My Brilliant Friend
I confess that I spent the entire second half of this episode searching for those pink taffeta-bedecked flower girls from the front of Ferrante’s novel. That cover, in all its confusing hideousness, has sparked so much conversation (mostly about what the hell the publishers were thinking) that I hoped director Saverio Costanzo had hidden a little Easter egg for us, a wink at readers who have now tuned in. Alas, it was not to be. (I did spy a little girl at the wedding but her dress wasn’t shiny enough to qualify.) But this finale did offer a showcase of some of the season’s finest acting work (especially on behalf of Gaia Girace’s Lila), and a chance for the series to sharply focus its lens on the friendship at the heart of Ferrante’s series. It was moving and real — which is sometimes all good television needs to be.
As Lila’s wedding inches closer and closer, the disparity between the directions Lila’s and Elena’s lives are taking ratchets up. Lila is penned in by her mother- and sister-in-law’s demands — over her role in the grocery; her wedding gown; her attitude, essentially — but she’s hurtling toward a version of adulthood that outsiders would see as ideal. She’s doted on by Stefano. She’s the object of the entire neighborhood’s jealousy. Once neglected and mocked by her father for her intellectual aspirations, she now holds sway over Calzoleria Cerullo’s success (and the financial future of her parents and brother). Her proverbial thumbs-up on the design of those outrageous yellow heels alleviates Stefano’s concerns that the shoes aren’t to her liking and sends relief coursing through her father, who now won’t need to start again from scratch.
Elena, on the other hand, is still a mere student, dealing with the tediousness of her teacher’s and mother’s authority (and obviously some, ahem, minor theological issues). And where Lila looks dotingly at Stefano, Elena is practically repulsed by Antonio’s attention — she knows their relationship is a sham.
But instead of dividing Lila and Elena, these differences unite them in silent understanding. This episode — which, notably and somewhat vaguely, considering there are two crucial promises extracted herein, is called “The Promise” rather than “The Wedding” — hovers beautifully over the two friends’ devotion to each other. There is a still a haze of jealousy, yes, but the girls have begun to recognize each other’s strengths and to work together, offering ballast in the midst of one another’s storms.
It’s a beautiful irony that Lila, whose education is hobbled by her family’s wishes but who is the more natural writer of the two (at least in Elena’s estimation), serves as Elena’s first editor in what we know will be a long and illustrious career. Lila’s editing magic, done in her girlish cursive hand, serves a purpose for both girls. For Elena it’s her first lesson in watching another mind pick apart her arguments and resettle them in better locations, a valuable moment for any writer. For Lila it’s a chance to send something of her own out into the intellectual world, a chance she’s been denied by her father’s refusal to send her to school. Smart enough to know what she’s missing, and obviously pained by the knowledge that Elena’s chances for writerly recognition are increasing while her own have disappeared, Lila can only stand to read her friend’s work this one time.
But that doesn’t mean she isn’t invested in Elena’s education. In the bathtub scene, one of the series’ most affecting, Lila extracts the first of the episode’s promises. The act of washing someone else is a humbling one, and Lila sits ramrod straight like a queen, letting Elena soap her back and ready her for her husband. But she’s preoccupied with what she’s leaving behind by choosing marriage (not that she had much of a choice). It may be financially easy for Lila to pay Elena’s school expenses — in the book we learn that the new house she and Stefano will live in is luxurious, with a big tub and a telephone, two extravagances — but emotionally it’s a sacrifice for her to support Elena down a path that’s closed to her. “You’re my brilliant friend,” she declares as she makes Elena promise she’ll go to college. She’s flipping the premise of the novel — that it is always Elena intellectually lagging behind — and making room for her friend in a way she was never able to before.
That sense is buoyed by the wedding-dress fitting, a scene that had me hooting in encouragement. Complaining about your mother-in-law is practically a requirement for any friendship (except with me. If you’re reading this, I love you, Pam!), but in this case, when the couple will live near and work so closely with Stefano’s family, Lila’s complaints are more a function of her determination to set the tone for the relationship; she has always ruled the neighborhood with a tiny iron fist and she isn’t backing down now. In the novel Elena explains, “I had the impression … that she was struggling to find, from inside the cage in which she was enclosed, a way of being, all her own, that was still obscure to her.” When Elena steps in to mediate and choose Lila’s dress, she turns on a behavior she learned in school — speaking in Italian, not dialect, she carefully praises the Carracci women’s choices, and offers consideration to both sides of the argument before choosing a middle ground. No one is left offended or annoyed, but Lila is surprised. Those Latin declensions and essays have developed into an unforeseen worldliness in her friend.
That same skill comes in handy to mend Lila and Stefano’s relationship after he asks the Solaras to help distribute the Cerullo shoes. (Exactly why the Solaras need to be involved was a little fuzzy on the show, but the book makes much more clear the stranglehold, via their relationships with other merchants, they have on any industry in the neighborhood.) The Cerullo’s shoe company won’t survive if their only customers are poor neighbors just like them, but to Lila, the prospect of partnering with Marcello in any capacity is justifiably rage-inducing. What’s more, Stefano’s promise that Silvio, Marcello’s father, can serve as best man is actually a lifelong commitment. Traditionally, the best man at a wedding becomes a figure as close as family — he even attends Sunday suppers. But again, Elena’s reasoning calms Lila so that Stefano can come in and show her that he’s kept the very first shoes the Cerullos made — kept them because, as he says, “they remind me of your little-girl hands working.” And then she extracts a second promise, insisting that Stefano keep Marcello away from their wedding.
As for the wedding itself, I’ve been to this exact Italian reception several times. The music, the heaps of antipasti, the sense that everyone in the room is somehow related, the complaints about the wine. Even the song selection (“Marie Mari” is a classic Neapolitan love song) rings true. The show pulls it all off with aplomb.
And, at first, it’s a joyous day not just for Lila and Stefano, but for the guests, most of whom may never dine or dress this well for the rest of their lives. Lila’s gown, an elegant tulle confection, fits her perfectly. The Super 8 film — a clever conceit on the part of the show’s creators, considering the novel mentions that Elena helps Lila with the planning and encourages her to hire a crew to record the ceremony — could have been cheesy, but the sheer nostalgia it evokes is bolstered by the enthusiasm evident in the faces in the crowd. Many of them have probably never been on camera on their lives, an ironic twist considering nearly all of My Brilliant Friend’s actors are first-timers.
But the reception degrades into misery for Elena, first because of her mother’s henpecking and then from Antonio’s downright menacing hovering. Her place beside Nino at the reception table holds promise that they’ll rekindle their friendship, if not a relationship, but Elena’s questions are forced, and Nino’s reactions purposely antagonistic. (I want a .gif of, “Are you reading any new novels?” “Novels don’t serve a purpose,” so I can watch it and scream.) Trying to choose between the pestering Antonio and petulant Nino, Elena makes an understandable decision. But she doesn’t realize that her earlier rebuff of Nino’s request to walk her home turned him against her — he’s used the meager power he has to vengefully keep Elena’s article from being published. It’s not the first time a man has denied her something she’s earned, but considering her earlier point that seeing her name in print would make her truly alive, it’s the cruelest.
Before she runs out in tears, Elena delivers a speech that’s become somewhat famous over the past few years. Recalling what Maestra Olivieri told her about the plebs all those years ago she says, “At that moment I knew what the plebs were … The plebs were us.” She continues, “When I was a child I aspired to Lila’s pace to escape the neighborhood. I was wrong. From the world of my mother and the neighborhood, not even Lila had been able to get away.” The language is different from the novel, but the sentiment isn’t. Her education has done exactly what Elena’s parents feared it would — she’s now recognized the smallness of the neighborhood, the pettiness of its quarrels, the lure of the world outside it. Even her most brilliant friend has been trapped inside it.
The last moments of the episode are remarkable: Not an important word is uttered, and yet Lila and Elena speak to each other across the room — Elena mourning the betrayal Stefano committed by giving Marcello the shoes and Lila in turn seething and then begging Elena to rescue her. The work of those little-girl hands was in vain, and no one but her dearest friend recognizes the extent of the damage.