‘My Brilliant Friend’ is brilliant television

School seemed the most obvious way out when they were girls, and an accidental sociological experiment was triggered when Lila and Lenù, the two smartest students in their class, diverged in their upbringing. Lila’s parents stopped paying her school fees after elementary school, while Lenù encouraged their daughter’s academic pursuits, which resulted in her graduating from college and publishing her first novel at success soon after. But the friends – now women in their 20s in the Italian-language drama’s third season – were always meant to go their separate ways. Lila, willful and reckless, ignored the rules of reality until she was forced to flee, while Lenù, self-disciplined and in search of approval – always second behind Lila in her mind, in potential otherwise in real achievement – was rewarded. for his academic conformity with an elevator ride to the culture-suffocating middle class.

An epic about female friendship and rivalry against a backdrop of social change, political turmoil and mob-fueled instability, “My Brilliant Friend” is a series of rare sweeps and extraordinary achievement. (There’s a reason it was my favorite show of 2020.) The production and sets are gorgeous; the luxuriant and bewitching score (by Max Richter); the grandiose, immersive and sometimes mind-blowing staging; performance is rarely perfect.

But the real draws – the qualities that make the series unlike any other on TV – are the minute-by-minute specificity of its characters and its unmistakable sense of lives lived and changing times, doors slamming and new which appear thin air. Through it all, there is the relationship between Lila and Lenù, its ups and downs necessary to maintain it, but which nonetheless matures as the two women marry, have children and wonder how they relate to each other. will ever feel like they’ve escaped enough.

Seasons 1 and 3 span roughly a decade; the stunning second season, which largely follows Lila Bluebeard’s marriage to a grocer with ties to organized crime, spans roughly five years. Captioned “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay”, the still stellar new season isn’t quite as urgent or consummate as its predecessor, but a turn to the existential feels all right as the women compare and critique the each other’s half-complete journeys to liberation.

Set in the 1970s, Season 3 opens with Lila working her toes in a meat processing plant to support her young son after running away from her abusive husband, and Lenù trying to enjoy the fruits of her literary success and looking forward to the day she will marry her future boyfriend Pietro (Matteo Cecchi), after which she can leave her family for Florence. But until then, Lenù has stayed at home with her parents. As her father (Luca Gallone) walks her around town like a minor celebrity, her mother, Immacolata (Anna Rita Vitolo) – in a painfully familiar dynamic – oscillates between pride and disdain (but mostly disdain) about a girl. eldest whose academic education, for which the family sacrificed so much, made her a disapproving outsider. When Lenù announces that she and Pietro are forgoing a church wedding, Immacolata interprets their tweedy anti-papal protest as her daughter’s childish naivete about how men deceive women of their status as wives by refusing marriage. consecration of marriage. Harrumph the older woman, “She’s studied so much that her brain is gone.”

In the season’s eight episodes, Lenù’s upbringing wedges her between the sweltering North and the culturally backward South (one of many storylines that recall the show’s cultural specificity and transatlantic relevance). She is unable to relate to anyone in town other than Lila, whose contempt for the would-be union organizers who surround the meat plant – middle-class punching bags for lower-class fascists, which just might be the hired fists of the crowd – extends to Lenù’s bleeding heart.

As the son of intellectuals, Pietro always had a path marked out for him. Deprived of a life card for the first time in her life after graduation, Lenù, who appears as the season’s main character, is suitably lost: what do you do after you’ve done everything you are you supposed to do? Eventually, she is forced to wonder if, despite her husband’s professed feminist beliefs and the burgeoning women’s movement, her existence is so different from her mother’s.

At the end of the season, after the two women cut their ties to Naples, they become old enough to surrender to the inner voices that call them home. But the old quarter isn’t so old anymore; even gangsters diversify their portfolios to include data processing on huge computers whose roar and dizzying efficiency intimidate flesh-and-blood workers. The series snapshot of the friends’ young adult struggles includes their efforts to obtain contraception, some of their former classmates hardening into radicalism, and Lila and Lenù’s grandchildren becoming more aware of the dysfunctions around them.

Immutable in the midst of it all is Lila’s indomitable magnet. Finally, enough years may have passed for the world – or at least its women – to embrace him, as Lenù did years ago, even shrinking under his shadow. Men, still clinging to the privileges their gender affords them, no matter how much women change, are charmed and mystified by his invincibility, until they become enraged at the challenge he poses and act accordingly. But in this world, Lila still needs to make alliances with men to survive. Lenù, however, finally glimpses what true liberation might mean: the denial of being a good girl or a respectable woman, the freedom to transgress and make mistakes – to live, at least for a moment, like Lila.

my brilliant friend (45 minutes) returns Monday at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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