Can you love two people at once? Even if you’re in a committed relationship, do you ever feel desire for a person who isn’t your partner? If so, what are you supposed to do with that desire? Empty it, ignore it, destroy it, act on it? These are the questions at the center of Irish author Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends, which has now been adapted as a limited series on Hulu. Consenting polyamorous relationships are on the rise, but the love square in Conversations with Friends, with 21-year-old Trinity College student Frances (played by newcomer Alison Oliver) at the center, is fraught. The relationships in this story elicit much betrayal, gnashing of teeth, tense exchanges and emotional warfare, but it all makes for some damn good TV—obviously.
Rooney does many things well, but one particularly notable flex that’s evident here is her ability to write self-loathing women with empathy and poise. She does this in her 2018 novel, Normal People, which captured our special attention in 2020 when Hulu turned it into a steamy 12-episode series. The female lead in that story, Marianne, starts out as an outspoken outsider clearly compensating for her lack of confidence, only to grow into a literary cool-girl once she hits college. Follow-up Conversations with Friends also provides a steamy setting, and similarly to Marianne, protagonist Frances never knows how to carry herself. She’s a poet who performs spoken word alongside her boisterous best friend and ex-girlfriend Bobbi (Sasha Lane), but despite her pointed written work, she has trouble expressing herself in actual conversation.
After the pair meet buzzy 30-something writer Melissa (cast perfectly as Girls alum Jemima Kirke), at a poetry show, they quickly strike up a friendship with her and her hunky C-list actor husband, Nick (Joe Alwyn). When Frances and Nick fall headfirst into a world-rocking affair, they find themselves swallowed by youthful impulse (Frances) and the further breakdown of domestic harmony (Nick). Hulu’s take on the whole beautiful mess follows the formula set by Normal People, mapping out the story with a gentle hand and harnessing the actors’ chemistry to create another moody, heartbreaking binge.
Neither Normal People nor the intense Conversations with Friends are fast-paced or quick to deliver on the viewer’s desires. These are slow-burns of the highest degree, stories for patient people who like digging for little glimmers of treasure in a vast white beach. These gems of wisdom and payoff take shape in moments like one exchange between Bobbi and Frances, in which the hesitant pair struggle to share their feelings, when Bobbi says, “Everyone’s always going through something, aren’t they?” Or when Nick and Frances meet up in secret while on vacation in Croatia for a hookup in Frances’ room. Or when they acknowledge their true feelings for each other. These are the big moments, but they’re rare. The real story happens in the tense, quiet moments in between. Like when Frances stares at her phone, anxiously experiencing the very millennial phenomenon of fretting over an ambiguous text. Or when Bobbi cares for a miserable Frances while she writhes on the bathroom floor in period pain, and we see the maternal side of a passionate female friendship, one that so often blurs into something far from platonic.
The show perfectly captures those emotional highs and lows, but it also hits the nail on the head when it comes to the bigger ideas at play in Rooney’s book. Conversations with Friends challenges our perceptions of friendships, romantic relationships, sexuality, and how they all relate; and Oliver, Alwyn, Lane and Kirke all play off each other excellently in exploring that terrain. Frances is bisexual, but she’s only ever been with girls, so she surprises herself by falling for Nick. Meanwhile, part of her is still in love with Bobbi, even though she and Nick make each other extraordinarily happy. Not to mention, Frances finding a way to admit these feelings to herself and others is like pulling teeth. This is a frustrating dynamic! But it also forces us as the viewer to grapple with our notions of what love looks like, or what someone who identifies as a certain sexuality should look like; people can be many things at once.
Conversations with Friends and Normal People not only share a setting (Trinity in Dublin), but also a series of tastefully handled sex scenes—like the hallmark of the latter that sent the internet into a tizzy over Paul Mescal’s Connell and his chain. In Friends, most of the sex scenes are between Frances and Nick, and they are handled with just as much care. We’re so close to the action that it almost feels intrusive. At first, Alwyn and Oliver don’t seem to have much of a spark, but as the 12 episodes lope along, they settle into each other and exhibit a great connection. Alwyn’s Nick is undoubtedly headed for the same level of internet thirst as Mescal, but what’s really important is the emphasis on communication and grace in these scenes. As Alwyn himself said in a Guardian interview, the sex scenes are just as important as the dialogue: “They are kind of extensions of the conversations, in their own way. Each one, hopefully, should feel slightly different and mean something different to the people involved, and they’re not just kind of gratuitously thrown in.”
Another sensitive topic that is handled especially well is Frances’ battle with chronic pain and the malfunction exhibited by medical professionals as she’s trying to get to the bottom of it. Women’s pain—emotional and physical—is so often devalued by health care providers, and we’re so used to pain anyways that we often just accept it. Without giving too much away, the show does a good job of depicting this dilemma and how Frances handles it, or doesn’t.
That ambiguity is key; if you’re looking for a picture-perfect happy ending, watch a Hallmark movie instead. Conversations with Friends asks more questions than it answers, and it may very well rip out your heart and run it over with one of those mopeds you see on the streets of Dublin. But despite the less-than-clean endings, Rooney’s stories offer more than just repressed horny Irish people who lack basic communication skills. She crafts brilliant observations on human relationships and personality, and while Hulu’s second stab at her work doesn’t always fully capture the melancholy nuance in Rooney’s written word (how could it?), it comes mighty close.
All 12 episodes of Conversations with Friends premiere Sunday, May 15th on Hulu.
Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s a copy editor, freelance writer and aspiring marathoner. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.
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