[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “My Brilliant Friend,” Season 2, Episode 5, “The Betrayal.”]
Nearly every moment of “The Betrayal,” from the unstable Dutch angles of the cinematography to Max Richter’s chilling score, is building up to the episode’s final third like a horror movie. “My Brilliant Friend” has been operating on this track all season, with morbid flourishes in the visuals and sound design mounting toward an awful inevitability. Directed by Alice Rohrwacher, this episode is the season’s darkest and strongest hour yet.
This week, that came on the shoulders of a cast-aside Lenu (Margherita Mazzucco), now an enabling third wheel in the ongoing illicit affair between Nino and Lila, surrendering her virginity to Nino’s father, the shady railroad worker Donato Sarratore (Emanuele Valenti). Don fancies himself an intellectual and a writer, but it turns out he’s just as brute an animal as most of the nasty Neapolitan men. This unsettling encounter unfolds under the starry night on the empty beach, where Lenu’s gone to feel sorry for herself and stare into the void.
Lenu at first instigates the sexual encounter with Donato, who’s been eyeing her since she came to Ischia, but it’s obvious as he pumps and grunts that she feels nothing but contempt and disgust, seeming to leave her body in the way we understand many rape victims to do while surrendering power. Yet Lenu is also wielding power, which makes this scene extra queasy and complex. Donato writes off his pedophiliac transgression as a case of “the heart wants what it wants,” which you might recall is how Woody Allen summed up his feelings for Soon-Yi Previn with a Saul Bellow misquote.
Lenu would much rather be in bed with Nino than under the hulking weight of a dirty old man, or the continuing leers of sad-boy Bruno (Francesco Russo), who finally makes a move on Lenu this episode. But Donato’s brooding-poet son Nino (Francesco Serpico) has chosen Lila (Gaia Girace) for his summer fling, their glistening, sea-salted bodies galloping on the beach and swimming in the water by day, and fondling each other in the dark behind closed doors by night as Lenu plays the watchman, envious and repulsed. I’m reminded of the lyrics from the song “Valentine” by Fiona Apple, a bitter lament of jealousy and heartbreak toward an unnamed, other woman living her best life while your own stagnates, a song so much about wanting to be that person you admire: “While you were watching someone else/I stared at you and cut myself…I watch you live to have my fun.”
Lila, meanwhile, appears to be experiencing sexual desire for the first time with Nino. “I discovered what a kiss was,” she tells Lenu as a kind of blanketing mea culpa for her adulterous actions, as if extramarital love were a force bigger than her, before reassuring Lenu that, don’t worry, he’s going to use a condom. (“What’s a condom?” Lenu asks. “It’s a thing you put over it.”) And even though her husband Stefano (Giovanni Amura) is bound to find out, especially after being spotted by Michele Solara (Alessio Gallo) holding Nino’s hand on the beach, Lila has no regard for the consequences. Her agnostic attitude toward life’s meaninglessness is nicely summed up in her description of the stars in the night sky as but “random shards in blue bitumen.”
That moment where Michele Solara — Stefano’s business partner — and resident busybody Gigliola Spagnuola (Rosaria Langellotto) spy Lila’s treachery beachside is one of the most jaw-dropping moments in an episode of many, and it spells disaster. Once Lenu and Lila return back to their summer home after a night at the Sarratores’, Stefano is waiting, fuming, at the kitchen table. Lila drives the nail as far as possible into her husband’s arm by parading her summer romance in front of him, Lenu, and her mother. “We swim, we kiss, we touch! He’s fucked me a hundred times!” Stefano — to his credit, which isn’t saying much for this lousy pig — flinches with wounded pride, but he doesn’t hit his wife. Instead, the punishment is perhaps much more severe, and permanent, as he drags her ass, along with Lenu, back to Naples to resume their shitty life. On the ferry back to the city, Lenu stares off into the water, mourning the death of an endless summer, and probably her closest friendship.
“With Lila, things never go well. If you don’t want to suffer worse than you already are, don’t expect anything,” Lenu tells Nino early on the episode after he’s fessed to kissing Lila, which Lenu already knew about. As much as Lenu envies her friend’s boldness in taking whatever she wants, she now seems to pity Lila and the damage she’s caused. But that’s likely just a front to veil the hurt and heartache boiling at her center, overshadowed once again by her brilliant and cunning friend.
Yet there is a silver lining. With the darkness settling over Lenu, there’s a storm in her brain and a strength now steeling inside her (carried as always magnificently by Mazzucco in a season-best performance). “I wished that right there on the sea shore murderers would come out of the night and torture my body,” the grown-up Lenu says in voiceover (by Alba Rohrwacher) before her encounter with Donato. “That the worst would happen to me, something so devastating it would stop me from facing that night, the hours and the days to come, reminding me with increasingly crushing proof of my unsuited condition.” She knows who she is, and whether she likes it or not, she has Lila to thank. But it’s time to move on. Lenu is no longer, in the words of Fiona Apple, “a fugitive too dull to flee.”
“My Brilliant Friend” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.