The End of the F***ing World, a new eight-episode Netflix series, adapted from the cult comics of the same name, is a tragedy of misunderstanding, a punk-picaresque tale of teenage love and lust, longing and loneliness.
Our two protagonists are disaffected English 17-year-olds. Alyssa (the excellent Jessica Barden) has grown up without a father; her new step-dad, Tony (Navin Chowdry), is a caricature of ambivalence, who only acknowledges her presence by chastising or lusting after it. James (Alex Lawther) has grown up without a mother; when he was a boy, she committed suicide in front of him, by driving the family car into a pond. Stunned into a sociopathic callousness, he burns his hand in a deep fryer a few years later—just to “feel something.” Alyssa wants to sleep with James; James wants to murder Alyssa. This central conceit is a compelling exaggeration of adolescent attraction; like a boy on the playground who bullies the girl he likes, James appears to have mistaken their sexual chemistry for violence of another kind.
Fed up with their helpless parents, Alyssa and James run away together, stealing James’s father’s car. Together, they make a clumsy Bonnie and Clyde. Alyssa is impetuous and petulant, acting out the role of the teenage rebel with bristly vigor. Her glib sexual overtures towards James come across as borrowed notions—from movies, from adults, from the way she thinks she should behave. James responds, Clyde-like, with almost asexual disinterest, daydreaming instead about slitting her throat. When Alyssa kisses him, she does so with a cloying urgency, as he remains completely motionless.
“He spoke to me, but not much; kissed me, but not much; caressed me, but not much. What primarily interested him was that I should caress him,” the popular Italian novelist Elena Ferrante wrote just today of first love, in her first column for The Guardian. “One evening—was it evening?—I kissed him as I would have liked him to kiss me.”
The same could be said of Alyssa: she kisses James how she would have liked him to kiss her—although, of course, she doesn’t know that. The show gives us glimpses of both their inner thoughts, via well-timed voiceover narration; that they never quite align with their actions, until the end, is both a source of comedy and drama. The two want so desperately to connect, and yet they don’t know how. Their love is a structure they don’t have the proper tools to build.
It’s only when James commits a sudden act of graphic violence, in order to defend Alyssa, that he begins to soften. He realizes, with equal parts relief and disappointment, that he doesn’t have the stomach for serial killing—that, perhaps, he’d only tricked himself into believing he had those tendencies, as an excuse for shutting out the guilt and pain associated with his mother’s suicide. For the space of one episode, the best in the series, Alyssa, in shock over what James has done, leaves him at a diner. James proceeds to get himself beat up—on purpose. Meanwhile, Alyssa steals a box of tampons from the pharmacy and gets caught robbing a bra from a clothing store. There is a poetic twinning here: the masculine lust for violence and the violence of female sexuality. At the end of the episode, the two reunite. It’s as if they’ve stumbled through a rite of passage—him into manhood, her into womanhood—and found each other waiting on the other side, ready, if not for an adult relationship, then to accept their feelings for one another.
Following their reunion, Alyssa and James steal a car and make their way to Alyssa’s alcoholic father, Leslie, with whom Alyssa believes they’ll be safe from the law. Two policewomen, themselves entangled in a web of unrealized affections, are hot on their tail. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say the last ten minutes or so of the series are a genuine surprise (and that making a second season would be a grave mistake).
To be fair, though, The End of the F***ing World never quite goes where you think it will. Bathed in a pallid light with bursts of intense color—Alyssa’s electric blue eyes in the morning sun; the deep red of the blood—the tone oscillates between melancholic and foreboding. The songs on the soundtrack, a rollicking assemblage of old blues ballads and classic rock, deployed with unusual, stylized frequency, often seem like pegs upon which to hang the feelings James and Alyssa fail so tragically to recognize or try so hard to mask. There is a reason for this, I think, beyond the fact that those songs sounds cool. Like James and Alyssa's relationship, the show works because it only presents itself as a dark comedy. Over the course of a few hours, The End of the F***ing World reveals it's been a tender teenage romance all along.