My Brilliant Friend offers Elena an escape — then yanks it away

The show leaves Naples for what feels like a reprieve. It’s not.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for December 1 through 8 is “L’isola (The Island),” the sixth episode of the first season of HBO’s My Brilliant Friend.

My Brilliant Friend, the HBO series based on the novel of the same title by Elena Ferrante, is a triumph of worldbuilding. As Elena and Lila run around their cramped, grimy Neopolitan neighborhood, all harsh angles and grayed-out tones, you feel that you are learning every inch of the neighborhood along with them. You rule the place, just like Elena and Lila sometimes feel they do — and you are trapped there, with the violence and the poverty, just as they really are.

When the Marcello brothers cruise the neighborhood like sharks, looking for girls they can pull into their car, the danger feels present and intimate, because you’re right there in the neighborhood with the girls, with no way out. “I thought of the neighborhood as a vortex, and any attempt to climb out would be delusional,” says Elena in “L’isola,” and she’s not wrong.

So when Elena leaves the neighborhood to spend her summer on the island of Ischia, it feels as though she has entered another world. The light turns golden and dreamy, and the frame is saturated with warm, soothing shades of turquoise and ochre. The acne disappears from Elena’s skin, and she gets a tan from sunning on the beach. She even successfully flirts with a boy. She blossoms. It feels clear that Elena has left behind the unrelenting misery and terror of her neighborhood entirely, that she has escaped to some kinder, gentler world.

Which is why it’s so shocking and disturbing when it becomes clear at the end of the episode that she hasn’t left her old world behind at all; that in fact she is just as vulnerable to the predation of violent men in Ischia as she was in the neighborhood. It’s just that in Ischia, it catches her off guard.

 HBO

“L’isola” feels like a reprieve for Elena. That’s what makes the end so heartbreaking.

Elena is in Ischia ostensibly to work, but her job isn’t that demanding. She’s helping out at a guesthouse, making breakfast for everyone in the morning and doing the dishes after meals, and she makes it clear that even the parts of her job that might seem onerous to us are old hat for her: When her kindly boss Nella informs Elena that every morning, she’ll have to take her bed apart and store it, and then reconstruct it at night, Elena just smiles and responds that she does the same at home.

And at least in Ischia, unlike at home, Elena isn’t hounded and undermined by her mother or threatened by the Marcello brothers. She’s free to lounge on the beach and read books, to be a teenage girl for once.

The first hint that Elena hasn’t fully escaped her neighborhood comes when the Sarratores arrive at her guesthouse to stay for the summer. They’re a neighborhood family Elena remembers well, and they were intimately linked to one of the most violent episodes of her childhood — the fight between Melina and Signora Sarratore that we saw back in episode one, which ended with Signora Sarratore pushing Melina down the stairs, and Elena fainting in shock at the sight.

But in Ischia, the Sarratores seem as idyllic as the island itself, a happy family that goes swimming together and drinks on the terrace and showers Elena with praise and affection. If there’s a hint of dysfunction there — teenage Nino hates his father Donato, who he says sleeps around — it seems comparatively peaceful. Certainly it does not feel like a threat to Elena, who soaks up the attentions of the Sarratores with incredulous delight.

Elena’s plotline seems far divorced from what Lila is dealing with back at home, and when we cut to Lila’s gray-tinted plotline in the neighborhood, it feels like a physical shock. Lila has found herself engaged against her will to Marcello Salvatore, and as hard as she fights to break herself free of him, her father keeps pushing for the engagement. Lila’s life is getting ruined by the men all around her, but Elena, it seems, has made her way out. She has climbed out of the vortex.

Then comes the end of the episode, in which Donato sneaks over to Elena’s bed in the middle of the night and gropes her while she stares vacantly over his shoulder, traumatized and alone.

It’s a cruel, disturbing scene, and it’s all the more disturbing for being an echo of an earlier sequence that saw Elena feigning sleep while Nino, on whom she has a crush, respectfully covers her with a blanket and turns out her bedside lamp. In that moment with Nino, it felt as though Elena was at last living in a world in which her silly teenage crush could become the most important thing in her life — but Donato’s attack makes it painfully clear that no matter where she goes, she’ll always have to reckon with predatory men.

Elena on My Brilliant FriendHBO

In many ways, that’s the thesis statement of both My Brilliant Friend and of Elena Ferrante’s books: You can go wherever you want to, but men will always find a way to be terrible. There is no escape.

As the season draws to a close — there are now just two episodes left — we are seeing both Elena and Lila try to make the best of their situations via what seems to be the only possible solution in a world dominated by violent men: finding a man who is dumber than they are and manipulating him into scaring off the most dangerous aggressors. But that solution is only temporary: It means that both girls remain at the mercy of the men they have enlisted to help them, and if those men turn on them, they are in trouble.

And if there’s one thing you can be sure of in Ferrante’s world, it’s that those who have power will always, always turn on those who have none.