My Brilliant Friend S3

The two protagonists in HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s acclaimed novel series, “My Brilliant Friend,” were born to run away. Lila (Gaia Grace) and Lenu (Margherita Mazzucco), childhood friends blessed with brains and ambition, grew up on the fringes of a war-torn Naples in the 1950s, surrounded by poverty and violence. The latter was particularly terrifying: in businesses, from ruthless gangsters; on the streets, from enraged militants on both sides; and at home, from enraged spouses and dads.

When they were younger, school seemed like the most obvious route out, and when Lila and Lenu, the two smartest children in their class, diverged in their schooling, an unintentional social experiment was put into action. Lila’s parents ceased funding her tuition after elementary school, but Lenu’s encouraged her academic endeavors, which led to her college graduation and the release of her best-selling debut novel shortly after. But the buddies — now 20-something women in the third season of the Italian-language drama — were always supposed to part ways. Lila, who was iron-willed and insouciantly self-possessed until she was forced to flee, was rewarded for her scholastic compliance with an elevator ride to the suffocatingly cultured middle class, while Lenu, who was always second to Lila in her mind, in potential if not in actual achievement, was rewarded for her scholastic compliance with an elevator ride to the suffocatingly cultured middle class.

“My Brilliant Friend,” a series of rare sweep and extraordinary accomplishment about female friendship and rivalry set against a backdrop of social change, political turbulence, and mob-fueled instability, is an epic about female friendship and rivalry set against a backdrop of social change, political turbulence, and mob-fueled instability. (It’s no coincidence that it was my favorite show of 2020.) The staging and sets are stunning; the score (by Max Richter) is lush and haunting; the directing is big, immersive, and at times hallucinatory; and the performances are nearly flawless.
The minute-by-minute specificity of its characters and its unparalleled feeling of lives lived and times changing, of doors slamming shut and new ones emerging out of thin air, are the main pulls — the traits that make the show feel like none else on television. Throughout it all, Lila and Lenu’s connection waxes and wanes as needed to keep it going, but it matures as both women marry, have children, and worry how they’ll ever feel like they’ve escaped enough.

My Brilliant Friend S3
My Brilliant Friend S3

Seasons 1 and 3 cover approximately a decade, while the excellent second season, which focuses on Lila’s Bluebeard-like marriage to a grocer with ties to organized crime, lasts around five years. The still-excellent new season, titled “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” isn’t quite as urgent or complete as its predecessor, but a shift toward the existential feels entirely appropriate as the women compare and evaluate each other’s half-completed treks toward independence.

Season 3 begins with Lila working her tail off at a meat processing plant to provide for her young son after fleeing her abusive husband, and Lenu trying to enjoy the fruits of her literary success while looking forward to marrying her soon-to-be-professor boyfriend Pietro (Matteo Cecchi) and moving away from her family to Florence. Lenu, on the other hand, is stuck at home with her parents till then. While her father (Luca Gallone) parades her around town like a minor celebrity, her mother, Immacolata (Anna Rita Vitolo), oscillates between pride and disdain (though mostly disdain) over the eldest daughter whose academic education, for which the family sacrificed so much, has turned her into a disapproving outsider. Immacolata perceives Lenu’s tweedy anti-papal protest as her daughter’s juvenile naivete about how males defraud women out of their wifely standing by denying the marriage’s consecration. “She studied so much her brain’s gone,” grumbles the older woman.

Lenu’s schooling stranded her between the suffocatingly dull North and the culturally backward South throughout the course of the season’s eight episodes (one of several storylines that remind the series’ cultural distinctiveness and trans-Atlantic significance). Lila’s contempt for the would-be union organizers circling the meat plant — middle-class punching bags for the lower-class fascists, who might just be the mob’s hired fists — extends to Lenu’s hurting heart.

My Brilliant Friend S3
My Brilliant Friend S3

Pietro always had a plan because he was the son of academics. Lenu, the season’s primary character, is properly bewildered after graduating without a life map for the first time in her life: What do you do when you’ve completed all of your responsibilities? Eventually, she’s forced to consider if her life is all that different from her mother’s, despite her husband’s professed feminist ideals and the emerging women’s movement.

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After cutting the ties that bind them to Naples by the end of the season, both ladies have grown old enough to listen to the voices within that call them back home. The old neighborhood, however, is no longer so old; even gangsters are broadening their portfolios to include data processing on enormous computers whose room-filling whirs and head-spinning efficiency terrify flesh-and-blood workers. The series depicts the friends’ young adult troubles, including their attempts to get contraceptives, the radicalization of some of their old classmates, and Lila and Lenu’s little children becoming more aware of the dysfunctions around them.

Lila’s seductive indomitability stands firm in the midst of it all. After enough time has gone, the world — or at least its women — may finally accept her, as Lenu did years ago, despite shrinking under her shadow. Men, who cling to the benefits that come with their gender no matter how much women change, are enchanted and confused by her unconquerability until they get enraged by the challenge it poses and acts out in response. But, in this society, Lila must still form alliances with males in order to exist. But Lenu now sees what true emancipation could entail: the abandonment of being a decent girl or a respectable woman, the freedom to transgress and make mistakes — to live, if only for a minute, like Lila.

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