Normal People’s Marianne and Connell are the R-Rated Ross and Rachel of Our Generation
Normal People spoilers below.
A very specific emotion washes over me while watching Friends’ early “we-were-on-a-break” episodes. There’s sadness that the sitcom couple I’ve spent years rooting for (through Ross’s crude appraisal of Rachel’s ankles and Rachel’s preoccupation with Paolo) can’t make it work. But, above all, there’s frustration over the lack of clear communication between the two. Why couldn’t Ross ask, “Hey, so you want to break up, or is this a temporary thing?” Why couldn’t Rachel just specify what a break means?? Nearly a decade of network TV blue balls could have been prevented with a few thoughtful lines of dialogue.
The will-they-won’t-they momentum that kept viewers invested in (and annoyed by) Rachel and Ross for an entire decade has found a new vessel in 2020: Normal People’s Marianne and Connell. They’re cute, they’re Irish, they’re experts at finding inventive ways to ruin each other’s lives. But Hulu’s serial adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel adds one key variable to the equation that NBC could never: Sex — lots of it.
Marianne and Connell (deftly portrayed by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal) are passionate above all. They communicate their emotions through sex, which makes for compelling TV, but always leads to heartbreak. I’m all for subtext but there are words that need to be spoken — like out loud. Wistful stares only say so much.
They have an intellectual connection, sure, but it’s the physical propulsion that guides much of their dynamic. By episode 2, after little more than a kiss or two, the teens are off to the sexual races. However, the high school caste system dictates that popular jock Connell cannot be with bookish loner Marianne — not publicly, at least. And here Connell pulls his first “Ross” (though in the context of high school popularity it feels more like a “Rachel”). Instead of bucking the opinions of his friend group in deference to the girl he loves, or even just talking out his reservations with Marianne, Connell communicates nothing and asks a socially acceptable girl to the school dance — he tells Marianne afterward.
Fast forward to episode 6. Marianne and Connell have reunited at Trinity College. They’ve even begun telling people they’re together … The sex is, once again, heartfelt and simultaneous orgasm-level incredible. But ah, there’s a wrinkle in their would-be happily ever after: Connell needs a place to stay over the summer. Rather than, uh, ask Marianne if he can live with her, he acts super cagey, has a weird night out where he makes out with his high school teacher, and then tells Marianne he’s going back home for the summer with the best bro-style suggestion-I’m-posing-as-your-own-idea: “I guess you’ll want to see other people … ” The curtains close on Marianne and Connell’s second act.
Now comes the opportunity-rife slog (for Friends, this was the space between season 3 and “I got off the plane”). Marianne and Connell move on, pursuing dysfunctional or otherwise passion-devoid relationships. Reconciliation never feels impossible. But it’s at these moments, when they aren’t together in the girlfriend-boyfriend sense, that communication seems the most unrestrained. Marianne finally opens up to Connell about her physically and verbally abusive family. Marianne goes abroad and her and Connell’s emotional intimacy takes the form of deeply-felt emails and introspective video calls.
After a long stretch of friendship, Marianne and Connell’s third act commences (with sex). This exchange is prefaced with the very candor that was missing in their early days — Marianne tells Connell, “I don’t find it obvious what you want.” Yes, we know. After yet another communicative misfire, a traumatic situation pulls Marianne and Connell back into each other’s orbit. Finally, the two seem to be in a comfortable (and even happy) place — but here’s the twist: Connell’s been offered a spot in an MFA program … in New York.
This is the part in Friends where Rachel relinquishes a major professional opportunity for a man who never considered a scenario in which the roles were reversed. It’s been argued that Rachel should’ve stayed on that plane, and if the Friends finale had been written in 2020, she certainly would have.
Marianne and Connell get the ending that perhaps Ross and Rachel deserved. They decide to each do what’s best for themselves, personally and professionally — Connell will leave for New York and Marianne will stay in Dublin. It’s not the crowd-pleasing credits-sync-to-a-Natasha-Beddingfield-song type of romantic ending we’re accustomed to, but it’s a fitting and even poetic conclusion for a couple who struggled to communicate their needs to one another for four years.