The Tragic Beauty of One Day 

The Tragic Beauty of One Day 

Photo Credit: Netflix

You’ll never look at July 15 in the same way again. 

Angelina Fernandez, Arts Editor  

This article contains major spoilers for One Day. 

Starring Leo Woodall as Dexter Mayhew and Ambika Mod as Emma Morley, Netflix’s series adaptation of David Nicholls’s book, One Day, follows the friendship — and eventual love — between two characters over the course of 20 years. Each episode follows Dexter and Emma on the same day, July 15, with the only variance being the year and their relationship toward one another. What begins as a one-night stand for the pair on their graduation day from the University of Edinburgh solidifies into a deep friendship, and then a tragically brief relationship.  

The charismatic quality of Emma and Dexter’s bond is present from their first meeting in 1988. As Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson declares, “the elasticity of their bond — they fight, become estranged, reunite — is a neat representation of the undulations of all of life.”  Throughout the series, we see Emma and Dexter navigate various tribulations. For example, Dexter grieves the loss of his mother as Emma seeks to rediscover and redefine herself through a variety of career changes. When looking at Dexter’s character specifically, the series does not play on the classic trope of the emotionally unavailable playboy. Though Dexter demonstrates immaturity through his actions, viewers also see a certain vulnerability in him as the series progresses. This shines through most notably in “Episode 5” during Dexter’s heart-aching phone call to Emma at the train station in 1992.  

Ultimately, both characters find solace and anxiety in their friendship. Though they grant each other what the other lacks — Dexter’s confidence rubs off on Emma, while Emma influences Dexter to be more grounded — the tumultuous nature of their respective lives causes tensions to fester before boiling over at the halfway point of the series. “Episode 7” sees Emma and Dexter eventually reach a point where they have outgrown one another, leading to a separation that spans a few years. Yet, even when there’s these moments of tension or sadness, viewers can see the love shared between Emma and Dexter, evident in glances or touches. As actors, Woodall and Mod place an emphasis on their physicality to portray an unspoken love between their characters. Such actions epitomize the story as one of yearning. As a viewer, one may feel that same happiness, excitement, sadness, and heartbreak, making it excruciatingly beautiful. When Emma and Dexter finally do acknowledge the connection between them, solidifying their feelings as love on July 15, 1999, there is almost a sigh of relief.  

Perhaps the most tragic storytelling aspect of One Day is taken literally from its title. In “Episode 1,” Dexter acknowledges July 15 as St. Swithin’s Day, a folkloric English feast day that is named after an Anglo-Saxon bishop. As the folkloric poem goes, “St. Swithin’s day, if it does rain / Full forty days, it will remain / St. Swithin’s Day, if it be fair / For forty days, t’will rain no more.” While Emma and Dexter joke about it raining after acknowledging the feast day on Arthur’s Seat, which would thus signal an interruption to their summer days, it doesn’t rain at all throughout the entire series. Though they go through the motions of life, July 15 remains a clear day as the years progress. However, this changes at the end of “Episode 13” when Emma is involved in an accident on July 15, 2002.  

Just as the weather turns from sunshine to rain, the revelation that Emma has died causes Dexter to succumb to a state of grief. At the beginning of “Episode 14,” there is a flashback to a new day, December 22, 1988, a few months after Emma and Dexter first met. This day had been referenced before, but it is only now that viewers experience the events that occurred. In this flashback, Emma reads a passage from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, of which one line stands out: “A day which lay sly and unseen among all other days of the year.” A certain sense of heartbreaking irony remains present here. Made prominent by folklore and the series’ narrative structure, July 15 is the most seen day in the show. It carries the weight of Emma and Dexter’s first meeting and remains unwavering even as the years shift. As an audience, we are critically aware of the significance of the day, and yet, as July 15, 2002, marks the day that Emma dies, July 15 is unseen, catching the viewer by surprise. Suddenly, July 15 is no longer the day that Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew met, nor does it allegorize a premonition of the weather; it is a day stained by death.  

One Day’s deviation from a seamless, picture-perfect relationship, whether it be platonic or romantic, makes it relatable for viewers. It serves as a reminder that real life is fickle — it can be both beautiful and cruel — and not everyone gets that happily ever after. As humans, we may not always achieve the life that we envisaged for ourselves. Instead, One Day prompts us to remember that we all face the trials and tribulations of life in one form or another. Though Emma and Dexter may have had their chances, she loved him too early, and he loved her too late. That said, unlike Emma’s fear that she would become a footnote in the life of Dexter Mayhew, she instead became his whole story. That is the bittersweet complexity of life. 

One Day is now streaming on Netflix.