Certain moments from Hulu’s new series, “Normal People,” have a habit of haunting you after viewing, lingering long after each episode ends. Perhaps it’s the glint of the silver chain that hangs around a main character’s neck. Or instead, it’s the delicate exploration of a fingertip along another’s arm, slowly tracing its way from wrist to shoulder.
“Normal People” plays with the simplest of scenes and extracts intense emotion out of them. It answers unending questions about intimacy — its birth, life and potential death — as the show’s two main characters, Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), navigate their close connection to each other as they transition from adolescence to adulthood. The original novel, written by Sally Rooney, was praised for its portrayal of people haunted by loneliness, but satisfied by the intimacy of another. Returning to co-write the first six episodes of the series, Rooney comes to the forefront with her candid exploration of complicated relationships.
Marianne and Connell’s story begins in secondary school, with gray woolen skirts and rugby uniforms stained by mud. Connell is presented as the successful athlete with plenty of friends; he appears the polar opposite of Marianne, who uses her quick mind and short temper to cast herself as a loner. Their socioeconomic positions also hold a stark contrast: Marianne’s mother is incredibly wealthy, while Connell’s mother works as a cleaner for Marianne’s family. It is through this connection that Marianne and Connell begin their relationship and become so tightly intertwined that one seems to be incomplete without the other. It is here in this space that they initiate intimacy.
Intimacy, according to “Normal People,” is a living, breathing entity that exists between two people, suspended in a web of vulnerability. The intimacy between Marianne and Connell encompasses personal connection, physical touch, conversation and trust. With each scene, they explore the different veins of intimacy as they waltz the fine line between romantic and platonic love.
“Normal People” portrays sex in an incredibly exposing manner, letting the viewer into its physical and emotional spaces. Lust and emotion are often separated in televised sex scenes, but in “Normal People,” both sides of intimacy are given equal spotlight. Rooney writes sex scenes like she writes dialogue, intensifying seemingly normal interactions to prioritize restrained passion. The two negotiate the terms of their relationship unknowingly through incorporating consent and care into their unannounced intimacy.
While Rooney’s novel uses narration to show her characters’ inner thoughts, the show incorporates tight camera angles that cut close to the characters’ faces, so close that you can see each individual pore and each strand of hair falling across the face. Often, a telling, short-timed gaze is held between Marianne and Connell, before one or both of them avert their attention elsewhere in the room.
Marianne and Connell are constantly kept at an arm’s distance from the other, whether by their own choices or not. This magnetic pull toward the other is not purely a sexual yearning, but rather a craving for comfort. Perhaps it is due to their history, or perhaps it is because the other’s presence proves that they are not destined to be lonely, regardless of what their consciences let them believe. It is through their intimacy that Marianne and Connell simultaneously envelop loneliness — or perhaps loneliness produces their intimacy.
Mescal beautifully encapsulates the tentative nature of Connell, as he shoulders the weight of his financial position and internal pressure to be favorable to others, while Edgar-Jones counteracts Mescal’s reserved countenance with her tenacity. The two together form a duo enwrapped around itself, in hopes of sealing off the volatility of both their internal selves and past traumas. Their codependency takes on many faces throughout the series, both to the detriment and preservation of their relationship.
Each episode of “Normal People” comes in a quick 30 minutes, holding the audience’s full attention for each part of Marianne and Connell’s story. At the end of the series, a feeling of uncertainty hangs heavy in the room where the two sit across from each other, physically close together while seeming so desperately far apart. It is the intimacy that exists between them that makes the audience feel their longing — longing for a romance that we can control, even though we know that it will never exist.