Tonight is a big night. Tonight Marianne says YES to eyeliner (liquid, applied impeccably for someone with so little practice), YES to a bold lip, YES to wearing her hair down, YES to a little black dress that says to all the world, “Hey, my clavicle is DOWN HERE.” If I know anything about teen dramas, the fact that our girl is putting in so much visible effort and is allowing herself to feel optimistic about her outing here is … not a good sign for how the evening is going to play out.
Things get off to an unpleasant start when her gross older brother snarks that there’s no point in Marianne participating in a fundraiser for a dance no one will ask her to and that he expects her to find some way to humiliate him, and her mom — glass of wine beside her, duh — gives Marianne’s getup some cruel maternal side-eye, which is echoed word for word by mean blonde Rachel: “You’ve certainly gone all out.”
I love that in Normal People’s visual language, hair color is your identity. Connell is a dirty blond, halfway between the mean girls and Marianne. Meanwhile, the only girl in the popular clique who isn’t a straight-up monster to Marianne is Karen, a redhead. Sensing a potential friend, Marianne asks Karen to dance with her. Surely, Marianne is emboldened by the knowledge that Connell can’t stop staring at her. Still, brave!
And how does the world reward this rare act of public happiness? By sending one of Alan’s grimy friends Marianne’s way, to harass and grope her in front of all of Connell’s jerk brigade. Marianne runs out crying, and Rachel is still a dick, even though she just watched this aggressive man grab Marianne’s breast while she told him she did not want to dance with him. Remember that special place in hell, Rachel! Karen, however, is actually nice, and Connell does what Connell has never done before: He tells Rachel to fuck off. This jolt of integrity is short lived, but it’s lovely while it lasts.
Connell tells Marianne she can come back to his place because his mom — Lorraine, hero of the episode — will probably be asleep and wouldn’t even mind if she were awake. Of course Connell dated Rachel before, which explains their whole deal, though he says that, while they had sex, there weren’t “feelings involved” (red flag, red flag!). Marianne, already in a vulnerable spot, confides in Connell that her dad used to hit her mom and asks him if he’d ever hit a woman. He’s scandalized by the question. No spoilers, but … we will come back to this later! Anyway, Connell just goes for it and tells Marianne, “I love you.” !!!!!
Marianne accidentally falls asleep, and I’m worried her family will give her hell for staying out all night, but if they do, we are spared seeing that awful interaction. Lorraine catches Marianne on her way out the door. She clearly endorses this choice. What she does not endorse is her son saying that his relationship (my word, not his) has to be a secret.
At school, everyone is gossiping about Connell and Marianne. Removed from the cozy confines of his bed, Connell does not have the strength to just own this relationship and/or at least continue telling his rude friends to fuck off. The only person who sticks up for Marianne is redhead Karen. Connell watches his popularity stock plummet. He makes it through maybe four hours of social exile before asking blonde Rachel to the Debs (which, for you U.S. viewers, is basically Irish prom) so he can get back in with this group of idiots he doesn’t even like and won’t even be going to school with in like three weeks. BOYS.
Marianne, who does not know of Connell’s betrayal, answers her door that afternoon beaming, and my heart breaks a little for what is about to happen to her. At least Connell tells her to her face that he asked Rachel, instead of letting her find out through the school grapevine? Marianne is devastated. She insists she does not care in a voice that is screaming I wish I could take back every orgasm I ever gave you. And then she kicks him out. Honestly not sure how Connell thought this news was going to go over. Did he think he could say “Rachel and I aren’t having sex, and we’re just going as friends!!,” and Marianne would be … fine? Has he met her?
Upon learning what her son has done, Lorraine, who again is the white knight of this whole situation, demands Connell pull over the car he’s driving. She knows he and Marianne have sex every single day after school, and she knows that he obviously should’ve asked her to this dance. “I think you’re a disgrace, and I’m ashamed of you,” she says, and then she gets out of the car to take the bus home on principle! We should all be so lucky to have Lorraines in our lives.
I’m not sure how she swings this, but Marianne just … never goes back to school. For a while, she just lies around in bed, her hair in the low bun of defeat. Then she does all her work from home. Given her home life, she must REALLY not want to see Connell or blonde Rachel or their friends ever again. Connell texts her, and she ignores it, and I am proud of her. Lorraine, who knows exactly what is up, encourages this silent treatment. “He doesn’t deserve you,” Lorraine says, and when Marianne offers this flimsy defense — “compared to most people, he was actually pretty nice to me” — Lorraine gives her this firm, great hug. (Guys, I miss hugging so much. Look at this hug! Sorry, back to non-pandemic programming.)
Connell feels like shit about this, and when he tries to get his mom to tell him to feel better, she refuses, because she’s the best. “Marianne’s a very vulnerable person, and you did something really unkind, and you hurt her.” ACCURATE on all counts. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing that you’re feeling bad about this.” AGREED. Lorraine 2020?
The best part of this whole episode, though, is when Marianne rolls up to examinations looking so much cooler than all her classmates, who are wearing their dorky uniforms. The high messy bun (she is FEELING herself), the biker jacket, the sleeveless top so Connell will be distracted by her arms for the duration of the test? Yes yes yes. She’s also wearing jeans. I remember jeans! Maybe I should put on jeans today? Hmm … probably not.
The day of the dance arrives, and Connell does not want to go. Lorraine sends him out the door with some encouraging words (“don’t poison yourself — you’ll have fun once you get there”), and he picks up Rachel, who is looking very “Taylor Swift does a red carpet in 2009.” Rachel brags to her parents that Connell is planning to attend Trinity. When Connell says he’ll be studying English — the disappointment in Rachel’s parents’ eyes! Perfection.
At the dance, Connell attempts to force himself to have fun. There are bro hugs for everyone. But every beer makes him sadder, as does the (late but okay) realization that his friends suck. One of these friends is passing around naked pictures of the girlfriend who is dancing like ten feet away! Another rude friend tells Connell that everyone knew he and Marianne were a thing, and wonders aloud, “Were you doing it for the laugh, or what?” Connell cannot be at the dance anymore. He goes into the street and leaves this agonized voice-mail on Marianne’s phone. “I can’t really talk to anybody the way I talk to you. And I really love you.” He is crying, like full-on sobbing, shouting into the sidewalk. And Marianne is fast asleep.