The stars of Normal People on what the show gets so right about sex and mental health
Despite its name, Normal People is not your normal TV show. Sure, the blueprint of the new Hulu series is a story that’s been told many times before: Two teenagers fall in love and heartbreak ensues. However, the layered emotions in the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel go far deeper than most typical boy-meets-girl love stories. The two main characters—smart, sarcastic outcast Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and shy, popular jock Connell (Paul Mescal)— realistically struggle with issues like self-worth, sexuality, and, most notably, mental illness. While some recent shows like HBO’s Euphoria have depicted teenage mental health with honesty, the experience is still rarely represented on-screen, so its authentic illustration in Normal People stands out.
“Getting to portray an accurate version of what anxiety and depression looks like in young people was really important to us, in a sense of trying to get it right,” 24-year-old Mescal tells HelloGiggles.
The 12-episode series, available to stream now, follows Marianne and Connell as they start a romantic relationship despite coming from very different backgrounds. Connell’s fear of acceptance keeps him from acknowledging their relationship at school, and while both characters are extremely insecure, it’s Marianne who lets this trait stop her from demanding fair treatment from her boyfriend.
“When we first meet Marianne, she has this view of herself that’s quite negative,” Edgar-Jones, 21, tells HelloGiggles. “She feels that she’s ultimately this unlovable, cold person. I think it’s through her relationship with Connell, but also through growing up that she comes to terms with the fact that she isn’t unworthy of love—she’s worthy of the kindness that she receives, and that puts her in a better position to be in a relationship in the future.”
“It’s like RuPaul said,” Edgar-Jones continues. “‘If you can’t love yourself, how are you going to love somebody else?'”
As we follow Marianne and Connell from high school to college, both characters’ journeys with self-love ebb and flow, just like their presence in each other’s lives. Along with their shared notion of feeling unlovable, the teens struggle with anxiety and depression. And while they have different coping mechanisms—Marianne shuts people out and turns inward, while Connell seeks help from friends and therapy—both have a hand in pulling each other out of the darkness.
“It’s lovely how Marianne is such a support to Connell, even though she’s going through her own stuff,” Edgar-Jones says. “Even just the subtleness of staying on Skype with him while he goes to sleep is so beautiful, and the fact that they can kind of pull each other out of those moments is really special.”
Not to mention undoubtedly realistic for many young couples. Another teenage experience Normal People gets right? Sex. Contrary to many TV shows, Normal People shows sex as quiet, awkward, and vulnerable—watching the scenes, you almost feel like you’re intruding on a real couple’s interactions. As Marianne and Connell drift between a sexual and platonic relationship throughout the series, their intimacy is never casual, but instead used as a true form of communication. They never dive in without knowing where they both stand, often having candid conversations about sex, starting with their first time together—which is Marianne’s first time ever.Consent is never blurry between these characters, a fact that the show’s actors recognize as being unique for on-screen romances.
“I’m incredibly proud to be a part of the conversation [of consent],” Edgar-Jones says. “With their first time, Marianne’s first time, watching the way that Connell is so sensitive and caring—almost too much, because she’s kind of like, ‘let’s just get on with it’—I think that’s a really healthy depiction of how it should be for everyone. It should always feel safe, and it should always feel like it’s your decision.”
As the series goes on, both Marianne and Connell explore their sexuality with other people, and Marianne experiments with BDSM and submissive sex. Although these encounters are far different from her intimacy with Connell, consent is still a major priority woven through Marianne’s experiences.
“She’s never a passive person in [sex],” Edgar-Jones says. “She always has an element of choice, which I think is really important.”
Throughout Normal People, both Marianne and Connell make the same choice again and again: to give each other chances to redeem themselves. Although this back-and-forth dynamic is crucial to the story, Mescal urges viewers to learn from the couple, and specifically from his character’s mistakes—like when Marianne takes care of Connell after he gets beat up, and he throws the news of his new girlfriend in her face. “If you’re ever in Connell’s position, don’t treat somebody who treats you so well so poorly, so often. Treat people with respect, and if you love somebody, tell them,” Mescal says.
Unfortunately, we all make mistakes in relationships, especially when we’re young; insecurities and fears often provoke us to leave things unsaid, even when it ultimately hurts us, like it does with Connell and Marianne. But isn’t that the point of the show’s title? Normal People is a story about normal people with real flaws, emotions, loves, and losses. It’s not a starry-eyed, rose-tinted glasses kind of love story—at times, it’s ugly, harsh, and even cruel. And although that can often make for a hard experience for viewers, that can make for the most impactful, too.