“It feels really stupid to have to love someone unconditionally sometimes. Like, maybe there needs to be conditions,” ponders Frances, the 21-year-old protagonist of Conversations with Friends, in episode 4 of Hulu’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s debut novel. It’s a notion she’ll spend the entire 12-episode series grappling with in some way or another—as will a very vexed audience.
Premiering on May 15, Conversations with Friends follows Frances (Alison Oliver), an intelligent yet immature college student living in Dublin, as she navigates a nexus of complex relationships. One being ex-girlfriend—now best friend and roommate—Bobbi (Sasha Lane), and another with new friends, Nick (Joe Alwyn) and Melissa (Jemima Kirke)—a married couple whose union has somehow endured despite Melissa’s affairs and Nick’s looming depression. “It’s Never Just Friends” ominously warns the series tagline, and within the first episode, it’s made explicitly clear that this foursome is anything but just friends.
If there’s one thing Rooney is particularly adept at, it’s portraying deeply fucked up white people who can’t seem to get a grip on their feelings. And because I am of that species, I liked Conversations With Friends—despite some substantial departures from the book and an absence of any real analysis on the affects that class, race and power have on these relationships, as a result.
While Frances—who is bisexual—and Bobbi—who is gay—have known each other for years (first as friends, then as lovers), the series starts with the pair meeting Melissa, an older accomplished writer at their (exceptionally cringe) spoken-word poetry performance. Intrigued by the pair, Frances for her prowess with the pen and Bobbi for her self-possession, Melissa quickly introduces them to her B-list actor husband — and things get markedly messy. Bobbi harbors an ultimately inconsequential crush on Melissa, while Frances begins a torrid affair with Nick.
For starters, Bobbi’s character is made a Black American as opposed to a white Irish woman—an alteration that actually didn’t feel like another cheap attempt at diversity and inclusion™ and worked well. Unfortunately (and unfairly) for Bobbi—who, of the foursome, is arguably the most adept at managing both her own feelings and those of everyone around her—she ends up doing the heft of the emotional labor. Even in the relationships that don’t involve her. Given she’s the narrator, Frances’ perceptions of Bobbi—whether accurate or not—take precedence while the audience is mostly left to infer what kind of person and friend Bobbi truly is. Spoiler alert: a better one than Frances likely deserves at times—especially in the back half of the series.
Another glaring difference is the omission of any substantial class commentary. Had I not read Rooney’s book, and relied solely on the series, I’d have little idea that Frances maintains a certain disdain for wealthy people given her own fractured family’s financial duress. The audience is made privy to the ways in which Frances’ father’s alcoholism impacts both of their lives and that she’s not exactly living a life of economic comfort by comparison to that of Melissa and Nick. Yet, a significant part of what makes Frances a sympathetic character—at least, for me—is her resentment of anyone rich—including Nick, at times. Consider the following exchange between the pair from the novel:
It was easy to write to Nick, but also competitive and thrilling, like a game of table tennis. We were always being flippant with each other. When he found out my parents lived in Mayo, he wrote: we used to have a holiday home in Achill (like every other wealthy South Dublin family I’m sure). I replied: I’m glad my ancestral homeland could help nourish your class identity. P.S. It should be illegal to have a holiday home anywhere.
And this one, with Frances’ co-worker:
This is how privilege gets perpetuated, Philip told me in the office one day. Rich assholes like us taking unpaid internships and getting jobs off the back of them. Speak for yourself, I said. I’m never going to get a job.
Sure, Bobbi outs Frances as a “communist” during an early exchange in the series with Melissa and Nick, but the admission rings hollow when there’s exactly zero evidence to support it. By the time Frances is diagnosed with endometriosis midway through the season—several visits to the doctor and a hospital stay later—I was left wondering when her class consciousness would get even a mention. I realize Ireland has socialized medicine, but I have a hard time believing Frances wouldn’t be frustrated that she’ll forever be saddled with a potentially costly disease when she already struggles with money.
Changes aside, the story arc remains largely the same, as do the characters and thankfully, they feel believable—especially Oliver as Frances who deftly manages to be both a victim-by-trade and someone audiences want to root for. Even when Bobbi is justifiably critical of Frances for her maddeningly solipsistic worldview and naive understanding of Nick’s relationship with Melissa, I found myself willing Bobbi to cut her some slack. Oliver, a relative newcomer with the same promise as Normal People’s Daisy Edgar-Jones, expertly embodies Frances’ youthful vacillation between dismal self-esteem and complete narcissism.
As for Alwyn, aka Mr. Taylor Swift, I think it could be argued that he’s officially aboard the on-ramp to become an A24 boy toy—despite what Shawn Mendes says. Remember when even Paul Mescal’s chain in Normal People became the subject of such unbridled lust that it earned its own Instagram account? Alwyn’s overcoat will inevitably join the ranks. Nick could’ve been a one-note himbo—brooding, yet altogether boring. Instead, the internal battles he’s fighting are telegraphed in every wanton movement and each glance that lingers too long. Like Frances, he too is someone worthy of rooting for somehow despite his shortcomings, like the fact that he refuses to leave his wife despite fucking a 21-year-old behind her back for months on end. You know a leading man is gifted when one finds themselves prioritizing Nick’s happiness over his wife’s upon her discovery of his affair with Frances. Even Melissa wants to hang around in their headscratcher of a marriage—somehow making Frances’ early musings about the need for conditions in relationships all the more pertinent.
Inevitably, audiences will have questions—chief among them: how the hell is this arrangement actually sustainable for any of these people? Frankly, that’s kind of the point. Rooney refused to offer any conclusive answers in the book, and the series honors that. Are conventional, monogamous relationships enough for people? And are unconventional relationships truly a viable alternative?
Well, one will just have to file those under the conversations to have with their friends—and hopefully, partners.