Connell is very alone for the first time in a long time, possibly ever. (Relatable!) He is overwhelmed by everything: the academic rigor at Trinity, the performative know-it-all-ness of his better-prepared and more self-assured classmates, the scale of Dublin. And he came all this way for a girl who won’t even return his text messages anymore. He misses Lorraine, and I get it! I also miss Lorraine. Lorraine is the absolute best. He makes it maybe one week before caving to homesickness and driving back to his town to see his mom and have a drink at the pub with a still-douchey high school friend, who assumes Connell is cleaning up what with being “the only lad in English.” (I mean… not an off-base assumption.)
As per usual, I wanted to reach through the screen and shake Connell by the shoulders. Give college a chance! Attempt a conversation with literally anyone at all! And as soon as he heeds the advice I was shouting at him through my laptop, things do start to improve. He has beer with his roommate and some other kids, who are fun! He contributes in class, using multisyllabic words, and scores an approving nod from his professor! As is a rite of passage for all freshmen, he gets into a sort of mock-argument with his fellow classmates about whether or not a “polarizing” figure should be allowed to spew racist nonsense on campus in the name of free speech. (Connell is anti-neo-Nazi, so that’s good news.) His classmates are impressed with Connell’s no-duh argument — re: Nazis, “I think that debate’s been had, no?” — and it turns out these kids are debaters who want Connell to consider joining their ranks for real. (PSA for all the Sally Rooney rookies out there: She was, for a time, a champion debater, but came to kind of loathe what kind of person all that debating turned her into. Here’s her essay on that whole experience: “Even if you beat me.”)
The debaters, including campus celebrity Gareth, invite Connell to a party. I’m not sure what exactly Connell thought college would entail, but he needs to be convinced to go to this party by his mother. When he arrives, the party is bathed in this glowy, warm light — the first warmth we’ve really seen all episode, and virtually all season. Connell rolls up with a backpack on, which is… a choice. Gareth realizes that his girlfriend and Connell are from the same town, after which Connell quickly discovers that Gareth’s girlfriend is post-glowup Marianne.
Marianne has a new haircut (chic) and smudgy eyeliner (definitely working for her) and social capital (nice for a change). As promised, she does not pretend not to know Connell, though she does downgrade him from “guy to whom I lost my virginity and engaged in a tumultuous, intense, secret love affair” to “we went to school together.” She leads him away from the crowd to get him a better beer and really, obviously, to size him up and let him size her up, and know that she’s winning here, now, where it counts.
I don’t know that I’d call their conversation “banter” — it wants to be banter, but banter is surface-y, and they can’t stop themselves from giving up the deeper stuff, blurting out their vulnerabilities before getting cagey and cool again. Marianne is so smug about how everyone knows she’s dating a campus star (that she cares about this makes her seem less cool than she was five minutes prior), but she also can’t really stop herself from saying “I’ve missed you.” Connell admits that he and Rachel broke up, because of course they did. Marianne reveals that her boyfriend doesn’t tell her she’s beautiful, and rolls her eyes at fulfilling a cliche: “It’s classic me. Came to college and got pretty.” Both Connell and Marianne feel they were “a bit abandoned” by each other, and I do think they both have a point, actually! Not that Marianne wasn’t within her rights to just block him forever, but it’s also not like he didn’t try to reach out and mend what he shattered.
Connell seems to realize this in real time as he says it out loud: He used to think that he could read Marianne’s mind. “Maybe that’s normal,” he says. And she replies, very seriously, “It’s not.” And then she asks him this absolutely perfect question: “Are you dating anyone problematic at the moment?” When we are all set free from our corona bunkers, I think I might adopt that as my new way of asking people if they’re single. She offers to set him up with one of her friends, earnestly asking, “What’s not to like about you?” Later on, one of her friends will pursue this very option, which is quite the tricky situation that Marianne will have brought entirely upon herself.
In the morning, Marianne cleans up from the party and appraises her boyfriend like he no longer impresses her. She goes home to her (massive, lushly appointed) place in Dublin to shower off the night and debrief with her friends who, we learn, are not sold on Gareth the boyfriend. (I like that, in college, not all the blondes are mean. Growth!) Her friend Joanna, a nice blonde, seems to have the most astute read on people, correctly pointing out that “most people don’t have any idea what they want” and getting Marianne to confess that Connell “wasn’t like a friend, exactly.”
At school, Marianne is basically always holding court with a bunch of cute boys who clearly have crushes on her. She’s an excellent debater — “like a cat playing with food,” a friend compliments her — and has assembled this crowd of people who, at the very least, are captivated by her and note all her wants and needs. Even in ways that are a bit unsettling, like the guy who claims to make all Marianne’s decisions for her as a weird gesture of friendship, since she “hates making decisions.” That’s a yikes, honestly. Though for what it’s worth, Marianne seems to be enjoying her popularity a lot more than Connell ever liked his. She wears it so lightly.
But then, when her boyfriend and the rest of them go out for the night, Marianne stays in to text Connell. Hmm.