Trigger alert: To those for whom the exquisite pain of first unrequited love still scalds, Episode 4 of this season of “My Brilliant Friend,” titled “The Kiss,” could freshen those wounds. It’s an effective juxtaposition to experience Lenu’s (Margherita Mazzucco) internal torment — over learning that the broodingly handsome and cocksure Nino Sarratore (Francesco Serpico) prefers her best friend Lila (Gaia Girace) to her — against the beautiful backdrop of Ischia, a volcanic island at the edge of the gulf of Naples. The emotions are volcanic, too, with Lenu devastated at the episode’s end by this awful revelation.
“The Kiss” is the first episode of the season to be directed by Alice Rohrwacher, whose sister, the actress Alba Rohrwacher, provides the narration for the series (and will presumably play the next phase of grown-up Lenu next season). The director of last year’s surreal Netflix movie “Happy as Lazzaro,” Rohrwacher threads her vision perfectly into the DNA of prior episodes. The primal scene that sets off the chain of events that find Lenu as an extra wheel is a masterpiece of direction. Spread out on the beach, Lila describes the allegory of Samuel Beckett’s play “All Will Fall” to Nino as Lenu watches, slowly dialing into the realization of what’s going on here, and that curdles to disgust. Lenu lended Lila that book! This should be her! Lila doesn’t even like reading!
You can practically see Lila pulling Nino into her, succubus that she is, and for a minute it’s as if both of them forget she’s even there. This takes on a way more literal dimension later in the episode, when the three wade out into the ocean for a swim, only for Nino and Lila to leave Lenu behind and struggling to keep up.
That’s when, as we learn in the closing scene, the kiss of the episode’s title actually happened. Lila, in the middle of the night, spooks Lenu awake to tell her that the Sarratore boy kissed her, and Lila uses this encounter as a warning to Lenu to stay away from him, he’s bad news. Lenu, of course, lies to Lila and says she doesn’t even like him. “A kiss from him would be like putting a dead mouse on my mouth,” Lenu says. Nice try!
Though as much as, according to adult Lenu’s narration, she desires Nino, it’s more like it’s happening to her than something she’s driving or can understand. What’s so great about him? I mean, yeah, he’s hot, but he talks a lot of bloviating talk, and it’s hard to make the argument that Lenu really understands what he’s talking about. Socialism? Globalization? The labor force? All a haze.
Also having a breakdown this week is Pinuccia (Federica Sollazzo), Lila’s sister-in-law, who joins Lila and Lenu for their trip to Ischia so that she may convalesce ahead of giving birth in a few months to the child of Rino, whom she just had to shotgun-marry after getting knocked up. She seems suddenly stricken by a case of the pregnant crazies, and wants to abscond Ischia immediately and return to Naples to be with her new husband. And that’s not like her.
Though Rino (Gennaro De Stefano), along with Stefano (Giovanni Amura), pops in occasionally on weekend jaunts that are really just excuses for sex. Exhausted by her apparent hysteria, Rino pulls a Kevin Spacey in “American Beauty” in the penultimate scene and throws a dinner plate across the wall, shattering everywhere. Rino has an anger issue, and this seems like good foreshadowing that he’s destined to regress into his criminal ways.
This is no carefree getaway, though the episode features a lovely interlude of Lenu, Lila, Pinuccia, Nino, and his friend Bruno (Bruno Soccavo) all enjoying each other’s company on the beach, outstretched on a seemingly endless summer through which, as Lenu describes it, is held together by a “thread of happiness.” That’s all shredded to pieces when Lila claims her latest victim. Gaia Girace again turns in a brilliantly subtle, beguiling performance this week that keeps Lila’s true intentions behind glass, and specifically whether or not Lila like actually likes Nino, or how much of her conquest is an extension of her rivalry with Lenu.
Stripped of her agency in the last three episodes, it felt like Lila’s turn to take something. But unfortunately, that was the object of her best friend’s obsession. It’s only the beginning of summer, which means there’s plenty of drama ahead for TV’s ultimate frenemies.
“My Brilliant Friend” airs on HBO at 10 p.m. ET on Mondays.