Normal People follows the years-long on-again-off-again, will-they-or-won’t-they relationship between Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron, played by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal. However, to borrow a line from the opening narration of 500 Days of Summer, “this is not a love story.”
Yes, the story is essentially about two teenagers falling in love, but love is at most a secondary theme. Normal People doesn’t have that much to say about love that’s particularly unique or insightful. It does, however, separate itself from other “love stories” when it comes to exploring how our individual psychologies shape the way we love and how we desire to be loved.
In the first trio of episodes that follow Marianne and Connell when they’re in secondary school, Marianne is presented to us as a social outcast. She’s the butt of mean jokes and cruel insults, both privately and publically, by almost everyone at school — that is, everyone who talks to her. Hence, Connell stands out to her even more when he treats her like a real person. “Compared to most people he was actually pretty nice to me”, Marianne says.
Conversely, despite Connell’s internal conflicts about his feelings for Marianne and how he would be perceived at school if others found out, his few gestures of love towards Marianne all manifest as acts of care and service, and it’s hard not to attribute that to his loving relationship with his mother, Lorraine, played by Sarah Greene.
Marianne wants to be loved by somebody who is nice to her, because everyone in her life — even her own family — is mean to her. Connell, then, loves in a way that’s caring because that’s the way he was loved by Lorraine. While the series’ occasional drop-ins on Marianne and Connell’s respective relationship with their family members can feel like unnecessary detours, Marianne’s brother callously dumping soap water over her head and the Connell family Christmas all help us understand the kind of people Marianne and Connell are when it comes to love.
The latter half of the 12-episode season that follows Marianne and Connell after Trinity College shows Marianne welcoming sadomasochism. Again, that can seem like an attempt by a show to attract younger and edgier viewers — or worse, recreate the Fifty Shades of Grey hype — but it’s actually not a shocking development considering Marianne’s psychology. Marianne asking Connell to hit her during sex, after she reveals that her father hit her when she was young — a fact implied in the show but confirmed in the book — may seem cliché, but clichés are typically grounded in some semblance of truth.
Near the end of the season, Marianne and Connell sit in bed, in a moment of reflection. They both admit that they’ve felt lonely most of their life, even when they were in relationships. The exception, of course, was when they were together. “I’m never lonely when I’m with you”, Marianne says. “That was kind of a perfect time in my life, to be honest”, Connell responds. They make each other feel less lonely. That’s why they’ve held onto each other, despite everything. That’s why they know they’ll always hold onto each other, even if they aren’t always together. That’s why they know that this time, they’ll be okay.