Back when everybody behind this adaptation of Sally Rooney’s second novel got together to make a show, I bet nobody thought they would essentially be providing sci-fi content to an audience that can barely fathom doing all the wild, surreal things depicted in this premiere episode, including but not limited to: leaving your house to go to someone else’s house, touching someone’s neck after being outside and before washing your hands, breathing in close proximity to another person’s face for, like, a while, etc. Is this escapist? Or is it actually very triggering? Join me on a journey to find out!
Even though I frequently recap shows with zero knowledge of the source material — never read a Pretty Little Liars book and still not 100 percent sure what the plot was there — this time I really did the reading before I came to class, so I, for one, am intrigued to see how Rooney’s writing, which has that quiet, almost affectless tone of millennial-internet-speak about it, translates to TV. But also, I promise not to spoil anything for those of you coming to the show totally cold. (But also, read Normal People!)
Meet Marianne, who wears her hair like Turtle from The Westing Game and has extremely cute straight-across bangs that I think are VERY dangerous for anyone at home watching this series who is considering cutting their own hair. Just proceed with caution! Straight-across bangs are a real high-risk, high-reward proposition; please don’t do anything that will make you want to duck and cover whenever those Zoom invites come in. Marianne is thin and conventionally beautiful and her skin is perfect even though she does not wear makeup … but her hair is brown :( So unfortunately no one at school can tell that she’s pretty. I feel like the first scene doesn’t do the best job of setting up the dynamic here, because Marianne sassing her teacher actually seems like the kind of smart aleck–y thing that would make other kids like her more? She’s funny! And she just up and walks out of class, which I think other teens would be into.
Connell, on the other hand, is popular. All the girls who hang out with him are pretty (blonde), and all the boys he’s friends with are rude. He shows up at Marianne’s house after school, not because they are friends — see above re: relative levels of popularity — but because his mom cleans Marianne’s house. While he waits for her to finish working, Connell accidentally makes intense eye contact with Marianne. (Even though Marianne was just snarking at her teacher for policing her eyeline, I’m pretty sure her eyeline is, in fact, the crux of the entire show. Why is the camera so close to her face? What is this, The Handmaid’s Tale?) She and Connell are almost flirting. They’re on the verge of flirting. Okay, they’re bragging about their grades. But they’re trying! Good flirting takes practice.
All the colors in their lives are extremely drab. The school uniforms are gray and green; Marianne sleeps on faded blue sheets. I hope everything starts to pop when these crazy kids fall in love! (So I guess that’s a spoiler but … you’ve seen the trailers, no?)
Lorraine, Connell’s mom, gently drags her son for being a dick to Marianne. Again, this does not 100 percent track because our school scenes so far don’t really indicate such dickery. But then we cut to a classic uncool-girl scene: Marianne eats her lunch alone while Connell’s friends make fun of her. (“That is absolutely tragic,” vocal fries a blonde as Marianne drips yogurt on her sweater.) Further establishing Connell’s popular bona fides, we see that he plays football. Later, Marianne is just casually standing in her bra cleaning her shirt in the girl’s bathroom, which is something I would have no problem doing today, but the thought of doing that as a high-school student … shudder. She does not flinch when the mean blonde gives her shit for hanging around topless at the sink.
So even though Marianne has all the money, her house is this cold, sad place. Her mom is way harsh and goes straight for wine as soon as she gets home from work. While normal people (… sorry) drink wine and it does not signify A Problem, the Inviolable Rules of Television Health and Medicine confirm that any time a character is shown consuming a substance, said character WILL become addicted to that substance, if they aren’t already. So probably we can assume Marianne’s mom is an alcoholic, or at least that she drinks too much too often. Also, Marianne’s brother is a tool who decides halfway through driving her to school that he’d rather pick up his mates (Irish!), so he sends her out into the pouring rain to get drenched before being late to first period. For this crime, and for being unapologetic about it, Marianne receives detention from a teacher she will later spot flirting with Connell.
Connell runs into Marianne, who is loitering outside detention, and tries to work out his issues out loud. He doesn’t understand why Marianne can’t just roll with school rules. She can tell that he’s not like the rest of his friends, on account of we haven’t seen him actively participate in any of the bullying that has filled the first third of the episode. She tells him, point-blank, “I like you.” Though he’s resisting it, he’s clearly drawn to her — and he even sits next to her (!) on the bus (!!) in front of the mean blonde and all his rude friends (!!!) after the football match.
Back at her house, Connell arrives to pick up his mom but really to squeeze in more quality time with Marianne, who looks like a Free People model and has her hair up in the best messy bun I’ve ever seen in the world. I love that she probably decided before he even came over that she was going to have her first kiss, that day, with him, and so she styled herself for the occasion. Go, Marianne, go! Connell continues to fumble (recommending Marianne read a book she already owns because it’s about “feminism and stuff”; attempting, badly, to justify his ongoing friendships with the douchey guys he hangs out with at school) and asks her if she likes him or if she, you know, like-likes him. Because Marianne has all the chutzpah in this relationship, she says it’s the latter, while Connell replies, “I’m just a little confused about what I feel. I think it’d be awkward in school if something happened between us.” CONNELL. That is not being confused about how you feel! That is knowing exactly how you feel, but being conflicted over what to do about it. But Marianne is a smitten teen, so instead of calling him out on this bullshit, she offers they just have a secret tryst. And then they kiss! It’s all very sweet until Connell signs off with this romantic missive: “Don’t talk to anyone at school about this.” (Marianne, with an audible eye roll: “Like I talk to anyone at school.”)
Time for Connell to make a cameo in the land of the popular kids! He goes to the blonde party, where people seem happy but are they really?? Everyone is loud and drunk. Marianne sits in the quiet of her bedroom, dreamily gazing at her ceiling.
At school, Connell and Marianne model excellent social distancing. After school, Connell almost drives right past the turnoff to her street but then he doubles back because he like-likes her too. His mom isn’t even there! He has no cover! Marianne, direct as ever: “Are you going to start kissing me again?” She tries to escalate things after making out for maybe eight seconds — “Can we take our clothes off?” — but Connell is worried about being walked in on. As I would also be, frankly! Did they even close the door behind them? They make plans to meet on Saturday at a “free house” and tide themselves over with a solid yet fully clothed makeout session.