The 18-year-olds who played Lila and Lenù as teenagers in the first season of “My Brilliant Friend” continue to play them as the women approach 30, their complexions as smooth as their formica kitchens. The passage of time is instead marked on their bodies: pregnancies, sicknesses, and bruises that bloom and yellow across the episodes; modish fashions and haircuts. Season 3 of the HBO drama is subtitled “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” after the Elena Ferrante novel it’s based on, the third in her Neapolitan Quartet. But the casting works so beautifully because those categories are collapsible or, worse, imaginary. No one leaves for good; no one stays the same. This isn’t a series about girls escaping into womanhood, but women shackled to their origins. That Lila and Lenù look as they did at 16 only reinforces the dark thesis that, for women who grew up poor in post-War Italy, reinvention is impossible. “You came out of this belly, this is your kind,” Lenù’s mother castigates her, as if her unchanged face would let anyone forget.
The engrossing third season begins in the 1970s. Rebellious Lila (Gaia Girace), no longer on speaking terms with her father, brother, or husband, is living with Enzo in a tenement in some other outskirt of Naples. To provide for her son, she works at a local sausage factory under brutal conditions. It’s Lenù (Margherita Mazzucco) who is back in the old neighborhood in advance of her marriage to Professor Pietro Airota and a move to Florence. The neighborhood is where she’s living when the novel she wrote last season is published and, in some critical circles, dismissed as smut. And yet it’s always tempting, because of Lila and Lenù’s tortuous friendship and matching intelligence, to consider their circumstances hypothetically interchangeable. If it had been Lila with an amiable father who saw the value in educating women, would she be the published author now? And if Lila’s coal-dark eyes belonged to her friend, would it have been Lenù to inspire awe in the neighborhood boys?
The first season of “My Brilliant Friend” rarely ventured beyond the limits of the neighborhood. By Season 3, every family owns an automobile, and the tunnel connecting the neighborhood to Naples is a traffic jam. Going home is as slow as it is inevitable. When people leave — for Florence, for Milan — it’s for long periods. Lenù and Lila have always kept secret thoughts from each other, but with more physical distance between them, they acquire real secrets — private experiences that the other can never know.
Their distress at being lost in a larger world is skillfully rendered, but it’s hard not to miss the intimacy of previous seasons, the sense that we knew as well as our characters which mother would appear in which apartment window. The most evocative shots of Season 3 are still mostly set in the neighborhood, where a broken store sign is an elegant shorthand for a family’s misfortune. At one point, Lenù stares at the void where she and Lila dropped each other’s dolls as children, later insisting that the local mafia capo took them. Adult Lenù says nothing, but what if she went to the basement now? Could she find the dolls and rewrite the past?
The series, like Ferrante’s book, offers a vivid, close treatment of female friendship. The relationship between Lenù and Lila remains constant in its inconstancy, sustained by jealous curiosity alongside affection. This season, it’s the interactions between Lenù and her mother Immacolata (Annarita Vitolo) that struck me as new and edifying. Immacolata is embarrassed by her daughter’s tawdry novel, which she can’t and therefore hasn’t read. But she’s also insistent that Lenù’s cleverness is due to her own. For Lila and Immacolata, Lenù is the measure of their own capability. They resent her successes and feel diminished by her failures. “Who am I if you’re not any good?” Lila asks her sincerely.
The show’s subject remains the domestic, but in Italian homes, with their glass windows flung open, politics comes in on the breeze. Early in the season, Lila finds herself an avatar for the communist revolution in Naples while Lenù joins the feminist movement even as she assumes the stereotypical roles of wife and mother at home. Neither has much focus as an activist, though it’s harder to tell in Lila’s case. Economic necessity moves her like the tide, giving her quick, chaotic choices the sheen of purpose. Lenù is tormented by self-doubt that Lila might consider a luxury.
In both cases, though, politics is largely a device for moving the women into new positions — quitting her job in protest frees Lila up to unexpected opportunities later in the season; feminism gives Lenù the seeds of her next book. Political violence repeatedly spills into the narrative, but mostly to remind us that Italy is changing faster than our characters can. Committed revolutionaries, like Pasquale and Pietro’s sister Maria Rosa, turn up intermittently, then recede so as not to interfere in the drama of daily life.
And daily life for Lila and Lenù is the claustrophobia of womanhood and motherhood, same as it was for Immacolata. “To escape this neighborhood, you need money,” Lila says in the first season of “My Brilliant Friend.” Lenù has a profession and a new life in a fashionable city, but still she’s drawn home by an inexorable affinity for the people she’s known longest: Pasquale, Nino, Enzo, Lila. She’s at her most generous when she’s accommodating their needs; she’s more sure of who she is in their presence. “My Brilliant Friend” puts forward a compelling theory of home as a sphere of competency rather than a place of comfort. To escape this neighborhood, you need the will to renounce the narrow sliver of the world which you reliably understand. So far, neither Lila nor Lenù can resist the pull of the familiar and the company of those who remember them as the smart, confident girls they search the mirror to still see.
“My Brilliant Friend” Season 3 premieres Monday, February 28 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.