"Why Is Everyone So Upset By The 'Normal People' Ending? I Found It Strangely Uplifting"
Words by Jessica Carter
Right now, it seems all anyone is talking about is the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney's chart-topping novel Normal People. The actors. The sexual chemistry. The crushing ending.
The finale is, at first glance, a heart-sinker for two reasons. Firstly, well, it's over - and it's left a gaping, emotionally-charged hole in our lives to fill (I'm using spaghetti and negroni cocktails, if that helps).
And secondly, it denies us the happily-ever-after that we've been praying for since about a minute-and-a-half into episode one, despite already sensing the looming heartbreak.
With Connell off to New York to study and his childhood sweetheart Marianne staying in Dublin, the pair decide to finally unravel themselves from each other.
Along with everyone else who's read Rooney's bestseller, I knew what was coming and was practically assuming the brace position by the time the last episode drew to a close.
"But why?" my crestfallen boyfriend said with shiny eyes in a tone that was somewhere between rage and despair as the credits rolled. His question was why Marianne, after "a slew of bad relationships", would end things with Connell when the pair are finally in a good place.
"I know it's not that simple," he said to me a couple of days later (yes, we were still on the subject), "but in the raw emotion of that finale, that is what I felt. Obviously, I know these are fictional characters, whatever, but I was invested in them and worried that, apart, they'd be lonely again."
He wasn't the only one in emotional anguish over this sensitively-told millennial love story.
"I've just finished the last and (and to my knowledge) final episode of @NormalPeopleBBC and am absolutely stunned... I'm not crying, you are!" one fan tweeted.
"Mother has just had to remind me that 'it's just a show', as she has witnessed my emotional breakdown following #normalpeople finale," said another.
A show it may be, but so rarely do the screens we spend so much time looking at reflect something this real back at us. Normal People is a visceral, stripped-back version of TV entertainment, a story that's been reduced until we're left with the most concentrated version of it. The emotions felt by the characters are palpable. Which is exactly why so many sore hearts took to social media and WhatsApp for some virtual therapy.
"There's not a lot of TV that causes me genuine heart and mind ache when it doesn't turn out the way I want," one friend texted me. "But the complexity, chemistry between Connell and Marianne was so convincing. The conclusion was a killer."
I felt that same dejection when I finished the book, but not with the TV series. The final six minutes of the last episode provided the uplifting ending I didn't know I'd missed on the page.
It was a finale as positive and affirming as fans could have hoped for (and, let's face it, expected) from these characters.
Marianne, who's long since relinquished her relationship with her abusive family, finally says 'no' to Connell. Throughout the series, she'd repeatedly told him - the boy that has hurt her so much - that she'd do anything he asked. For the first time, she puts her own desires above his by not going with him to New York. Finally, she knows what she wants and what's best for her.
This is the empowerment, the autonomy we've been rooting for her to achieve all along; everything's been leading to this. We knew she had it in her, ever since she got dressed and ended the uncomfortable photoshoot with her Swedish boyfriend. Think of that in contrast to her standing naked, in tears, taking a picture of her body on Connell's request.
Connell, on the other hand, who had willingly admitted early on that he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life, decides to gather his mental luggage - the social anxiety, the depression, the loneliness - and pack off to the other side of the world, knowing Marianne won't be there to prop him up.
The fact that he eventually speaks up about his desire to go to New York is a refreshing change, too. His lack of communication, his assumption that Marianne can read him, has caused no end of pain for the pair of them. They even break up over a miscommunication, when Connell can't bring himself to ask Marianne if he can stay with her over the summer.
This story is about - among heaps of other things - the process of a person's formation. What shapes and fortifies us, how we achieve a solid identity. Romantic relationships play a huge part in this - even, perhaps, the ones we think of as a waste of time.
Marianne and Connell are going their separate ways, sure, but they're only able to do that precisely because of each other: "We have done so much good for one another," says Marianne.
For us, the viewer, this is the whole story. It begins in school, and it ends after university. And we've come to expect a return on our emotional investment - the closure of a happy ending - despite life proving to us, again and again, that's not how it works.
In the story of Connell and Marianne's lives - fictitious though they are - this is just the first few pages. A snapshot of their existence. Episode 12 isn't supposed to be an ending, because life doesn't stop after a relationship ends - it's enriched by it.
Mother has just had to remind me that "it's just a show", as she has witnessed my emotional breakdown following #normalpeople finale
- rohini amani (@RohiniJaswal) April 30, 2020
I've just finished the last and (and to my knowledge) final episode of @NormalPeopleBBC and am absolutely stunned....
I'm not crying, you are! #NormalPeople
- ClaraBella :two_hearts: (@cle_robo) April 30, 2020
Listen again to the Anna Calvi song that's played in episode 11 when Marianne retreats to Connell's house with a bloody nose: 'I've loved before, I'll love again, I know that yours was true'.
Marianne and Connell have both accepted that life not only exists beyond the confines of their love for one another, but that it could even be "amazing".
Featured Image Credit: BBC/ Hulu