“Inside small things there’s something smaller that wants to burst out. Outside a big thing there’s something bigger that wants to keep it prisoner.”
There is a quiet knowing in glances. My Brilliant Friend’s return episode, The New Name, is framed within glances — the anger, the despair, the trauma, the desire, the love, the isolation, the warmth. Deep seas of emotion are entrusted to looks, the script so often eschewing words because their absence speaks louder.
We reveal so much of how we feel (far more than we mean to), through glances. The anger we feel but don’t speak for fear of escalation. The despair we bury deep within, and rather than unleashing it on the world, it devours us whole from the inside.
My Brilliant Friend, HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s bestselling and lauded Neapolitan Novels series, is the most quietly heartbreaking series on television. It’s emotionally honest in a way that makes even the smallest moments feel consequential. And when the series wants to gut you, the tragedy cuts even deeper.
As an adult reflecting on her life, Elena’s (Margherita Mazzucco) narration underscores the emotional tenacity she still feels about her past. It’s used to necessary, punctual, and used to beautiful effect. During the show’s dominant timeline, the character feels elegiac, as if she’s landlocked in a boat that’s far away from the sea. It’s how she describes the state of Lila (Gaia Girace) in her abusive marriage, but the description fits her too.
Elena is stuck in a moment, reflecting on her privileged pursuits. She feels lost, like she is losing her chance at normalcy and stability. Perhaps the only way out of her discontent is by accepting the conditions laid before her by her abusive mother, a society that denies her independence, and the conflagration of emotionally stunted men.
Lila is lost in her own right, ensconced by abuse at every turn, and she tries to find some semblance of choice in the only avenue available to her: appeasement. Lila has never been allowed to exist in her own right – she is treated as being a piece of fabric sewn into the tapestry of her neighbourhood. Every step she takes, from going to school to rebelling against her rapist husband, is seen as being destructive to that tapestry.
These anxieties were never more evident than when Lila returns home after her nightmarish honeymoon, her face scarred by the marks of domestic violence her husband inflicted on her face. She watches with grief as her family ignores the obvious signs of what has been done to her, crowding around her rapist, her younger brother, and his newly anointed fiancée. The whole family buys into the lie that she fell on some rocks in a way that makes it clear they know exactly what has happened. But Lila is drowning in her loneliness, so much so that verbalizing her anguish no longer means much.
My Brilliant Friend explores societal expectations and returns to themes of gender, class, and sexual orientation. It highlights how we understand, adapt, and subvert these expectations. Stefano’s (Giovanni Amura) desperation to prove his upward social mobility clashes with his lack of outward etiquette. He was also able to avoid military service on account of the Solaras’ wealth – a signing away of some form of his independence, and also, Lila’s. Antonio (Christian Giroso) is desperately bound by his internalized class inferiority of – he is less bound by his alleged love for Elena, but instead a fear that her superiority would cast him aside because of his lower status. That fear festers and becomes toxic – and he, like all of the men in Elena’s life, views her through his own selfish lens and not as a person in her own right.
Alfonso (Fabrizio Cottone) exhibits his own forbidden glances, the script quietly establishing his homosexuality in two specific moments – but he fervently exhibits his own adoption of societal misogyny and patriarchy in defence of that burgeoning knowing of his self. It’s the forming of a choice, one that can change in the passing of a glance. It’s the ferocious glance Lila casts at her reflection in the mirror, having found an unknown way to strike back, and the glance of apprehension and uncertainty from Elena. They are standing right next to one another, as close and apart, there for one another in spite of it all.