One of the things that I love and hate about Normal People is that Sally Rooney gives Connell this massive, life-changing scholarship — which I feel like she does just so she can justify sending her whole crew of characters to Marianne’s Italian villa. Like, to juice up the book and make things more exciting and get out of the rainy, sometimes-dreary world of Ireland, she fairy-godmothers Connell’s finances so he can afford to backpack through Europe and wind up doing some light Call Me By Your Name cosplay with his ex-girlfriend. Not that this boon erases his past and/or makes him a real peer in the eyes of Marianne’s boyfriend (more on him in a minute). But it does make this highly implausible jaunt to the mansion just three hours outside Venice moderately more plausible, and even though I spent half the time rolling my eyes that ANY of this was happening, I also don’t care, because look at those colors! That sunshine! The gelato! I need escapism now more than ever … I am writing this to you from week five of social isolation, and the walls of my apartment are closing in on me.
As for the boyfriend: In the grand tradition of the other Bad People of Normal People (Marianne’s brother, all of Connell’s friends from school, hot blonde Rachel), Jamie has exactly zero redeeming qualities. It is borderline unfathomable that Marianne would actually enjoy spending time with this person enough to even be friendly with him, let alone date him. It’s interesting, too, that she was so judgmental of Connell for putting up with abysmal behavior from his high-school friends — which he did mostly to maintain his social status — and here we are, not one year later, and given the opportunity to prove her point, she is doing exactly what Connell did: putting up with assholes so she can be popular.
And I get the argument for her replicating the abusive patterns with which she grew up and her nonexistent self-worth making her a magnet for a scumbag of his nature. But from a fiction perspective — just on a storytelling level — isn’t the big question of “will Marianne and Connell get back together or not?” more interesting if the other romantic prospects are real contenders? I mean, it’s obvious that Marianne is not gonna stay with this jerk, who is a tyrant and prick to EVERYONE for 100 percent of this episode, including her! And he’s staying in her house! And Helen may as well not exist at this point given her minimal screen time to date. So. We aren’t even really getting love triangles here, or a love square. Things get a lot more intriguing when the other person has a genuine shot, even if you know THE couple is going to end up together. (For instance: Reese Witherspoon should’ve picked Patrick Dempsey in Sweet Home Alabama, and also James Marsden was the real catch of The Notebook. Even if you don’t agree with these objectively correct opinions — a reasonable case could be made!)
Does Marianne like being treated this way? Or does she accept this because she thinks it’s all she deserves? Does she enjoy pain and cruelty, the way one can enjoy a kink that might scan as bizarre or even gross to an outside observer? Or is she replicating these patterns she grew up with, trapped in a loop that, deep down, she wants to escape?
Anyway: to the villa. Connell arrives with my favorite guy, Niall. Niall is lovely and I think he and Joanna would make a great couple, no? Connell and Niall are all grimy from their travels so Hulu treats us to a gratuitous shot of Connell in the shower. Thank you, Hulu! From the jump, Connell can see that Jamie and Marianne’s relationship is not going well. (Not a great sign when you walk in on a couple arguing about how they’re “not having this argument.”) Jamie is in a priggish rich boy uniform — a polo shirt that’s a little too loose so you can tell he has no muscles because his idea of working out is, I don’t know, croquet? Telling other people to clean up after him? Connell checks in with Helen, who lightly drags Marianne for being so on-brand (“of course she’s serving you figs in her Italian mansion”), which makes me wonder how exactly Connell has described his ex to his girlfriend. They say they miss each other and it’s very sad to think about how poor Helen is absolutely going to get cheated on.
Marianne changes into a much cuter, dare I say sexier, dress for the oh-so-sexy purpose of riding a bike into town to buy groceries, because it’s her only time alone with Connell. (Interesting that whenever she’s at the house and with Jamie, she’s wearing these more conservative, white, frilly sort of dresses, and when she’s with Connell, it’s all dark and strappy and flowy. HMMMM.)
Connell confides in Marianne something that she has known all her life: Money is “the substance that makes the world real … It’s so corrupt and sexy.” The scholarship, which has fully changed his life, is something Marianne gives no thought whatsoever. She catches herself: “Maybe I should think about it more.” They finally address the very thing that brought them together — that Connell’s mom works for Marianne’s mom — and both seem amazed that they’ve never talked about it before. I am not amazed by this because these beautiful book-smart dumb-dumbs never talk about anything important until at least ten months after it matters.
We learn that they’ve had a vibrant email correspondence that I’m confident neither Jamie nor Helen knows anything about. Marianne wants to read Connell’s stories, but he demurs. “They’re not as good as the emails.” They get back to the mansion and Jamie is there with that “I need to speak with the manager” pout.
Dinner is predictably horrendous, as Niall makes every effort to be gracious and Jamie kills the vibe every time he opens his mouth. I feel like it’s sort of passé for the rich to be so ostentatiously disgusted by lower tax brackets, no? It’s a little tacky. Very early 2000s, which I’m pretty sure is when Jamie was born. Aren’t the rich all about pretending to be down-to-earth now? Hard to imagine someone in Jamie’s position just openly trashing Niall and Connell for staying in hostels and riding on trains … are trains bad? Do rich people hate trains? Please someone find a rich and ask them and report back to me.
Marianne suggests they go to Venice for the day. Jamie does NOT want to go there, because he is racist and fears he will be surrounded by Asian tourists. In the kitchen, where Marianne has already gone about 149 times during this brief meal, Peggy asks if Marianne is really just … not going to say anything about what is going on here. But then she also says, “Jamie’s an asshole but he fucking adores you” which is … an interesting take.
Marianne dares to bring the strawberries out without cream and Jamie, because he is terrible, basically makes her go back inside to get it rather than get off his ass to get it himself. Then he dramatically sighs and hauls in after her so they can have ANOTHER fight. She screams so Connell bolts inside to her rescue. Jamie is just pouring wine over the edge of the glass and spilling it all over the floor. Gee, I wonder who will be on their hands and knees cleaning up that mess later? Marianne goes to just run at Jamie and throttle him, which I would’ve loved to see, but Connell catches her while Jamie goes, “You need help because you’re fucking deranged.” And then he gets mad at her for leaving the room. Sure!
Does it shock you to learn Marianne spends the night in Connell’s bed? Keeping things super-platonic, they both sleep in their underwear. (Who sleeps in a bra?) Marianne keeps nervously curling her hands into fists as she wonders, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t know why I can’t make people love me.” Connell looks at her like she is insane. Honestly, a fair reaction. He says that her family and friends love her, and Marianne reveals that her brother is verbally abusive (“He wished I was dead”) and that her mother observes said abuse and does nothing to intervene. Yet again Connell asks why Marianne has not said any of this before. “I suppose I didn’t want you to think I was damaged,” she says.
They kiss. Of course they kiss! Did you really think they’d make it through the night without kissing? Marianne stops it before it escalates to sex. But it’s only a matter of time. In the morning, they board a train (ew?) to Venice, to take a brief respite from staring at each other so they can stare at some art instead.