When last we left Elena “Lenù” Greco and Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo at the end of My Brilliant Friend’s second season, these two young ladies—friends since their 1950s girlhood in a rough Naples neighborhood—were headed in such different directions that it seemed they might never meet again. Lila (Gaia Girace), arguably the smarter of the two, had burned through one bad marriage and was raising a son essentially on her own, while doing whatever low-skilled work the bosses in her mob-controlled community would allow. Meanwhile, Elena (Margherita Mazzucco), a recipient of one amazing opportunity after another, had escaped her hometown, and was on her way to attending university, writing a novel, and getting engaged to a respectable and financially secure professor.
Yet in season three—based on Elena Ferrante’s novel Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay—the two old chums do cross paths, multiple times. It’s a testament to the bond they share, and to the hold that Naples has on both of them, that they keep ending up in each other’s lives. It also speaks to the expectations their culture has of women, who are still being pushed forcefully into the roles of wives and mothers even in the 1970s, as the society at large is going through revolutionary changes.
Through its first two outstanding seasons and now with its equally excellent third, My Brilliant Friend has stealthily been one of HBO’s best shows—and not just “one of the best shows currently airing,” but “one of the best shows the network has ever run.” Based on Ferrante’s four-column “Neapolitan Novels,” the series is a co-production with two Italian companies; and it has been so popular in Italy that there’s no reason to worry it won’t get a fourth and final season to finish Ferrante’s story. Still, it is somewhat dismaying that a drama so ambitious, so artful, and so absorbing has been such a hard sell in the U.S. (Perhaps it’s a subtitles thing; Netflix has had a lot of success with foreign TV, but its biggest hits have nearly all had an option for an English dub.)
If there was an uptick in American viewership for season three, it could be for a couple of reasons. The first few episodes will be airing right after HBO’s The Gilded Age, which has a similarly lush look and complex take on the past. Also, American film and TV buffs previously unfamiliar with Ferrante’s best-selling books may have been hipped to her work thanks to the recent film The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Oscar-nominated, Netflix-hosted adaptation of one of Ferrante’s earlier novels.
As it happens, My Brilliant Friend’s third season has a lot in common with The Lost Daughter, whose heroine recalls in flashbacks what it was like to be both a young mother and a rising star in academia—and why she decided it might be more personally satisfying to de-prioritize the whole “Mom” part. Like Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay, these new episodes stretch across several years in the ’70s, as Lila and Elena go through big changes in both their personal and professional lives. Elena becomes a well-known writer. Lila becomes fascinated with the potential of computers to transform the ways Italy works. Both women lend their passion and talents to the emerging socialist labor movement. And yes, they both have husbands, boyfriends, secret lovers, and children—all of them sometimes more trouble than they’re worth.
“Elena Ferrante,” famously, is a pseudonym for a writer who has chosen to remain anonymous, despite multiple attempts from literary sleuths to figure out her identity. The insistence on staying in the shadows is meant in part to prevent critics from assuming that everything in Ferrante’s stories has some autobiographical parallel. But it’s hard to avoid that entirely, given the recurring themes and narrative echoes in her books.
In the case of Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay—on the page and now on the screen—there’s a sense of lived experience that makes it at least feel like the author has firsthand memories of being an academic and a mother. The persistent brilliance of TV’s My Brilliant Friend is seen in the way the show’s creator Saverio Costanzo and his writing team have captured not just Ferrante’s fine historical detail and gripping plotting but also her keen observations about the world surrounding her two heroines—and about their complex, sometimes ambivalent reactions.
In season three of the TV series that focus on the headiness of the times leads to multiple moments where Elena’s joy over the success of her first novel is undercut by all the critics and Naples neighbors who are preoccupied by the book’s frank sex scenes—confirming some of her old rivals’ impressions of her as “impure.” (One of the boorish boys she grew up with tries to hit on her, saying, “Let me get close to you; you’ll be able to write about it.”) And while Elena is coping with rude comments and not-so-subtle aspersions about her reputation, Lila is working at a literal sausage factory, where the men feel free to tell dirty jokes and to pressure her for sex when they get her alone.
This latest eight-episode batch is fascinating because, per Ferrante’s vision, it’s set at a time when the progressive movements sweeping across the world—advocating for the rights of women, ethnic minorities, and the working class—were crashing into a staunchly paternalistic Italy, still largely controlled by old men, priests, and gangsters. Elena experiences this when she sits around with groups of educated radicals and sees the way the men dominate every conversation with their theories about a class struggle she has actually lived through. Lila experiences it when she asks her doctor to prescribe her birth control pills and he declines, saying, “There’s no better medicine for a woman than pregnancy.”
Like the earlier seasons, this new one has a fairly episodic structure, largely following the characters through their smaller arcs from start to finish, rather than jumping around. Sometimes the show will skip ahead several months, cutting straight to the next phases in the heroines’ lives. Time, inexorably, marches on—for them and for their country.
All of this angst and ambiguity is shot against richly colored backdrops, marked by vividly red socialist flags, bright blue seaside skies, and stubbornly sharp yellow paint on crumbling apartment blocks. This is a refreshing change from most prestige TV dramas, which have visual palettes seemingly inspired by Whistler’s Mother. Fortunately, Costanzo and this season’s primary director Daniele Luchetti don’t believe the only way to depict a challenging life is to make it washed-out. While not stylistically flashy, My Brilliant Friend has a striking, inviting look—a mix of rosy nostalgia and unblinking realism.
But again, as with the novels, the main attraction in season three is the central relationship between Elena and Lila. Sometimes these two are united against the world; sometimes they think their closest lifelong friend is ridiculous. They know each other’s weaknesses, and they resent each other’s good fortune; yet they also lean on each other, and they have a rapport they’ve never really shared with any man. The main reason to love My Brilliant Friend is that it contains one of the most honest, unsentimental depictions of friendship—female or otherwise—in either literature or television.