Margherita Mazzucco
Photo: Eduardo Castaldo (HBO)
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There’s a moment in “I Fidanzati (The Fiancés)” when Miss Oliviero (Dora Romano) tells Lenú (Margherita Mazzucco) that, once again, she looks pale. She does, but pale seems to be a catchall here: She looks pale, thin, miserable, frightened, unhealthy, uncertain, and alone. Having just glimpsed Donato Sarratore (Emanuele Valenti) peeking into the neighborhood from around the corner, she’s flustered and upset, and the supportive Miss Oliviero makes a suggestion similar to the one she made the previous summer: Lenú needs some sun. There’s a job, Oliviero says, with a woman who needs someone to take her kids to the beach.

Lenú hesitates, puts it off, says she’ll do it later. Miss Oliviero pushes her, asking why on earth she should possibly wait? It’s the beach. Lenú does go, but it’s without any enthusiasm; once there, she’s tanned and smiling, but her enjoyment is not as pure as it once was. What happened in Ischia may not haunt Lenú, caught up as she is in the chaos in Lila’s life, but it’s still somehow corrupted even the purest of life’s pleasures. Donato Sarratore soured the very sunshine, just as so many of the men in Lenú and Lila’s world tend to do.

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There’s much to admire about “I Fidanzati (The Fiancés);” frankly, at this stage, it’s hard to imagine an episode of My Brilliant Friend that doesn’t at least moderately dazzle. For the second time in as many weeks, Saverio Constanzo and company have delivered an hour that’s both powerful and disjointed, enthralling yet oddly unsatisfying, yet the nature of the positives, and the promise of more to come, make the less impressive elements of an episode feel relatively insignificant. Sure, “I Fidanzati” ends so abruptly that it’s almost as if the car just ran out of road (or the projector out of film, if you prefer), but what does that matter, when everything else is so remarkable?

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Yet matter it does. The process of adaptation often involves balancing the needs of the story as it exists on paper with the needs of this new, related-but-independent thing you’re creating. Choosing to be faithful to what exists on the page sometimes means that the new vehicle will suffer; choosing to make the best kind of TV possible without considering the impact on the story as it exists in the source material can lead to confusion, frustration, and, worst of all, a shift in tone or emotional honesty that corrupts precisely that which makes the original story special. There are certainly adaptations out there that play fast and loose with the text and arrive instead at something very different narratively that’s perfect emotionally (see this year’s Annihilation for one such example). But many of the best adaptations wind up somewhere in the middle, cutting this or changing that, combining two characters or adding or expanding on another (see: Hulu’s adaptation of Stephen King’s 11.22.63).

For the most part, My Brilliant Friend does what the best adaptations do, simplifying in some instances and layering in more meaning in others. That’s still true here. But Costanzo’s apparent willingness to at least occasionally sacrifice the arc of an episode in service of a more faithful adaptation is not an insignificant detriment, given that he’s making a television show. A good ending to an hour-long episode should either set us up for what’s to come, put a ribbon on what we’ve just seen, or comment on a particularly significant moment or development. “I Fidanzati (The Fiancés)” just stops.

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And that really is mostly okay, because much of what leads up to that abrupt conclusion packs a hell of a punch. Costanzo’s knack for using the camera to show us how different the neighborhood can look, depending on Lenú or Lika’s perspective, comes in handy here. When Lenú arrives back in the square and comes down to meet Lila, the camera shows us what she sees. She looks for Lila and does not see her. She sees little that has changed, but while before, the buildings seemed to loom overhead, now it all looks a little small and very gray. Then she sees her friend, who looks different, and she sees the red car, and she senses a change in energy, and she can tell Lila’s making something happen, and then suddenly she’s a part of whatever’s going on, riding shotgun and being asked for her opinion—a cover story, a defender, a deciding vote. Her friend is using what she knows about the neighborhood, the people who live in it, her parents, and human nature in general to forge an exit our of a bad situation, and Lenú is yet another piece to be moved.

“I Fidanzati (The Fiancés)” is full of such schemes, though many are on a much smaller scale (save the last one). Lenú’s mother uses her daughter’s insecurity about her looks to attempt to turn her against education. Lila’s mother, terrified, uses her domestic duties to avoid the wrath of Marcello Solara. Some of the girls of the neighborhood pounce on the rumors the Solaras are spreading about Lila to get in good with them and to feel superior. Mrs. Carracci, sensing she might have another future daughter-in-law on her hands, uses Lila to make clear her idea of a good daughter in law. The list goes on.

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But the most obvious is the last. Watching Margherita Mazzucco adopt the petulant stance and defiant gaze of Gaia Girace’s Lila is thrilling and a little upsetting, knowing that she’s learned lessons that might help her survive but likely won’t help her be happy. When Sarratore won’t back off after she hits him with Lila’s snarl, she does another scan around the neighborhood, makes some quick calculations, and uses that knowledge to her advantage. Soon they’re in the tunnel, and a convenient relationship becomes even more so.

As with episode five, “I Fidanzati” feels like it’s mostly set-up for what’s to come. That’s fine, it happens. What makes it valuable isn’t just that it’s getting us where we’re going. It’s that it illustrates how often women are forced to use even that which hurts them to get to where they’re going. It’s a faithful adaptation, and a messy part of life.

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