“My Brilliant Friend” episode 4

There’s a Shakespearean feel to several scenes in this episode. A Sharks and Jets thing happens in the town as factions assemble, and sex, history, and politics enter the lives of the girls. People stop in the street to confer about power. People have to talk to each other in person because there is no other way to communicate, and it’s sexy, with bodies proximate in time and space. Lila is in her father’s shop, scheming to get rich with her brother through their secret shoe business. Money is flowing into the town and always has, and now the girls learn how the rich got powerful as black marketeers during the war and remain in league with mafia types. In the rise of the pushed-around poor against the cut-throat rich, the sexes join, with Lila at the hub. All the boys want her and they want her ideas. They will pay attention to her now that they can’t take their eyes off her. It’s the first time in the series we get to see more of the males and their complexity, even Lenu’s father comes alive as he tours his daughter through Naples, meeting people in the streets and seeming happy and chatty as he shows her off. She’s never seen him this way, and she finally beholds the sea she did not get to that time the girls ventured out and retreated before they could arrive. Lenu has started high school, and at first as usual she’s shy and unsteady without Lila. She makes a vow to herself to study hard. She needs to outdo Lila—who has already finished reading the Aeneid in Greek—at something. And Lenu earns an A for her translation but not before the teacher questions whether she has plagiarized the work. “No,” she tells him, sharply, clear about what she can master. Naples is teeming. It’s a real city, and it’s wonderful to see Lenu wandering around, learning to be alone and unprotected in public space, the crucial arena for a life of freedom. She has this on Lila. Their rivalry is beautiful, not something to see as a corruption of their love. It is partly the nature of their love, of all love. We fall in love with the people we want to be, at least in some ways, and as we rub against them, the edges of our separate selves blend a little. That’s the title of this episode, and it represents many things about aliiances of power in the town as well. Lila explains to Lenu, “We don’t know anything about power.” She is saying they have to study the world as much as books, and several of the boys in their circle have the knowledge they need. Lila will go anywhere to get a leg up on fear. She says that knowledge will help them control the fear they live in. That may or may not be true in her case. It may only be something she says and wants to believe. Lenu may be a better student of Lila’s words than Lila can be of them. She has attracted one of the rich, thug boys, the one she threatened to stab as she held a knife to his throat. He’s coming for her, and he has the added challenge for Lila of being beautiful, and we all know where beauty leads. Maybe beauty is more implacable than who owns the means of production in the town. In any case, every ingredient that makes a Skakespeare tragedy and comedy and history play is in this brilliant episode that flies at us like the fire works war in the final scene, joyous and terrifying. Everyone is awake.

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