A note: this particular episode of Normal People deals with themes that may be distressing or triggering, and they are discussed in the recap. Here is a statement from Hulu about the episode:
The following episode has content that may be extra sensitive for some viewers. If you or someone you know is struggling with grief/loss, suicidal thoughts, or mental health matters, talk to someone: 1-800-273-8255.
This episode of Normal People is the best one of the series so far. It deals honestly with mental health in a way that never feels preachy. Connell seeks and receives help for his mental health issues, and the therapy provided is actually helpful for him in a way that isn’t often portrayed on television. It also showcases an absolutely brilliant performance by Paul Mescal. We feel Connell’s anguish in a way that he hasn’t fully revealed before now. If there’s any justice in the world, this will be the episode that gets Mescal an Emmy nomination if not a win. Read on to find out what happens when Connell finally reaches his breaking point …
The show opens with Connell filling out a mental health survey at a doctor’s office. As he writes, Niall tells him he should talk to someone, adding that the service is free. Gillian welcomes Connell into her office, though we’re still not sure why Connell is seeking help.
We flash back to happier times: a New Year’s party. Helen and Connell kiss at midnight as the crowd cheers around them. They walk outside, Connell’s arm around her, as he gets a text from an old school friend. He stops in his tracks as he reads the message: “anyone seen Rob? He didn’t show tonight.” But when Helen asks what’s wrong, he just says it was a New Year’s message from an old friend. But early the next morning, he gets a call from Lorraine asking if he’s alone. They’ve found Rob’s body. Overwhelmed, he drops the phone and starts hyperventilating as Helen wakes up.
We flash forward again to the appointment with Gillian. She asks how long he’s been feeling out of sorts, and he says it started in January. She ask if there was an event that prompted it, and he tells her about Rob’s suicide. He says he feels like it’s his fault since he and Rob hadn’t been as close as they once were. Gillian emphasizes that Rob’s choices were his alone, and it’s not Connell’s fault (echoing Connell’s words to Marianne at the end of the last episode.) Connell says he didn’t even reply to the last text that Rob sent him. Gillian says lots of people in Rob’s life are likely asking themselves if there was anything more they could have done, but Connell says, “At least they tried to help him.”
Flashing back again, Connell is having drinks with a few of his old friends from Sligo, talking about Rob. Eric notes that Rob never wanted to go home, always wanting one more drink. But they are all as blindsided as Connell about what led Rob to suicide. At home, Connell cries as Lorraine tries to comfort him. He gets ready for the funeral, brushing off Helen’s touch as she tries to help.
When they arrive, Marianne is there. He goes to her and they hug, reunited. They hug just a little too long for friends, and Helen definitely notices, tapping on Connell’s shoulder to end the embrace. After the funeral, they all head to a reception. Eric walks up to talk, and the introduction is awkward as Connell only says, “This is Helen,” with Helen left to clarify that she is his girlfriend when Eric asks. Eric tries to joke that Helen must be the reason they don’t see a lot of Connell anymore, but Connell says in a serious tone, “It’s not her fault, it’s my fault,” clearly feeling guilty for not being in Sligo more. Marianne approaches, and Eric remarks that it’s good of her to come all this way. He asks if she knows Helen, and she says she does. Eric, being Eric, says he hopes there’s no “rivalry” between the two women. All four sip their tea silently.
That night in bed, Helen asks why Connell didn’t introduce her to any of his friends and barely seemed to want to introduce her to Eric. She says if he didn’t want her there, he shouldn’t have asked her to go, and Connell says the exact wrong thing when he replies, “I’m sorry I asked you then.” They fight, with Helen noting how he responded to Marianne being there. He says he can’t believe she’d bring up Marianne after his friend’s death, and Helen responds that she’s been there for him about Rob. She just can’t ignore the way Connell looks at Marianne, especially when it happened right in front of her at the church. She says he acts “weird” around Marianne, and Connell replies that it’s just his natural personality when he’s with her, adding that maybe he’s “just a weird person.”
Back at school, Connell tries to concentrate on his work, but he’s having trouble focusing. He loses it in his dorm room, sliding down the wall while having what looks like a panic attack. Helen says she’s tried to be there for him, but he won’t let her in. She says they were having legitimate problems before this, but they can’t fully talk about them with him being in this state, and that that’s unfair. She says this isn’t working anymore and isn’t really sure it was even working before, and breaks up with him. Lying on the bed with his arm covering his eyes, Connell says he’s sorry. Helen says she’s sorry too, voice breaking.
Back at Gillian’s office in the present, she asks him if there’s anyone in Dublin he can look to for help. He mentions Niall, and Gillian says it’s good that Niall convinced Connell to seek help. He hesitates, then says there’s another friend who is helpful but that she’s on an exchange trip. Marianne video chats Connell in the past as she says she liked Helen and is sorry about the break up. At first Connell says he doesn’t really feel anything, but then corrects himself. He says that he finds himself randomly crying or having a panic attack, but that he can’t seem to connect the two in his brain. Marianne says she understands. He says he’s tired and wants to sleep. Marianne suggests that they keep Skype on, so he won’t be alone. Connell falls asleep while Marianne does her homework and watches him to make sure he’s all right. The next morning when Connell wakes up, she’s still on the call, doing homework and watching over him.
Gillian asks Connell about Marianne. He says they see the world in a similar way and have lived parallel lives, that she’s one of the only people who he “clicks” with. It’s been hard for him to not be near her. Gillian asks if his difficulty fitting in with people is a new problem for him, and he says it’s familiar. He then says that back home “People seem to like me and everything … but here I don’t think they like me that much.” Now the camera focuses only on Connell, and an unbroken take of Connell examining his life begins. He talks about how he and Rob on the surface had almost nothing in common, that they didn’t know each other on a deep level, and yet he was one of his best friends because none of those things mattered in school. He says the situations he and Rob got into with girls back then made him feel alienated (possibly referencing his relationship with Marianne and the way Rob treated her then.) But then he says a quote that stopped me in my tracks with its accuracy not just about Connell’s situation but more broadly about college life:
I think I thought if I came here, I’d fit in better. I thought I’d meet more like-minded people but that just hasn’t … I left Carricklea thinking I could have a different life but [breaks down in sobs] I hate it here. I can never go back because those friendships are gone, and Rob is gone, and I can’t see him again. I can’t get that life back.
He apologizes to Gillian, who gently says he doesn’t need to apologize. He wipes his face and tries to regain his composure. Paul Mescal is excellent both in this scene and in the episode overall. As much as episode 9 showcased Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne figured out her own life, this episode belongs to Connell. His loneliness and tough exterior fall away, and Mescal is excellent at putting the audience in Connell’s shoes.
Connell leaves Gillian’s office and video chats with Marianne. He tells her he went to see a therapist at Niall’s suggestion, and Marianne says, “Well done, Niall.” (Yes! Well done Niall indeed.) She asks how he’s feeling now, and he says he feels better but still flat. She asks if he ever felt angry about Rob. He asks what she means, and she goes on a rant about how angry it made her to see people who barely knew Rob posting about his death on Facebook, calling it “advertising their grief.” Connell smiles for the first time in a while, quipping, “Well it sounds like you really worked through that anger.” She says what really gets her is the way they described him, like he was a perfect son and friend. She thinks that dishonors his memory in a way, painting over his faults. Connell agrees, wryly saying, “I know I can talk,” about his own faults. Then he says, “I miss you,” to Marianne. She says she misses him too as the episode ends.
Episode 10 Music Moments:
“Love Really Hurts Without You” by Billy Ocean
“Cannibal Tree” by Yenkee
“Good Times” by Ellie Mae Rose
“Everything I Am Is Yours” by Villagers
Normal People is available on Hulu.