“Normal People” has New Meaning During Quarantine

12-Part Series is worth your time

Colleen Secaur, Arts & Entertainment Editor

During these uncertain times, it seems like every piece of art created pre-pandemic has taken on new meaning because of the atmosphere in which it is being released. Normal People, a 12-part TV series based on the wildly popular novel by Sally Rooney, is no exception.

Sally Rooney, an Irish author who is often compared to a millennial Joan Didion, has made a career of writing incisive and insular novels about extremely bright Dublin college students and how they communicate with each other in the world. 

Normal People centers on Connell Waldron, who struggles financially but is well-liked and popular, and Marianne Sheridan, who has more wealth but is ostracized by her high school peers. The point of view alternates throughout each chapter, as Connell first forces Marianne to keep their relationship a secret in high school, then sees the tables in their relationship flipped as she achieves more social success in college. 

The plot of the novel itself isn’t remarkable; the relationship between two exceptionally intelligent urban students is well-trod territory. Rather, what makes it special is the ability of Marianne, Connell, and by extension the author, to articulate in such a profound way, whether it’s one of them trying to describe what it is that ties them together, or musings on wealth inequity, or the nature of knowledge itself.

As such, hearing that Normal People was being made into a series concerned me. The medium of a novel allows for Connell and Marianne to develop the rich interior–and highly personalized–dialogues that drew me to it in the first place. However, the series succeeded in erasing much of my doubts. 

The first half of the series was directed by Lenny Abrahamson, and the second half was directed by Hettie Macdonald, two directors with a knack for creating warm and tactile characters in their respective films. The soundtrack, which includes popular songs such as “Nikes,” by Frank Ocean, and “Hide and Seek,” by Imogen Heap, enhances the environment created by Connell and Marianne’s raw chemistry. 

Speaking of chemistry–theirs is absolutely off the charts. The set hired an intimacy coordinator to lend a sense of genuine love and reality to their romantic scenes. Little gestures such as editing each other’s college essays, lying in bed together, or Connell mindlessly twisting Marianne’s hair around his finger convey an entire world of love for each other. This sense of love and understanding for each other gives the series a new meaning in this era of quarantine. In one episode, they travel to Italy and have dinner with friends. In others, they’re at college parties and literary gatherings and bars with friends, activities many of us yearn for in our respective states of isolation right now.

The performance of Paul Mescal as Connell is nothing short of remarkable. Midway through the series, as we see the cracks in his shy yet affable persona widen, and he begins to sink into a severe depression. Mescal reflects every aspect of his repression and pain just through his eyes until he completely breaks down. 

With each lapse in communication that leads to a rift between him and Marianne, Mescal conveys his sense of misery and self-loathing entirely through body language. However, if I were to come up with a criticism, I would say I found some issues with the portrayal of Marianne. The chief trauma in her life that leads to her staying silent about her relationship with Connell, which eventually leads her to seek solace in abuse from former boyfriends and even her brother, is her deep disdain for her looks in the novel. 

Because she is considered to be ugly in high school, Marianne believes she has little worth and that she is forever indebted to Connell for daring to love her–even if he wouldn’t do so publicly. However, the casting of Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne erases much of this inner conflict. Even in a severe French braid and loose uniform in high school, Edgar-Jones is still undeniably pretty–an outcast only in the sense of her sharp personality. This erasure of one of the key driving conflicts throughout the series detracts from the complexity of Marianne’s characterization.

With that said, Normal People is still absolutely worth your time. It’s a mere six hours in full, and the positives far outweigh the few critiques I have of the series. With Rooney assisting in the writing of the adaptation, faithful direction, and a beautiful soundtrack, I would say it’s a largely successful show–both as its own being and an adaptation. Nevertheless, I still like the book better.