Love and Lockdown: Why ‘Normal People’ Hits Differently

Images: BBC

Normal People was going to be a hit regardless. First a novel, the show swept in with playlists and a podcast to bolster it; the BBC knew what they were doing, giving us a subtle side eye before necking us right in the middle of the club. But besides from making us all super horny, the show has had a particular effect in lockdown. With Tinder growing tiresome, we’ve become utterly enthralled by the relationship of Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) – and it’s not even real. Love and lockdown, they consume us entirely. Both, simultaneously, is a potent strain of enchantment.

Nostalgia sits in the centre of this union. Normal People embraces a particular hue of nostalgia – that which is timeless. Although the novel ties its events in with the economic crisis of the mid noughties, the show seems to make the decision to move away from specific markers of time. And yet, it still manages to tug at this nostalgic pull within us all. It’s in the details: the school uniforms, the teen bedsheets, the Adidas tracksuit bottoms. These markers of adolescence have lingered throughout the last couple decades. And this iconography of sorts is inextricably and inherently tied to those young adulthood firsts which the show plays out. Almost subliminally, it pulls us in, so close we feel those shaken breaths on our cheeks. Even on moving to their college days, nostalgia seeps out from every frame. Scenes play out with a sureness and slowness, an appreciation for the in between moments. Such attention gives a sense of subtle retrospect. While the characters are enthralled in each other, as viewers we’re given a distance – one not dissimilar to that of time. And so, while there may not be any specific time to feel nostalgic over, throughout, there is a sense that this is in the past, and this has already happened. This retrospective edge is key in evoking our nostalgia.

And nostalgia is a key aspect of lockdown. We find ourselves reverting back to old ways. We’re texting our exes, we’re relearning the clarinet, we’re writing letters. Between reading old diary entries and playing Animal Crossing, we find ourselves living as we once did. From the four walls of our teenage bedrooms, we’re back, seeing the past as a soft blur. Normal People sees our late-night lockdown thoughts manifested on screen. Lockdown’s nostalgia is just as timeless as that of Normal People: a yearning for the unspecific past – from drinks at the pub in March to primary school discos.

Its treatment and depiction of time is equally important. Containing their story in twelve episodes, we view their relationship as an era, of sorts. There is a beginning and – arguably – an end. We, too, are amidst an era. Lockdown is unlike anything any of us have ever experienced before. It had a clear beginning while, much like Marianne and Connell’s relationship, the end seems ambiguous, some unspoken, indefinite blur. There’s even an awareness of eras within eras: school days, college days, summer holidays. And lockdown possesses this same division of time. There were those few weeks where everyone was dyeing or shaving their hair; baking banana bread; watching Tiger King; joining in with that dreaded Until Tomorrow Instagram tag. We go through movements, rhythms, and they consume us, just as they do Marianne and Connell.

Time even moves in Normal People as it does in lockdown. It’s slow. Careful. There’s this hesitancy, this holding of breath. It possesses this somewhat forceful chronology – we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we’ve got to go through it. There are no shocking plot twists. No grand reveals. Nothing really happens. And yet it keeps going. We’re drawn to what we know and what we know right now is a slow discomfort. A slow discomfort which forces us to focus on the minor details – the late-night calls, stolen glances, unspoken words. What would normally be background noise has become, in lockdown, the main melody – and the same is true for the show. We are let into the very crevices of Marianne and Connell’s relationship, and it consumes us, more so now than it ever could.

And, one of the most important details is their touch. It’s palpable. In a time when we are all craving touch, Normal People allows us to access it through different senses – sight and sound. The rawness of their sounds leads us into some form of hazy hedonism and then grounds us immediately after in its return to everyday conversation – highs and lows not dissimilar to that of their relationship. The sounds possess a certain roundness, the breaths and moans sculpting a body. We hear their clothes unbuttoning, their hands moving, their lips meeting, their bodies blurring. Their sex comes out in this sweetly strained whisper: it’s sometimes clumsy and awkward and uncomfortable, but ultimately what comes out is something authentic which we all know the tune of. In hearing their love, in such minute detail, we’re wrapped up in it. Meanwhile, close ups of hands, legs, chests, faces – they all invite us into private moments. Moments such as the ones we’re all missing right now, that sense of stolen secrecy which we dream about. We see their bodies in full, so unapologetically real. While we’re all staying away from others, to see bodies unhidden, closer than two metres, is a radical escapism. Under a blurred lens, we are given the security of skin to skin – of knowing someone else is there. To see skin and hair other than our own is comforting; there’s a sense of familiarity in what is now unfamiliar.

Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal in Episode #1.5 (2020)

And this comfort in the unfamiliar stems deeper. Displacement stalks these characters: Marianne is an outcast at school while Connell struggles to find his people in college. As much as these experiences aren’t depicted as something positive, amidst a pandemic, it’s hard not to view them with a certain romance. We are bored of comfort: our slippers now worn down, our trackies a second skin. And so, movement – however painful – seems to be drawing us in. It’s in depicting the realness of discomfort that it offers us comfort. Their story is within the realm of possibility yet it is something untouchable to us in our current situation.

But it’s also in the reality of our current situation that the slight unfamiliarity of the Irish setting in Normal People becomes so appealing. In the UK, we’re exposed to little more Irish media than Derry Girls and so, this Irish programme is a big deal. The Irish setting is integral to the show, not merely in our viewing of it, but also in and of itself – and we mustn’t attempt to claim it as our own. However, the UK is certainly transfixed by it, and particularly so in lockdown. Hearing an accent other than my family’s or the nasal RP of politicians becomes cathartic, a release of sorts. Something about the soft roll of an Irish accent is just unfamiliar enough to be rather familiar – that sense of knowing something but not quite knowing it. Most importantly, with an incompetent government fumbling its way through a pandemic, not many of us want to feel “British” right now – or ever, for that matter. And so, living vicariously through an on-screen first love – complete with the cobbles of Dublin and warm Irish embraces – seems a pretty stellar option.

Ultimately, what Normal People presents us with is twelve episodes of grounded and investable escapism. In lockdown, it has become both a reflection of our current collective consciousness and a far-off mirage we’re all longing for. We appreciate its slow tentative steps because we’re on the same path. It allows us to indulge in the past – our own, and the one of Marianne and Connell. But, at the same time, it lulls us into this drunken stupor of youth and love – and this hangover feels good. It consumes us and we find ourselves forgetting, just for a moment, about pandemics and politicians and PPE. We all need something to hold on to right now, and Normal People gives us that. Even if it has got me gagging for a cig. And a neck chain.

by Eilidh Akilade 

Eilidh is currently studying English Literature at the University of Glasgow. She is a big fan of watching film trailers on repeat, sweet potatoes, and intersectional feminism. You can find her rambling about nothing of note on Twitter @eilidhakilade_

1 reply »

  1. Your writing is so evocative and so tuned to the diurnal that I can safely say it’s one of the most beautiful pieces I have ever read. Poetic and subtle, wistful and langurous. NORMAL PEOPLE is indeed on my watch list now especially after this encapsulation by you.

    Like

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