'My Brilliant Friend' Season 2: TV Review

Builds masterfully on the weaker debut season.

HBO brings back the Italian TV adaptation of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels about a fraught female friendship through the years.

The premise of My Brilliant Friend — both Elena Ferrante's celebrated Neapolitan Novels and the Italian TV adaptation thereof — is largely sociological. Two girls in midcentury Naples, gifted with intellect and ambition, diverge dramatically in their paths when one, Elena (Margherita Mazzucco), is permitted to continue her formal education, and the other, Lila (Gaia Girace), is forced to end hers after elementary school.

At the conclusion of the first season, which aired on HBO at the end of 2018, reserved Elena felt herself, as always, falling behind the self-willed Lila, who rescued her family out of poverty and thrust herself into womanhood in one fell swoop by marrying Stefano Caracci (Kristijan Di Giacomo), one of the wealthiest young men in town, at the age of 17. But newlywed bliss wouldn't last long for Lila; it didn't even withstand the length of the wedding.

At least from the perspective of 21st-century America, My Brilliant Friend's debut season also felt like something of an ethnography. Its central tale of two girl friends, whose relationship was marked by obstinate loyalty to and ineradicable competition with one another, was often obscured by the TV drama's focus on male violence — against wives, children, but most of all each other. The vicious feuds between the neighborhood's rival mobsters, as well as the lingering post-war hostility between the Communists and the fascists, were important world-building, but also overshadowed Elena and Lila's comparatively uneventful girlhoods while being seldom compelling enough as their own storylines.

But with season two, subtitled The Story of a New Name, the series transitions fully from anthropology to fiction. Spanning about five years, from the night of Lila's wedding to Elena's college graduation and first taste of professional success, the eight-part season finds the two young women navigating their way through their dusty, impoverished neighborhood, both striving for a kind of life neither their parents would dream of. That means, in part, fighting for a place for young women amid those gangsters and would-be revolutionaries, whose squabbles (and beatings) once seemed so far away.

My Brilliant Friend's marvelous, harrowing sophomore season begins with a fairy-tale air. On their honeymoon in the picturesque Amalfi Coast, Lila discovers that she has married a terrifying Bluebeard, with no bottom to his depravity. On night one, he slaps her face for the first time, snarling the same thing that Lila's dad did when he threw her out of a second-story window as a child — some version of "look what you made me do." From there, Lila's night only grows longer.

For the first three episodes, Lila is trapped, Rapunzel-like, in her fashionable, well-appointed new apartment. Her only visitor is Elena, who helps Lila study, so she has something to do. If the season's initial question seems to be how much will Lila domesticate herself to avoid setting off Stefano's hair-trigger temper (and primed punches), The Story of a New Name quickly disabuses us of the idea that Lila will change, especially for someone she has so little respect for. After a childhood filled with drubbings, Lila tells herself that they only make her stronger. But her defiance of Stefano's rage — and his ready fists — make for several unbearably tense scenes throughout the season.

Hollywood as a whole has hesitated to make complicated stories about domestic violence — a phenomenon that comes with significant benefits, as well as some drawbacks. The Manicheistic demonization of batterers helps reinforce the absolute unacceptability of physical abuse, but the overall lack of messily human stories about partner violence can also render the decision to endure that violence — which many, many survivors do — more difficult to understand. Lila's experience makes for an exceptional tale, rather than a typical one, particularly because it takes place in a social context in which a violence-free household is presented as the exception, rather than the norm. But there's something still urgent about the way The Story of a New Name embraces the humanity of its characters by empathizing with Stefano's feelings of helplessness around his scathing wife, as well as by declining to portray Lila as a "perfect," unimpeachable victim.

As the season wears on, Lila grows less and less concerned with Stefano's most basic needs, her relationships with her family and her in-laws, her diminishing reputation in the neighborhood, even her alliances with the mafiosi on whom her fortunes depend. The fearlessness that defines her also pushes away Elena, who finds her friend's recklessness alternately repulsive and wildly self-destructive. Already surrounded by cautionary tales, Elena grows to see her friend become one, too, one whose world can't expand without her forced into a smaller and smaller place within it.

In contrast, Elena's life is relatively calm. By necessity, the first season of My Brilliant Friend was dim and gray, confined to the world of two girls with limited opportunities. In this second installment of episodes, Lila's newfound wealth and Elena's social and educational advancements — along with the Swinging Sixties — frequently treat us to a more glamorous side of Italy, with bewitching costumes and production design to boot.

The direction, too — by series creator Saverio Costanzo and Happy as Lazzaro helmer Alice Rohrwacher, who also provides the series voiceover by an older, reminiscing Elena — is more self-assured, with an occasional touch of whimsy. The accretion of composer Max Richter's haunting musical motifs over the course of a decade and a half of Lila and Elena's lives now, with spartan arrangements and longing arpeggios, suggest a pair of hands ever-reaching upward, hoping something is there to pull them above water.

For the moment, Elena is encircled by terrible boys and men, too, none as immediately dangerous as Stefano, but who make the same threats to kill and maim. Elena's lack of decent choices in a romantic partner underscore her need to escape her hometown, but watching her grow obsessed with undeserving clods, one right after the other, feels oppressive in its own way. Relief comes much later, as it often does for intelligent girls, in college. There, Elena, as one of the few in her neighborhood to escape its cycle of poverty, soon finds herself in a community of one, belonging, for better or worse, to nobody.

Cast: Margherita Mazzucco, Gaia Girace, Giovanni Amura, Gennaro De Stefano, Francesco Serpico, Alessio Gallo, Valentina Acca, Antonio Buonanno
Creator: Saverio Costanzo
Premieres: Monday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)