The following post contains spoilers for The End of the F***ing World season 2.
“I’m James. I’m 17. And I’m pretty sure I’m a psychopath.”
That bit of pithy dialogue opened one of the best TV shows of 2017 — the Channel 4 and Netflix presentation, The End of the F***ing World.
As Dinah Shore’s 1946 classic ‘I’m Laughing on the Outside (Crying on the Inside)‘ began to play and we saw more of James (Alex Lawther), we realised that he wasn’t, in fact, a psychopath — despite his initially murderous ‘designs’ on schoolmate Alyssa. Instead, he was merely an individual carrying around a tremendous amount of grief, with no way to articulate or express what it was he felt.
Alyssa (Jessica Barden) had her own burdens to carry: a scummy stepfather, a self-involved mother, and feeling — like James — a misfit. At Alyssa’s urging, James leaves home with her to embark on an adventure. But this was no “evolution of repressed male protagonist courtesy wild, carefree female love-interest” sort of tale. This was a coming-of-age — a brutal coming-of-age — for both protagonists, who have found in each other their only allies against a world that makes no attempt to understand them.
Season 1 ended with James and Alyssa being chased by the cops for the murder of the (sadist) Clive Koch; a chase that ends with James being shot. In season 2, we see what happens two years after.
Alyssa and James have paid the legal price for their act: community service for one, a suspended sentence for the other. The emotional cost is harder to gauge. James has months of surgeries and physiotherapy before he can recover from his wound. Even as he rebuilds his relationship with his father, the latter dies suddenly of a heart attack. He’s broken up with Alyssa, under pressure from her mother Gwen.
Gwen and Alyssa move out of town, and in with the former’s half-sister Leigh. Alyssa gets a job as a waitress at Leigh’s cafe, and in due course a fiancé. But as James later notes, she isn’t the same person; it’s as though someone “has taken the batteries out of (her) body” and what’s left behind is a shell. She’s still got that Alyssa sass, but it’s a brittle veneer; the spark that once defined her is absent.
There’s a more tangible threat in store for the duo: Bonnie, a troubled young woman who was in love with Clive Koch, and has been in prison for murdering a girl she thought was her romantic rival, is released. She’s now on Alyssa and James’ tails, determined to take her revenge.
It makes for an intriguing juxtaposition, the Season 1 and 2 beginnings — these two individuals (James and Bonnie) who think they’re killers, and the circumstances that have led them to commit murder, the ways in which they are similar highlighting the ways in which they are different.
The threat from Bonnie throws Alyssa (who has run away from her wedding) and James back together, and a series of misadventures and near-misses ensues. Along the way, Alyssa and James are also grappling with their past, who they are to each other in the present, and whether or not they have a future. The journey the three of them are on — Bonnie, Alyssa and James — is representative of the larger situation they’re trapped in; three people brought together by an act of violence, each impacted by it in various, stunting ways. As Bonnie holds James and Alyssa hostage, you see them as three individuals all held captive by the same trauma from the past. The climax is nerve-wracking, and if the season’s arc tends to feel like an extended epilogue at certain points, the emotional payoff at the end is wholly rewarding.
The first season was set in wide open, sunlit spaces, but much of season 2’s narrative unfolds in a gloomier, isolated setting (much of it in the midst of a densely forested area) to depict the protagonists’ emotional state. The visuals have a stripped down, stark quality — for instance, when watched by James and then Bonnie, Alyssa is framed within the windows of Leigh’s nearly deserted cafe, in a manner that emphasises her solitariness. And the music is as eccentric and breathtaking in its aptness as season 1 — Scott Walker’s ‘The Old Man’s Back Again‘ for instance plays when we see a flashback of Bonnie’s introduction to Clive Koch in his philosophy class.
While Naomi Ackie plays Bonnie with a quiet creepiness and pathos, Alex Lawther is even better here than in Season 1, with a vulnerability he deploys to shattering effect (especially in the emotional suckerpunch of a finale). Jessica Barden is devastating as an Alyssa simply going through the motions, shorn of the spirit that made her unique.
The End of the F***ing World season 2 expectedly flips the middle finger at tropes about runaway brides and ‘dangerous’ teen romance. Instead, it takes an unflinching look at trauma and what recovering from it entails, the damage we inflict on others in the name of love, and if it is possible to make amends. The End of the F***ing World season 2 is presented as a taut thriller, but it’s a story of redemption; a story that holds out hope for finding your way back, no matter how far you’ve strayed from where you needed to be.