There’s no shortage of gross men on TV, from beloved doofuses like Joey Tribbiani to sweaty womanizers like Don Draper, but I didn’t expect HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels to create the most legendary TV sleazeball of all time.
Ferrante’s series has become a huge success internationally—the kinds of books your mother, your partner, and all your friends have read. It’s been hailed as a revolutionary portrayal of female friendship, which it is, but it’s also a devastating depiction of the most awful crush you had in high school. The TV series doesn’t seem to have found as broad an audience, but the fans it has are passionate, and we are now collectively experiencing the pain of watching the misdeeds of its most loathsome character.
Nino Sarratore makes his first appearance early in both the book and TV series as a love interest for the shy, bookish Elena “Lenù” Greco. When the two are only children, he recognizes her intelligence and tells her he wants to marry her one day. It seems logical for them to be together—in elementary school, they’re both top of their class, and as they grow up, they’re among the only local kids who go on to high school and college. Nino’s also a few years older, his father is a writer, and he’s looped into the communist political scene, so he’s not only a crush, but an intellectual role model.
Most of My Brilliant Friend takes place when the characters are in their teens and early 20s, and Nino is played by Francesco Serpico, a 24-year-old actor most succinctly described as the Italian Timothée Chalamet. He’s got the same long, lanky frame, mop of curls, and moody, artsy vibe. He’s consumption chic, a member along with Ben Whishaw and Adrien Brody of what a friend has called “the concave chest club.”
The embodiment of the indie heartthrob, Nino doesn’t need to do much to be worthy—and, in fact, he doesn’t. He’s actually pretty boring and rude. Lenù and Nino end up living in the same vacation house, as teenagers, on Ischia, an island off Naples. This is essentially their first time encountering each other since Nino’s family left town during elementary school. When Nino first arrives on the island, he greets Lenù soberly, refuses to chat or eat, and goes immediately to bed. Over the ensuing days, when he does talk to her, he’s condescending and brusque. But he strings her along with a passing kiss or sweet sentiment, and she goes along with it.
All of this pretty much tracks with my experience. It’s normal to fall for a jerk as a teen. I too liked guys who preached about what they read, and was reeled in by their disinterest in me. But by Season 2 of My Brilliant Friend, things start to get nightmarish, and Nino goes from a dreamy crush with asshole tendencies to an exceptional, crushing asshole.
In Season 2, Lenù, now a senior in high school, and Nino, a college student, are back on Ischia along with Lenù’s friend Lila. Lenù may still be crushing on Nino, but it’s her friendship with Lila that’s really the central relationship of the series. Lila and Lenù were the smartest girls in school, and when Lila gets married and starts working rather than continuing on to high school, she keeps pushing Lenù academically, making clear that Lenù is succeeding for both of them.
On Ischia, it’s clear that Lenù still pines for Nino as intensely as ever. The camera lingers on his scrawny, bathing-suited body like it’s Baywatch, and Lenù’s wide eyes take him in, pleading for attention. Whenever he leaves her company, we get the haunting minor refrain of Max Richter’s soundtrack. Lila, Lenù, and Nino spend long, lazy days on the beach, and though there’s initially some tension about whom he favors, that melts away. He has admitted to Lenù in the past that he had childhood crushes on both her and Lila, and had dreams of them all being married. This throuple fantasy sort of comes to pass, not as a sexual relationship, but as the three of them having glorious, sun-dappled fun.
Lenù seems blissfully happy. She looks up to both Nino and Lila as friends and thinkers. They play beach games and tussle in the sand. They trace each other’s faces with their fingers. Then—a moment right after the camera has lingered extralong on Nino’s bronzed, sweaty torso, and Lenù’s voice-over tells us that these are the two most important people in her life—Lila and Nino swim away from Lenù and kiss in the waves. The next day, she catches them making out at an ice cream parlor, and things truly fall apart. She panics, her breathing taking over the audio, and the shot turning sideways.
At this point, Lila and Nino have officially broken off and become a couple. Nino for the first time demonstrates a dopey, open affection, his cranky loner tendencies melting away because he’s fallen in love—with another woman. Lenù has a front-row seat to this transformation and looks on stony-faced. She’s not only romantically disappointed, but all her insecurities in relation to her friend—that she’s not smart enough, or pretty enough, or daring enough—seem to come to pass.
This is the part of the series where I stopped apologizing for Nino, no matter how sweet he once was or how concave his chest. I don’t have a Lila in my life—a friend in whom all my doubts and aspirations are wrapped up—but if I did, and she got together with my crush despite me obviously mooning after him for years, this would be a deathly blow. If these two then ran off together and had a baby, and he subsequently left her because her intelligence and good looks started to emasculate him, I would be done with him for good.
But, somehow Lenù is not done with Nino, and Nino is not done torturing Lenù. In the Season 3 premiere, it becomes clear that Nino is a full cad. Lila is now a single mother, having left her marriage after having Nino’s child, and she’s struggling to make ends meet, working in a sausage factory. Somehow this doesn’t matter to Lenù, though he rejected her and left her best friend to wrestle mortadella. When his shaggy head pops back up, she’s thrilled to see him.
Nino and Lenù are now running in the same academic circles in Milan, Lenù having published her first book, and Nino teaching as an adjunct at a university. At one point, Lenù encounters a young communist at a demonstration, overwhelmed trying to care for her baby. Lenù helps the girl, and the girl tells Lenù about how the father abandoned them. The girl is in tears, curled up in Lenù’s lap, explaining how he told her to keep the baby, before leaving her to give birth alone. Of course, it turns out the father is Nino. The adult Nino has become an almost cartoonish bad boy, a philanderer like his father, who leaves a trail of devastated women in his wake. We don’t yet know at this point in the series how Lenù will respond to this news, but I get the sense that nothing will deter her.
This was pretty hard to wrap my head around. Of course I continue to love Lenù, but how could she possibly be so blind to how gross this guy is? There seem to be layers of dysfunction: Nino is drawn to women when they display power—intelligence, a good marriage, literary success—at least at first. Lenù has now overcome her circumstances, gotten a good education, written a book, and will marry into a good family, but she still feels like a fraud. She concentrates on the negative reviews she gets, and she says she still doesn’t feel like a writer. Through the tangled web of their relationships growing up, she’s come to tie her self-worth to Nino’s approval. It seems like viewers will just have to let that relationship play out, but I don’t have to pretend to like it. I can at least take comfort in my community, the fellow Nino haters. We, the real-world bookish types, can pen our angry tweets and blog posts, and let all the philandering skinny boys know that we think they stink.