Connell from Normal People’s pain is heartbreaking as it’s a reality for so many

The story of how I was romanced by everything Connell and Marrianne did (and didn’t say) in the TV production of the novel ‘Normal People’ (Warning: this article contains spoilers and discusses suicide).

‘Normal People’ protagonist Connell, memorably played by Paul Mescal

I must admit I wasn’t a huge fan of ‘Normal People’ after watching the first few episodes.

Now, it does feel like some kind of sacrilege to write such a thing (yet, also cathartic to get off my chest). The formula of a BBC-backed production plus a bestselling novel plus two acting leads which thousands would take to Twitter to declare they can’t decide who they fancy most has continually delivered rating successes over the years.

My friends gay, straight, and everything in between declared over Zoom chats and WhatsApp messages that I just had to watch the 12-part wonderful, entrancing Sally Rooney-penned romance unfold on screen. But I sat on our sofa with all the will in the world and what feels like all the time in the world month two into UK COVID-19 lockdown and felt nothing for these two characters as they had naked fumbles after school and packed their small-town life away for the seemingly bright lights of Dublin and Trinity College. Nothing groundbreaking to see here I thought — I was wrong.

‘Things changed. I was drawn in — slowly and somewhat unknowingly, just like how Marianne and Connell gradually become consumed by each other…’

A friend had previously responded when I, ungratefully declared I just did not ‘get’ the hype after investing a whole hour in the show (god forbid) something along the lines of me being dead inside and he had just watched episode 8, 9 and 10 in a row, and the latter had affected him considerably. So, I turned to my also reluctant partner and suggested we keep watching.

And things changed. I was drawn in — slowly and somewhat unknowingly, just like how Marianne and Connell gradually become consumed by each other from school to their adult years.

Marianne, played by the enchanting Daisy Edgar-Jones, admits (in episode 8) her emotional distance with her family translates into all aspects of her life and leaves her feeling unlovable by all. Connell (played by Paul Mescal) despairs that she didn’t tell him when they were in a romantic relationship (although many I’m sure could argue they are in a romantic relationship throughout, minus the sexual element). The crushing, shared pain of being unable to be completely vulnerable with a romantic partner, however close you feel through telling them secrets whispered to no one before, eruptions of passion and sleeping beside someone every night, in young adulthood comes to light, and it is beautifully done …and I’m invested.

At the end of the episode, they stand in front of Duchamp’s Nu (esquisse), jeune homme triste dans un train at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection — the gorgeous backdrop of green hills and postcard-perfect blue skies is stripped back and it’s just two people gazing upon a painting in silence, separate in observations, yet still intimate.

The episode ends and we don’t stop the iPlayer countdown to the next episode beginning.

The following half an hour sets the backdrop for the devastating beauty of episode 10. The bare bones of the most painful parts of human existence — loneliness, expectation, and loss (I was going to write untimely, but whenever is loss timely), both loss of people and stages in your life — are laid bare, and it’s utterly heartbreaking. Framed by the forced introversion of a therapy session (even more forced by these sessions often being limited to six or similar, due to limited resources for mental health at the majority of universities), Connell begins to talk about the pain of his childhood friend from his hometown committing suicide. But, as most of us who have experienced therapy or dedicate time to introversion know, the waters of depression run so much deeper. A difficult experience or traumatic event can be a wake-up call and exasperate what lies beneath, it’s just up to the person how deep they want to venture.

The death of Connell’s friend Rob from back home, combined with the absence of Marianne (as she, also struggling to grapple with reality, studies in Sweden), forces him to confront so much about his being. As he admits, he was not particularly close to said friend, but he is an untimely reminder of his youth and the passing of it. Now, he stares adulthood in the face. Behind the camera close-ups and make-up actor Paul Mescal was no doubt reflecting on his youth. After the show’s release, he explained how three people killed themselves whilst he was at secondary school so his ‘innocence was ripped away very quickly.’ But this is no rare case, but a shared pain by so many — we just don’t always want to talk about. It feels too overwhelming to talk about it, even though it’s the way out of the dark.

During the impeccably performed six-minute monologue, Mescal reads lines as if they were from his own life journal. ‘Here I don’t think people like me that much. I thought I’d meet more like-minded people but that just hasn’t happened,’ he tells the counsellor. ‘I left thinking I could have a different life, but I hate it here, and I can never go back because those friends are gone. And Rob is gone. And I can’t see him again. I can’t get that life back,’ he continues, finally moulding utterances out of his despair and melancholy. I remember watching this scene and unconsciously leaning forward so I was only a few inches away from the screen, so to take in every word, bodily movement and tear — finally, a depiction of higher education in touch with reality.

‘I remember watching this and unconsciously leaning forward so I was only inches away from the screen, so to take in every word, bodily movement and tear — finally, a depiction of higher education in touch with reality.’

University is too often a breeding ground for young people being extremely unhappy. Under the veneer of hilarious, drunken escapades too many teenagers are overwhelmed and carrying a heavy load of expectation to have ‘the time of their life’ and find your place in the world put on them by parents and teachers they leave behind to go to the other side of the country or closer, completely alone. If things have happened to you in the past that are painful and likely unresolved emotionally (as you’re still a child), they are absolutely likely to hit you at this strange time. And with little familiarity around, you are likely to internalise the pain, especially if you made to feel like an anomaly for not being happy at University.

I remember once talking to an English lecturer I admired through her charming command of language and a long list of publications and mentioning that I was accessing the University counselling services as I wasn’t feeling too well mentally. The response from this highly intelligent, respected figure of academia was to ‘cheer up!’ It’s safe to say, this did not automatically switch on the ‘happy’ button internally and I felt okay about life.

If I look at my friendship group now from school days, and more than half had bouts of feeling very low during University. Many studied at Oxbridge and other highly respected establishments and it was particularly prevalent due to the pressure put on students to achieve academic success and the air of being different and special the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge seek to foster. Sadly now, looking back from our mid-20s, we all kept schtum about it, probably due to the very fear of not having the ‘time of our lives’ and silent grieving of our school days when the weight of adulthood didn’t feel so heavy on our shoulders. We all can relate to Connell as it’s all too common, but no one — the establishments or the students going through it — really want to talk about it. A damaging truth that the higher education sector needs to address, as trust me, demand will continue to ‘soar’ if we continue to put the onus on young people to have an amazing social life, get a 2.1 or above, possibly meet your lifelong partner, have a side job and not think about being £50,000 or more in debt following the experience. Although Connell earned a scholarship to ease the financial burden, he still carries the weight of being a ‘success’ not being from a family where attending University isn’t given a second thought.

Connell and Marianne frustrate each other with things left unsaid

It’s how Normal People says the things we don’t always want to because we’re scared that makes Normal People so widely consumed among all ages, and the reason in the first 7 days since its premiere on 26 April 2020, the series had over 21 million requests*.

If Connell is a reminder of anything it’s the beauty and the way we grow by opening up, in both love and pain. Of course, the way one approaches internal pain and sharing feelings is situational and differs from individual to individual, but generalising, the ways of the modern world are not conducive to a young man openly being able to share his pain. Society in the Western world and beyond put him a box and to be emotional or attend counselling makes him weak (and/or ‘gay’) and to be sad makes him a failure of the fictitious, dangerous expectations we put on young men entering adulthood to be strong in every circumstance when in reality none of us are strong and we’re all fractured.

‘Western world and beyond put him a box and to be emotional or attend counselling makes him weak (and/or ‘gay’) and to be sad makes him a failure of the fictitious, dangerous expectations we put on young men.’

The figures on suicide make for devastating reading, especially considering just how many are men (e.g. in 2016, the last year global data is available from the World Health Organization (WHO), there were an estimated 793,000 suicide deaths worldwide and most were men**). Locally, suicide — not cancer or heart attacks — is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 and women’s is a third of men’s. Too many young men are burying things deep and its building into an unmanageable depression where suicide feels like the only way out from their head.

In episode 11, Marianne laments that she never knows what Connell wants, but the withholding of trauma and emotional suffering is something the pair are guilty of and beautifully entangles the protagonists together as they grow from children into young adults struggling to deal with the past and to work out what they want going forward. And it’s something we all do, whatever your gender.

What I took from Normal People and what it will forever remind me is that sharing in love, pain and is critical to making our way through this weird and wonderful life we’re given — it’s what connects us all, but we often get too distracted by the fear of judgement to realise it.

Thank you for reading. Feel free to email me if you want to talk about anything (and everything) at charlotteashley01@gmail.com.

* https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2020/normal-people-viewing-figures

** https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190313-why-more-men-kill-themselves-than-women

writer passionate about equality (and seeing pics of your dog)