Normal People’s intimate depiction of masculinity

The 2020 BBC mini-series Normal People is a show with complex, layered characters, intriguing dynamics between said characters, and a compelling and authentic narrative. But above all, it is a deeply emotional and heartfelt story about loneliness, love, and friendship. Although Normal People is brimming with points of praise, I would particularly like to turn attention to the character of Connel Waldron, and specifically how the show uses him to depict the male experience with affection, depression, and vulnerability. 

Connel starts off at the top of his small world in Sligo, Ireland. However, this seemingly perfect life of his begins to crack when he enters a relationship with Marianne. It is clear to us that Connel connects with Marianne on a profound emotional level, he does not need to put on the façade that he has with his male friends, making him appear candid and warm, as is his real persona. Despite this deep love for Marianne, Connel is terrified of his relationship being made known to the school, he is horrified of being vulnerable in front of his friends and breaking the perceptions they have of him to the point where he doesn’t stand up for Marianne when she is being ridiculed by his peers. 


What is most striking about Connel is that he is a deeply emotional person


This deep insecurity causes Connel to lose Marianne for the first time when they are both still in sixth form. When Connel doesn’t ask her to the school prom – only realising once he gets there that he is missing the only person who makes him truly feel at home – he runs out of the venue in a fit of anxiety, fear, and ultimately regret. What is most striking about Connel is that he is a deeply emotional person. What makes this worse for him is he has no meter by which to understand what he feels. In the first few episodes of Normal People, we see Connel caught up in a storm of feelings that seem to overwhelm him without any outlet for expression. Connel’s capacity for emotion is made evident in his English studies at Trinity College, Dublin, but we are left frustrated that he can’t seem to fully understand his own thoughts. This causes Connel to spiral and make the same mistakes he made before yet again with friends and loved ones. 

During his time at university, Connel faces a multitude of obstacles regarding his mental health. Paul Mescal’s performance as Connel – through his sad and pensive eyes, the brief laughs he gives friends to avoid conversations about the turmoil that dominates his thoughts, and the slight choking of words whenever Marianne is mentioned – gives a subtle yet complex depiction of a man trying his hardest to not completely break down in a new environment far more complicated than his life back home. 


We finally see Connel come to terms with the emotions we have understood all along


Connel’s battle with depression in Normal People feels intimate, and more heart-wrenching, because of this. There are no public displays of sorrow, fits of crying, or sad montages to slow music. We observe Connel’s depression when he is alone. It is evident to us that this is a man who feels incredibly lonely and devoid of the strength to fight, even when his girlfriend offers to help him, Connel is so utterly directionless, he couldn’t care less what happens with their relationship. This is why the therapy scene towards the end of the show is so important. We finally see Connel come to terms with the emotions we have understood all along, and the deep melancholy that has been ever-present in his emotional subconscious comes to light in a moment I can only describe as the most moving scene I have ever witnessed on screen. 

Although the ending of Normal People is bittersweet, it is perfect for encompassing Connel’s growth as a character. He is no longer the insecure boy he was in Sligo; he kisses Marianne in public on New Years’ eve. He finally understands the source of his sadness, and for the first time in his development as a troubled and confused man a sparkle is visible in his eyes. 


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