It’s charming to watch a couple of misfit kids join forces on screen to take on the world in a heartwarming underdog love story. The End of the F***ing World (Netflix) is not that type of story. At least not at first. In this British series, boy meets girl, boy plots to murder girl, boy gets girl. And it’s a comedy!
The boy here, 17-year-old James (Alex Lawther), is convinced he’s a psychopath — a young Dexter, so to speak. James points to his lack of empathy or friends, the collection of animals he’s killed and the time he dipped his hand into a deep fryer to “feel something” as the reasoning behind his self-diagnosis, and resolves to move on to killing people.
One day in the cafeteria, too-cool-for-school new girl Alyssa (Jessica Barden approaches James, flirting by way of insulting the loner. He obliges, going along with the relationship. After all, she’ll make the perfect target.
When Alyssa’s scumbag stepdad pushes her over the edge, she convinces James to run away in search of her biological father. Again, he’s on board, if only to take his murder show on the road.
Stumbling each mile along the way, James and Alyssa enjoy some much-needed carefree fun that gives way to risky behavior and a series of increasingly serious crimes. The two dine-and-dash, shoplift and hitchhike their way around England, opening up to one another about their painful pasts along the way. Alyssa’s angst and rage completely blind her to James’ true intentions, yet she’s able to break through his detached, awkward demeanor from time to time.
One intense encounter on their Bonnie and Clyde adventure reveals that James might not be the monster he’s made himself out to be, and that Alyssa may finally have someone in her corner. But the fallout from their involvement might seal their fates nonetheless.
As if the show’s title doesn’t give it away from the jump, TEOTFW is a dark teen tale. But the heavy subject matter is handled with a playful touch. Witty British humor, complete with fourth-wall-breaking winks and nudges lighten the load. Like a youthful joyride, the series is a fun, wild romp with killer tunes blaring from the stereo.
Besides a perfectly balanced tone, the acting — particularly by the two young leads — takes TEOTFW to another level. Lawther captures the subtle complexities of his intensely disturbed character. You might recognize him from the particularly grim Black Mirror episode “Shut Up and Dance,” in which he gave another memorable (and f***ed up) performance.
Similarly, Barden nails her role in what could be a cheesy, over-the-top, damaged girl cliché. Instead, she plays Alyssa as both fierce and vulnerable, a force to be reckoned with and a girl in need of a hug.
Based on the graphic novel written and illustrated by Charles Forsman, the show really reads like a movie — it easily could have been — but it doesn’t feel drawn out because the tight, tense episodes are just 18-22 minutes long. In the end (of the f***king world), it’s a complete story. So no, I don’t hope this gets a second season, as much as I loved this one.
TEOTFW offers everything you want out of a good teen flick: Two kids against the world, a ride-or-die road trip, a sing-along-worthy soundtrack, actual complex teen characters — all dealt with in a mature way. It handles some of the most dismal material with empathy and humor.
I can’t help compare TEOTFW to another Netflix teen series, 13 Reasons Why. That one explores the fallout of a high schooler’s suicide after she leaves behind a set of cassette tapes calling out everyone who ever wronged her. Both shows follow young characters grappling to digest very depressing circumstances. It could be argued that neither series is suitable for an audience as young as the characters that populate them.
You tune into 13 Reasons knowing Hannah Baker killed herself; you enter TEOTFW knowing James plans to kill someone else. But where the former is predictable and hollow, the latter is surprisingly heartfelt.
For young people, every decision, every moment seems like life or death. For James and Alyssa, it is. And they flourish in it.
Contact Jac Kern here.