The End of the F***ing World

I adored the original 8-episode run of The End of the F***ing World (2017-19), a very black romantic comedy built around two spikily inarticulate teenagers. I had no real expectation that there would be a second season, and although I bounced hard off of the first new episode, when I eventually returned to complete the series a few months later I found it to be a satisfying conclusion.

It’s the classic meet cute. He thinks he might be a psychopath and decides to look for a victim. She’s pissed off with the world and is looking for the least irritating boy in school to have sex with. She sits down at his table, they steal his dad’s car and hit the road.

James (Alex Lawther) is a shy and emotionally withdrawn 17-year-old with a clueless father (Steve Oram). Eleven years ago his mother parked at a grassy layby, let him out of the car and drove forward into a deep pond. Two years later he began killing animals, and having recently burnt his hand in a deep fryer in an attempt to feel something, he decides that he should probably kill the girl he’s just met.

Alyssa (Jessica Barden) is a jaded and snappish 17-year-old who’s recently moved to James’ school. She lives with her neurotic mother (Christine Bottomley) and dodgy stepfather (Navin Chowdhry). The father who left when she was eight has become the focal point for everything that was good about her childhood, while her stepfather has shifted from thinking of her as the unwanted leftover from a previous marriage to the conveniently available young woman living in his house. After his intentions become more overt, Alyssa decides to leave town and James agrees to tag along.

It doesn’t take James long to crash his father’s car, and although he persists in looking for opportunities to kill Alyssa amidst the ensuing events, by the time he’s found the perfect opportunity while she’s asleep in the house they’ve broken into, he realises that’s fallen in love with her. Which is when the serial rapist and murderer Clive Koch (Jonathan Aris) who owns the house returns and James ends up killing him to save Alyssa. Understandably shaken by the experience, they go in search of safe haven with Alyssa’s estranged father (Barry Ward), while the police investigating Koch’s death begin the pursuit of what they believe to be a dangerous Bonnie & Clyde-style murder couple.

With a plot description like that, you might be forgiven for wondering where the comedy comes into play. Surprisingly for a story which feels so distinctively British in its realisation, the series is adapted from an American comic book miniseries by Charles Forsman. British actress turned screenwriter Charlie Covell has converted the original into a wickedly acerbic script which smoothly translates the source material from one medium and country to another, setting up scenarios which cascade both comically and tragically into consequence upon unintended consequence. The two central performances won me over immediately and I was completely invested in their achievement of a happy resolution, no matter how unlikely that might be. The supporting characters are well drawn and are largely portrayed by actors with a comedy background, bringing small rolws vividly to life as people with an existence beyond their plot function. Gemma Whelan (Game of Thrones) is a particular delight in her role as Detective Constable Noon, who is attempting to deal with the aftermath of sleeping with her female colleague (an event which means more to her than to her no-nonsense colleague) while coming to the realisation that the couple they are pursuing may not be the iron-cast villains the rest of the police taskforce assumes them to be.

If you’re new to the series and have decided to watch it, I strongly recommend that you don’t read any further. I’ve already given away some of the plot complications in the first season, but it’s difficult to say anything about the follow-up without reference to how the finale shapes what is to come.

As somebody who was heavily invested in James and Alyssa and desperately hoping for something positive after James having been gunned down, the first episode of the second season was an alienating experience. This episode introduces us to Bonnie (Naomi Ackie), another messed up character, whose upbringing by a tyrannical and controlling mother has turned her into a deadened anti-social misanthrope. Failing to get into university due to self-sabotage, she pretends to be a student while working at the campus library. Also working at the university as a philosophy professor is Dr Clive Koch, the sociopath whose death in the first season left the world considerably better, and whose obnoxious iconoclastic posturing strikes a chord with Bonnie. Having become romantically obsessed with him, and a willing sexual partner, she turns up at his house one night in time to see another woman departing in tears. Choosing to believe his story of an infatuated student who was attempting to blackmail him into sex, Bonnie chases down the student in her car and is jailed for her death. Shortly afterwards Koch is killed, and she spends the remainder of her two years in jail plotting the deaths of his killers.

Because this was in so many ways not I wanted to see and I wasn’t exactly lacking in other options, it took some time for me to circle back and watch the second episode. It was with great relief that I became reacquainted with Alyssa, who in the intervening two years had drifted into a dead-end job as a waitress in her aunt’s (Alexandria Riley) diner and a for-lack-of-anything-better relationship-turned-engagement into which her mother channelled all of her sublimated relationship regrets to will into being the Triumph of Pure Romance Which Will Solve Everything. James, much to my relief, was not dead but had spent most of the interim recovering slowly from his injuries and undergoing physical rehabilitation, although he was manipulated by Alyssa’s mother (supposedly for her daughter’s sake) into writing her a letter stating that he never wanted to see her again. More appreciative now of his dad’s inept attempts to rebuild their relationship, everything falls apart when his dad suddenly dies of a heart attack at the bowling alley. Receiving a bullet in the mail with his name on it, he sets out with his dad’s ashes on a road trip to find Alyssa (also in receipt of a bullet). And Bonnie prepares to insert herself into both of their lives as a “random” hitchhiker.

Although still sharing its comedic DNA with the first season, the second season is more subdued. While Bonnie looks for her opportunity to punish the “murderers” of her “boyfriend”, Alyssa and James are both carrying their own unresolved traumas which resurface with their renewed acquaintance. Attempts to recapture the magic of their first season escapades collide uncomfortably with a new awareness of consequences – James’s attempt to evoke happier times with the suggestion that they once more leave a diner without paying for their meal is countered by Alyssa’s new knowledge that the minimum-wage waitress will be held responsible for the cost.

But while this might sound like a downer, the shift in tone is essential for the continued exploration of their relationship to have any emotional weight. The shadow of their shared trauma, and the different ways in which it has affected them due to their own unique backgrounds and divergent paths, needs to be acknowledged and not shrugged away lightly, or any attempt at resolution would ring hollow as fairytale wish fulfilment. Given these constraints, Covell succeeds admirably at orchestrating the story in a way which (without giving away the ending) allows all three of the central characters to at least begin to find their own type of peace.

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