Seeking a Show for the End of the World
James (Alex Lawther) is a 17-year-old boy who also happens to be a psychopath. Or at least that’s what he believes. Alyssa (Jessica Barden) is a 17-year-old girl with plenty of issues as well, though she hasn’t ever killed an animal for fun. James wins the maladjusted prize in this examination of the deeply unsettling inconsistencies of 21st century British life. The End of the F***ing World, a British mini-series based on an indie comic book of the same name, certainly won’t judge you for it.
Not only does James kill animals, he kicks it up a notch further by deciding to kill an actual human being, and Alyssa seems like just the right kind of target. But Alyssa hates her life (and especially her creep of a stepfather), and suggests they run away together. Just as Alyssa surprises James with her proposition, the show continually stays one step ahead of the viewers’ expectations. The End of the F***ing World sure knows how to set up a gripping black comedy-drama that keeps you glued to your seat. Much of the time you won’t know whether to laugh, cringe, or gape at the action unfolding on screen.
I watched all eight episodes of The End of the F***ing World in 24 hours with my roommates. At first, one of my roommates didn’t like the characters at all, but eventually fell headfirst into the narrative and couldn’t help but root for the two thoroughly messed-up leads, even as the show got progressively darker. My other roommate found the beginning of the show to be engagingly weird, but hated the ending. I loved the entire show, so the apple of discord exists in my apartment, but all three of us found it morbidly compelling.
As I’ve already mentioned, the show’s sense of humor is deeply disturbed. At times, the show even teeters towards the unwatchable, but it never crosses over. The Bonnie and Clyde tropes that James and Alyssa delve into during their cross-country adventure never feels worn through. Even with a couple of plot points that often seem overdone — most notably the search for an absent father and repression of traumatic childhood memories — the show pays homage to its American-lawlessness roots, and updates them in completely refreshing ways for its modern British setting, especially in its use of music.
The End of the F***ing World’s soundtrack makes a great show absolutely spectacular. Most of the songs come from the latter half of the 20th century, including everyone from Hank Williams to Françoise Hardy (my personal French yé-yé favorite) to the Buzzcocks to Fleetwood Mac. The music feels both familiar and unsettling in its use, which perfectly mirrors the tone of the show itself. Every single song adds to the ominous atmosphere of the unpredictable road trip that these two kids stumble their way through. Bernadette Carol’s version of “Laughing on the Outside” plays over a particularly grisly murder in episode three, but the 1960s girl-group slow-dance feel of the song lends a whimsical air to the scene as blood spurts everywhere. The scene plays out like a choreographed dance, and the result is uncomfortable, great television. A song accompanies every big moment within the show, and at first they often feel incongruous, but the discrepancy between the action on screen and the mood of song adds to the weird, captivating nature of the show. Even if you don’t go watch all eight episodes of The End of the F***ing World, go listen to the complete soundtrack because the song choices musically reflect the meticulous direction of the show by Jonathan Entwistle and Lucy Tcherniak.
Without a doubt, the production value of The End of the F***ing World leaves little room for insult. In particular, the excellent direction by Entwistle and Tcherniak across eight episodes, brings the eerie world of Alyssa and James to life in full force. Every instant of tension, conflict, or quiet contemplation feels expertly choreographed in tandem with the acting and with the other aspects of production. The work of cinematographers Justin Brown and Ben Fordesman skillfully conveys the mundane beauty of the British countryside and coast, as well as vibrantly constructing the often claustrophobic situations that Alyssa and James find themselves in.
One of the most surprisingly poignant aspects of this show’s narrative is the uncertain romance that blooms between James and Alyssa, especially since (reminder) James wants to kill Alyssa for a good chunk of the show. This may seem like the set-up for another tired story depicting violence against women, but The End of the F***ing World defies expectations left and right as they pertain to sex, love, gender, and violence. The tender and complicated relationship development between Alyssa and James keeps the romance aspect of this show compelling.
Lawther and Barden both act the hell out of their characters and in the process, make them feel like real people, which, in such an idiosyncratic narrative, is no small feat. Lawther imbues James with such an interesting mixture of cold detachment, fear, and surprising vulnerability that he nails the questionable anti-hero likability, even as he commits a number of crimes ranging from petty to very serious. Barden expertly showcases the conflicting rage and deep desire to be loved that make Alyssa such a compelling character. None of the acting here is easy, but playing aching unlikeable teenager anti-heroes gives Lawther and Barden the perfect canvas to demonstrate their considerable acting chops.
At the end of the day, this isn’t a show for everyone. If violence, ambiguous morality, or England disturb you, then you should probably pass on The End of the F***ing World. But to everyone else: this show provides three enormously engaging hours of bloody comedic drama. It’s also a fascinating and unique look at how wildly wrong things can go, so much so that you won’t possibly be able to foresee where you end up.