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My Brilliant Friend and the Relatable Horror of Elena’s Zits

Margherita Mazzucco in My Brilliant Friend.
Margherita Mazzucco in My Brilliant Friend. Photo: HBO

The “pimple on prom night” trope in books and movies always struck me as absurd in its tiny scope. One pimple isn’t a cause for concern. A pustulent Pleiades roaming across your cheeks, on the other hand, is the stuff of a full-blown identity crisis, especially since — as anyone who has ever suffered, and I mean suffered, from acne knows — with every outbreak your hands will magnetically fly up to gently stroke the crusts and potboilers forming on your skin, thus spreading the contagion and drawing out the agony. A pimple is an annoyance. Acne is a curse.

Which is why when Elena Greco — perennial sidekick to her clear-faced best friend Lila, even in her own narrative — emerged onscreen in the third episode of My Brilliant Friend as a teenager with clusters of zits wandering across her jawline and forehead, I let out a small mental cheer. A heroine, onscreen, with acne and all its attendant anxieties. That’s one small step for pimples, one giant leap for teenage-kind.

The Elena of Ferrante’s novels is afflicted with zit parades as well. Her skin, she explains, was “spoiled: on my forehead, my chin, and around my jaws, archipelagos of reddish swellings multiplied, then turned purple, finally developed yellowish tips.” She tries, like we all do, to rid herself of the pimples by popping them, but her face is “only more inflamed.” More and more crowd her face. Until the magic of the Ischian sun clears her skin to the point where Elena doesn’t even mention its former state. “I looked at myself in the mirror and I also marveled: the sun had made me a shining blonde, but my face, my arms, my legs, were as if painted with deep gold.”

In the most recent episode, too, Elena’s pimples dried up and disappeared, just in time for the boy she’s fantasized about all year to show up and steal a kiss. I’m happy for her, I really am — although if there’s one thing I know about beach skin, it’s that it doesn’t last — but damn were those pimples a TV miracle while they lasted.

My Brilliant Friend gets it all right: the tilt of Elena’s head as she inspects her inflamed face in the mirror; the gentle pass of her hand across her cheek, checking, as if they’ve dried up and flaked off in the past five minutes, to see if the spots are still there; the nervous moment of talking to a friend she’s just run into and scanning her eyes to see if they’re fixed on her tiny wounds. I found myself fixated, watching the pimples (applied by a makeup artist, much to the chagrin of the actress Margherita Mazzucco, who plays Elena and complained about the hours it took to affix them to her face) disappear and emerge in new variations on her face as time passed. It was like suddenly seeing the night sky from a different hemisphere, but with zits instead of stars.

It isn’t merely that Elena has pimples — recent films like Eighth Grade have depicted teens with their own puss and scabs — but how exquisitely they function as a (forsaken) facet of her character. When she leaned toward the mirror, I simultaneously hoped she’d ravage her own face with her fingernails and that she would, as my mother would intone, Just leave that face alone! After the pimples vanished on Ischia, I almost felt as if a barometer for her psyche had gone missing.

Acne still comes with such a weird sense of shame; years of being encouraged to scrub our faces until they tingle has left the misguided impression that anyone with pimples isn’t clean. The celebrities who volunteer for makeup-free photo shoots only manage to do so on days they’re blemish-free. The patients who go under Dr. Pimple Popper’s lancet usually keep their faces off camera. Many a set of bangs has been foolishly cut just to cover a few pimples for an important night. Pimples are a weird little out-in-the-open secret.

Elena doesn’t have any of those options — no concealer, no salicylic acid, no perky young celebs covered in stage makeup pretending to wash their faces to shill her some Neutrogena. But as someone whose chin was once the staging ground for the pimple revolution, it felt damn good (and empathetically sad) to see a young girl onscreen with a spread of blemishes across her skin. Zits happen. And Elena is a stunner with and without ’em.

My Brilliant Friend and the Relatable Horror of Elena’s Zits