By Rahul Desai
They pass one another in the hormone-drenched corridors of their high school without exchanging so much as a fleeting glance. The poor little rich girl and the rich little poor boy pretend to be strangers. They pretend to be themselves. But nobody knows that, away from classrooms and class divides, away from the social pressures of student living, the girl and the boy melt into one another. The two teenagers spend cloudy Irish afternoons discovering each other – they are not very good with words, so their bodies do the speaking, and their sex doubles up as a conversation punctuated with caring questions and respectful questions and curious questions. The bed is their grammar, the sharp gasps and awkward pauses and tender jousts of consent are their breathless consonants. The clandestine nature of this arrangement is what eventually tears them apart. He fails to acknowledge her, and their fairytale dies. The two spend the next four years reuniting and parting, dating and waiting, building and breaking. Together, they paint a portrait of the restless spring that bridges the summer of childhood to the winter of adulthood.
After resisting the cultural buzz triggered by Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel, I encountered Normal People, the 12-episode TV series, at the turn of 2021. The story of Marianne and Connell has long been a cornerstone of modern pop culture, but it was all very new to me. I had no literary reference, no words to measure the images against. Strangely, I withstood the gluttony of binge-watching. Over the next three weeks, I abruptly exited unfinished episodes for no good reason. I thrived on interrupting the flow. I continued from where I left off, rejoined at the middle of episodes, and completed feelings that were founded days ago. I remembered them while travelling, working, in the company of other people.
It’s not abnormal, this tendency to “savour” stories we’re infatuated with, this urge to stretch the immediacy of entertainment beyond the emotional elasticity of art. But my manner of consuming Normal People felt borderline dysfunctional. In hindsight, it made a lot of sense. In fact, it revealed the core essence of Normal People – outwardly an ode to the narrative bandwidth of desire but subliminally an indictment of this bandwidth. My consumption of the series mirrored the romantic journey of the protagonists. Not being very good at reading words, I chose to discover the body of its world. These brief trysts doubled up as both a heady introduction and a curious appraisal. The thrill of returning almost always trumped the inevitability of separating. In many ways, as a viewer I was attempting to sustain the intensity of first love by repeatedly terminating it. The moment I started to understand the characters, I switched it off. It was like breaking a perfectly pretty puzzle into a thousand pieces in order to prolong the spark of creation.
After their brief fling in small-town Sligo, Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) spend their undergraduate years in Dublin pretending to be cautious strangers – in love, out of love, between love. Pretending is the bedrock of their chemistry. Even as Marianne becomes the girl she assumes he wanted to be with, and Connell becomes the person she once was, the two subconsciously seek the silent expectations of those high-school days. They unwittingly crave for the exhilaration of not knowing what lies beyond.
For instance, the fourth episode is divided into two halves. The first half features Connell studying English at Trinity College, away from the history of his home. At the back of his mind, he knows that Trinity is where Marianne was planning to study History at. A sighting is inescapable; serendipity is handcrafted. The makers’ decision to exclude Marianne from his big-city initiation phase is deliberate – it replicates the young suspense of being in a surreptitious equation. Every time Connell turns a corner on campus, we expect him to bump into Marianne. When he takes a new course, we expect Marianne to emerge from the background. The ghost of her presence hangs heavy, until he chances upon her at a party. The baton is passed to Marianne in the second half of the episode – we see her universe, her circle, her boyfriend and popularity. But we always sense that Connell is around; we sense that she is searching for his mournful gaze from the corner of her eye. They’re still in those hormone-drenched corridors without quite knowing it.
From hereon, everything they do is an innate attempt to bottle this firstness – of a private voice that nobody else can speak, of a distinct trail that nobody else can see. Their attraction is preserved not by perseverance but fragility. At one point, their split is virtually invisible: Connell leaves because he lacks the conviction to express himself and ask for a favour. It’s a self-sabotaging act, but deep inside they tend to view heartbreak as an opportunity: a chance to reboot their familiarity into an upgrade of newness. These big moments are often preceded by montages of mundanity. Shots of them making tea, sleeping at night and brushing simply exist. Similarly, most episodes end with a resolute sense of stagnance: he wakes up, she watches the sky, they observe a painting, their naked bodies stay intertwined. We keep expecting these shots to sparkle with purpose, to maybe resolve an arc or construct a scene. Yet, it’s as if their story – in defying the absolution of a narrative – adopts the veneer of life accumulating. Soon, this ease of co-inhabiting a space subtly threatens the discomfort that resets their togetherness.
Most couples part only to end up with different partners. However, the parting of Normal People allows the couple to consider different versions of the same partner. Love becomes more of a time than a feeling, but longing morphs into the license to protect that time. As a result, whenever Marianne and Connell succumb to the primality of lust, they kiss as though they were discovering each other all over again. Every touch feels both nostalgic and new. The questions return, their bodies become an extension of a midnight phone call. The intimacy of make-up sex acquires the unfiltered desperation of break-up sex. Consequently, Marianne and Connell lend their bond the spiritual permanence of a honeymoon phase: a perpetual beginning ignited by a series of cursory endings. The clandestine nature of their intimacy is what binds them together: they acknowledge each other, but struggle to acknowledge themselves.
Even the music theme of Normal People sounds like a composition of disparate dusks. Like a string-heavy score of finality on loop. But when heard as a whole, it radiates the fullness of a dawn. It is the sound of following, pursuing, the brink of culminating. Many of us find it difficult to infuse the maturity of companionship with the rhythm of a chase. Once the thrill wears off, sexuality makes way for sanctity. But the couple of Normal People refuse to concede their novelty – they rarely roast each other, they seldom joke, lest their allure makes way for solace. Instead, they repair their past in the tone of the future. Their journey evokes the real-world model of roleplaying: At the slightest sign of stability, Marianne and Connell revert to being secrets in a crowd of statements.
This makes for a disconcertingly beautiful cycle of locating and relocating: of redefining loss as the proof of having found, of reframing heartbreak as the courage of having loved. It becomes a reminder that, if hope is the prelude to romance, anticipation can be the language of love. After all, what is life if not an endless sequence of strangers passing one another without so much as a fleeting glance?