sorry for her. Then again, Helen has never encountered the high-school version of Marianne, when she didn't fit in and spent all her time alone, with a family who, at best, ignored her and at worst, despised her.

In any case, it's hard to invest in any of these "side" relationships really, when after shot for shot scenes of Marianne and Connell having sex with their respective partners, they're obviously still thinking about each other. Helen (rightfully) already seems completely insecure about the ghost of Marianne who lingers around every corner they cross. This becomes apparent when Connell runs into Peggy at a Christmas party, who comments on Marianne's newfound interest for very specific sexual fantasies, which infuriates Connell (and me, because I thought we were finally freeeeeee of Jamie forever, until this random mention) to no end.

- She just…seems to be a person that people like to talk about.
- Right.
- And… I don’t know that she necessarily has a problem with that.
- What do you mean?
- I mean, she sort of fucking invites it, Connell. Why are you so bothered?

Connell is not happy with that assessment either, and Helen heads back inside without him. His emails to Marianne become increasingly tender: he misses her. He's never spent a year without seeing her. He wonders if she's alright, and if Lukas is worthy (he's not). On the other hand, the closer Connell tries to be, the more distant Marianne becomes. Not in reaction to his emails, but she pulls away from everything and retreats it what seems like a very small, very remote place. Her whole sense of self seems to have disappeared, draining away in the same way as the colors she used to wear on her face and her clothes, and replaced with muted grays and blacks, from the tip of her hat, to her make-up free face, to her pitch black nails. Even her estranged mother is surprised by how completely Marianne is separating herself from everyone. As Marianne blankly tells her she'll be staying in Sweden, it's a heartbreaking display of "lashing out at people only feels good until it hurts me more".

On the bright side, Marianne's self-introspection has also helped her see her former friend group more clearly, in that they weren't friends but just a way for her to reassure herself about fitting in at Trinity (minus Joanna, obviously, who is studying the American Civil War. Is she not the coolest?). She also pushes her deal with Lukas to breaking point. Covered in bruises, battered physically and mentally, it seems that finally, thankfully, even she has her limits. Unfortunately, Lukas seems to have taken a liking into the domineering aspect of their relationship and he refuses to hear her, until she truly breaks and finally leaves. Connell is worried by her silence, and worried he's caused it. Once again, the contrast with how caring he is, and how hard on herself Marianne is, is daunting.

Just because people treat you badly at times, and I include myself in that by the way, it doesn’t mean you deserve to be treated badly. A lot of people love you, and care about you. I hope you know that.

The episode closes on a brilliant sunset as Marianne walks home in the snow, with a seemingly neverending shot of the flickering lights in the city up ahead. It feels like Marianne is finally free, maybe not of all her demons, but at least of her latest, Lukas-shaped, prison. It's hard to believe she's healed, because it doesn't work that way, but at least she isn't self-destructing anymore.

What did you all think of this episode? The second half of the season has shifted a little tonally (both halves were directed by different directors, but it does feel like there's more of a cut off after episode 8), but the strides the characters make are really interesting to observe. Do you think Marianne will be all bright and shiny now? How great is Connell's, for lack of a better word, "enlightenment" as in: he's so much more benevolent now, and conscious of other people's feelings and not just his own shortcomings, it's really lovely to witness.


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