Margherita Mazzucco, Gaia Girace
Photo: Eduardo Castaldo (HBO)

In the course of telling any story through small, sequential segments, there will come a time when one has to simply get things done—move this piece over there, change this person for that one, make this leap and pass this milestone. That’s especially true in television adaptations. Try as one might to break down a novel into equally compelling, hour-long chunks, it’s damn near impossible to find hour after hour of arcs-within-arcs. At a certain point, you’ve got to get workmanlike—especially in a story where your characters aren’t particularly eager to do what’s expected of them. This is such a story, and in this particular chapter, as the girls observe, everyone’s losing their mind.

That’s not to say that “Le Scarpe (The Shoes)” is joyless, or lacks a story to tell. It’s not, and it has story. But while there have been abrupt moments, this is the first episode in this young series that feels like a means to an end. “Le Scarpe” has things to accomplish, so that the next part of the story can get started in earnest. To sell the shoes, you have to make them; to take the trip, you’ve got to get to the boat.

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The series continues to focus on Lenú and Lila’s possible paths out of their little corner of Naples (one that Lila leaves, seemingly for the first time in the course of this hour). For Lenú, the ticket out is educational, even as her insecurities continue to weigh her down. For Lila, the goal has always been financial independence, while day-to-day defiance provides more immediate freedom, if only internally. The money they got from Don Achille for their dolls was hidden away, later used as an investment of sorts, because Lila had a plan: read a novel, write a novel escape. Years later, she’s given up on books for that, but there’s still a plan: design the shoe, make the shoe, sell the shoe, escape.

Her family doesn’t see it that way. One of My Brilliant Friend’s most persistent aches radiates from the reality of Lenú and Lila’s respective home lives, and how their families directly affect their futures. It’s not as though Lenú’s situation is nothing but sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows, but this episode restates with great efficiency what we’ve seen again and again. When offered the chance to escape from her neighborhood for a spell by her doting former teacher, her mother says no, calls her an elitist, and then says yes. Not great, but ultimately supportive (and loving, as their farewell shows). She’s on her way out.

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That’s not the case with Lila. The episode begins with what seems a moment of love and tenderness, until it’s revealed to be a literal stocking full of coal; it’s followed by what seems a moment of acceptance and support, until Rino and Lila’s father loses his shit because he’s the shoemaker in this family, dammit. Neither of the central figures in this story has a storybook life at home, but when a door opens for Lenú, her parents help her through it, sometimes begrudgingly. At the very least, they don’t stand in her way. But Lila? Lila asks for an education and gets tossed out a window.

And so once again, the two friends get shoved down different paths, despite their similar abilities (though the one left behind outpaces the other). Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace do a fine job illustrating this, as usual, but this time, the central relationship in this story does little to define the episode’s shape. Lenú takes Lila’s ideas and makes them her own, then breaks up with her terrible, convenient boyfriend, before spending the rest of the hour in Lila’s story. And then it’s off on an adventure, one which requires her to leave her friend behind.

Lila, however, has a hell of a lot to deal with, and despite the fact that Saverio Constanzo’s direction remains as elegant as ever (the stroll through the fancy shopping center in town is particularly striking) and Girace’s performance just as ferocious, things simply don’t cohere and resonate as they have in previous episodes. While all the actors do fine work, the series hasn’t quite managed to sell the idea (mentioned in the previous episode) that Lila exudes some sort of irresistible force on those around her, and so her fear that she drives people to do wrong isn’t as affecting or striking as it might be. Of the men in her life who take dramatic action (without her consent, without considering her at all) in this hour, Pasquale’s declaration of love is by far the most sensible and least harmful; everyone else acts irrationally, and often violently, with the beautifully, counterintuitively scored fight outside the shopping center as the most obvious example of the eruptions of misdirected rage that seem to follow Lila throughout her life.

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Yet few of these moments play as turning points in Lila’s story, because, with the exception of the final moments of the episode, it’s not actually about her. Instead, the episode sets her up to make that last decision, which will in turn feed the hour that follows (and, it’s safe to assume, many hours after that). She defies her father, refusing to marry a man she despises—a violent man in a violent life—for the benefit of her family, and she is not fooled, even momentarily, by the illusion of choice that her father presents. The shoes are the ticket out, but her father is only interested in them when they, like his daughter, catch the eye of a Solara.

Lenú escapes, however briefly, leaving her friend behind; Lila rebels, the only freedom currently available to her. The story hasn’t shifted. The pieces have moved, that’s all.

Stray observations

  • Not totally related to the episode, but I’ve gotta say, the production stills for this show are next-level. Just gorgeous. Look at that photo up there.
  • Given how rarely people seem to be in mortal peril, it’s actually shocking how upsetting the violence on this show can be.
  • Gaia Girace doing the Miss Kiss-My-Ass walk is a thing of beauty and joy forever.

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