Netflix’s latest hit, The End of the F***ing World, tells the story of two young outcasts who fall in love while running from the law. It’s a pretty well explored plot seen countless times, yet The End of the F***ing World feels incredibly unique. Viewers can easily guess most of the big plot points from the moment James (Alex Lawther, of Black Mirror fame) punches his Dad in the face, yet the show remains compelling. Superior story-telling, top-notch acting, and a great sense of humor raise The End of the F***ing World above its standard plot and make it the first “must watch” show of 2018.
The End of the F***ing World deals itself a bad hand at first glance. James and Alyssa (Jessica Barden), our two heroes, both don’t have a lot going for them. James introduces himself by saying “I’m James. I’m 17. And I’m pretty sure I’m a psychopath.” From there viewers are treated to a montage of the protagonist killing animals for seemingly no reason. Alyssa opens as more sympathetic, but her first line to James is “Hey. I’ve seen you skating. You’re pretty shit.”
Those introductions aren’t the best way to make the masses fall in love with the protagonists, but writer Charlie Covell actually has his audience right where he wants them. Throughout the show Covell flexes his ability to direct viewers attention to precisely where he wants, creating the exact emotional impression he aims for.
With those introductions, the goal is to create the belief that James really is a psychopath and Alyssa just another angsty teen. Even though viewers know in the recesses of their mind that the show would be pretty short and uninteresting if things were as they seemed, these bold introductions grab their attention and make them forget what they know inevitably has to happen. Seeing James carve up a few cats, some mice, and even a bat makes his “I’m probably a psychopath” bit a whole lot more believable, even though we strongly suspect that there’s more to the story.
In episode 4, James and Alyssa temporarily part ways. Given that the show is eight episodes long, we know they’ll be reunited soon enough. But again Covell gets us to put that knowledge aside by focusing on our connection to Alyssa and our knowledge of James. Alyssa never suspects that James may be insane until she sees him murder Clive Koch. The fact that James did it to protect her from being raped is stored in the backs of both the audience and Alyssa’s mind, but our attention is directed to the fact that Alyssa is starting to see James the way we have. She starts to think he’s dangerous, and we can’t help but agree.
Had Covell focused more on James’s point of view after the murder, this brief breakup would be frustrating. We know she’ll come back, and we know she’ll come back because in the back of her head she knows he killed Clive to protect her. Instead, the focus is split between the two of them, and we can strongly relate to Alyssa’s inner monologue. When her voice says “There’s definitely something wrong with him” we understand the dread she feels around James because she is seeing him the same way we did at the beginning of the story. That keep us invested in her and her story, making what otherwise could be a boring detour a compelling chapter in the narrative.
In the show’s penultimate scene, Covell uses our expectations to his advantage. Instead of distracting us from the future by creatively presenting the now, he uses foreshadowing we’ve seen a thousand times to give a scene its full impact. James and Alyssa walk back from a bar together, Alyssa heartbroken that her Dad wasn’t as he seemed. James comforts her and they kiss alone on the beach. They have fallen completely in love, the expected conclusion when the journey began, when Alyssa tells James she’d like to wait until tomorrow to have sex. Her inner monologue says “I don’t think it’s a big deal. I might feel like it tomorrow.”
Bang. Right then viewers know there will be no tomorrow, and the emotional weight of the entire story crashes down. With the show in its final moments the audience is hoping that against all odds these two will have a happy ending, but those words have been uttered in more stories than one could count and they always mean one thing: There is no tomorrow. It gives the scene such power, and that raw emotion makes the final scene hit all the harder.
The point has already been made, but there’s another fantastic example of Covell keeping our focus on where it needs to be. Both James and Alyssa come from broken families, another expected plot point in a story about two emotionally distraught teens. Covell easily could have spent more time showing what a jackass Alyssa’s step-dad is, or how James’s Dad fails to help his son get past his Mom’s suicide. But those stories have been told a thousand times, and The End of the F***ing World isn’t about broken families, it’s about the bond between James and Alyssa. Those side characters are used to help us understand the protagonists better, but never do they feel like the focal point. Covell could have used their broken families as a crutch to justify the teen’s crime spree, but he doesn’t. He trusts that we are invested in their bond, and keeps our focus there throughout the show.
Top Notch Acting
Lawther and Barden absolutely kill it as James and Alyssa. These two troubled teens are not easy characters to portray. Both are essentially built to be dislikable from the outset, with extremely harsh exteriors. Alyssa has an apparent soft side to her, but James does not. His first truly sympathetic moment is deciding not to murder Alyssa after he hears her crying in the bathroom during the second episode, yet he still wins us over by episode 4.
Lawther’s work as Kenny in Black Mirror’s Shut Up and Dance definitely served as great experience for the role of James. His lines are delivered with the perfect awkwardness, and his face can be downright unsettling. While it’s inevitable that James will come out of his shell and disprove his own psychopath theory, Lawther’s performance plays a huge role in suspending that believe. He can be down right terrifying, and his monotonous inner monologue conveys his emptiness.
The range of emotion Barden shows as Alyssa is what makes her so lovable. We see her sad, happy, angry, confused, and scared. The speed at which she cycles through those emotions, often swinging heavily between multiple within one scene, is astounding. Her voice overs are fantastic as well, her face stoic in dire moments but the voice in her head freaking out every bit as much as you’d suspect. Hearing her head yell “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” while she unflinchingly stands covered in blood after James stabs Clive had me giggling despite the gravity of the situation.
Other cast members including Gemma Whelan (Yara Greyjoy, from Game of Thrones), Wunmi Mosaku (Katie, from Black Mirror’s Playtest), Steve Oram (James’s Father), and Chrstine Bottemley (Alyssa’s Mother), all of whom nail their parts. The cast is phenomenal, and it brings the show to life.
While The End of the F***ing World thrives on drama, its use of dark comedy gives the story a unique appeal. This isn’t Marvel movie comedy. Snarky one-liners are great, but would feel totally out of place in a show with this tone. Instead, the laughs come from disturbing moments evened out by a funny visual or the character’s reaction to them.
Those inner monologues get a lot of laughs by the way they contrast with the protagonist’s appearance. Alyssa and James nearly get busted by a convenience store clerk after seemingly escaping murder charges, to which a stoic Alyssa thinks “I swear if this is what gets us caught I’m going to kill myself. From shame.” Despite the drama the audience can’t help but laugh at the way her thoughts are portrayed.
My favorite moment comes right after the murder of Clive Koch. As blood pours from his jugular, it begins to form a puddle in the shape of a heart. It’s not subtle, but certainly hilarious in context.
The End of the F***ing World is a fantastic and gripping show from beginning to end, despite the fact that viewers have a pretty good idea of how things are going to shake out long before the conclusion. Excellent writing, acting, and the use of dark comedy help this show stand out in the sea of crime thrillers.
You can watch The End of the F***king World on Netflix here.