'The End of the F***ing World': Can a Show About a Teen Plotting a Murder Be Uplifting?

Simon Spungin
Simon Spungin
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Simon Spungin
Simon Spungin

The End of the F***ing World is about a 17-year-old self-diagnosed psychopath who – ready to move from killing small animals to doing the same to humans – befriends a girl in his school and fantasizes about murdering her. Heres an adjective you wouldnt expect to find in a review of this show: endearing.

But TEOTFW is simultaneously terrifying, disturbing, earnest, darkly funny and – ultimately – uplifting. The show is director Jonathan Entwistles second adaption of Charles Forsmans graphic novel of the same name. In 2014, he wrote a TV movie based on Forsmans cult comic, starring Craig Roberts as James and Jessica Barden as Alyssa.

Three years later, Entwistle returned to TEOTFW, sharing directorial duties with Lucy Tcherniak and replacing Roberts with Alex Lawther, who won awards for his portrayal of a young Alan Turing in the 2014 The Imitation Game, alongside Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch.

After smoldering quietly on Netflix for several months – it was added to the streaming service back in October – TEOTFW has become a major hit, scoring 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

Presented in eight bite-size portions – the longest episode is just 22 minutes – TEOTFW is narrated via the inner monologues of its two protagonists, James and Alyssa.

In the opening scene, 17-year-old James says hes pretty sure hes a psychopath, and judging by his past and present behavior, its hard to argue with him. Using a hunting knife given to him by his father, he has killed dozens of animals over the years and remembers every one of them. We later learn that, when he was a boy, his mother committed suicide by driving her car into a pond – while James stood on the banks feeding ducks.

Alyssa, for her part, is a fairly typical teenage girl: She hates her mother, has romantic notions of finding the father who walked out on the family years ago, despises her leering pig of a stepfather and the town she lives in – and, critically, she feels alone in the world.

When Alyssa approaches James at school one day, he coldly decides that she could be interesting to kill. James, whose inner monologue is as chillingly devoid of emotion as his outward behavior, knows that if he is to get close enough to Alyssa to kill her, he has to pretend to be interested in her romantically and sexually. These are two areas in which he has no natural interest. He states, for the record, that he masturbates once a week for medical reasons.

Things come to a head for Alyssa when her stepfather tells her she should leave the family home – and her mother, who overhears, doesnt contradict him.

She rushes over to James house, where he has been waiting for her and where he is agonizing over the best way to slit her throat. To add to the tension, James narration is interspersed with flashes of a knife dripping with blood.

As they are sitting on the sofa – James hand resting on the hunting knife he has hidden under a cushion – Alyssa tells him that she wants to leave this shithole town. James agrees. I didnt know where we were going, we hear him think, or when I was gonna kill her, but I punched my dad in the face and stole his car. And that felt like a good place to start.

Ambiguous ending

As they make their way to the coastal town when Alyssas father last lived, the teenage couples criminal activity expands exponentially – from doing a dine-and-dash and robbing a gas station to murdering a serial killer and rapist whose house they break into. Along the way, their relationship also develops. At the age of 9, James put his hand into a deep-fat fryer, just because he wanted to make myself feel something. Now, hes starting to feel something for Alyssa. Maybe he isnt the psychopath he thinks he is?

Alyssa grows, too. At first enchanted by her free-spirited father (Hes basically Gandhi, she says in awe), she comes to realize that hes selfish and irresponsible, and not the tragic hero she had imagined.

With armed police closing in on them, Alyssa and James are cornered. In the final, ambiguous scene of the show, James – having told Alyssa to tell the police he abducted her – is shown running toward the sea. Ive just turned 18, he says. And I think I understand... what people mean to each other.

Unlike the final, explosive scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, it is not clear whether James dies at the end of his and Alyssas bloody road trip. Dont ask the creator of the show, however. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Entwistle said he doesnt know whether Netflix will commission another season. I guess I kind of want to know what happens as well, right? he said Just as much as anybody else does.

Channeling Tarantino

Mitigating the Tarantino-esque gore of TEOTFW is a black humor that, while perhaps not eliciting a chuckle, raises several wry smiles. When James says he can fix the severely mangled car hes just driven into a tree, only for it to blow up moments later, Alyssa asks him if he still thinks he can fix it. And the use of an internal monologue creates some of the more amusing moments, with echoes of Ron Howards memorable role as narrator on Arrested Development.

Even the soundtrack contains a handful of jokes. The scene in which Alyssa decides to leave home is accompanied by Janis Ians classic teen angst ballad At Seventeen, and theres a 45-second, Thelma-and-Louise inspired road trip scene featuring Keep On Running by The Spencer David Group.

But the real draw of TEOTFW is its two young stars, whose handling of difficult characters is nothing less than masterful. Lawther was outstanding in The Imitation Game and his portrayal here of a young man emerging from years of emotional paralysis is gripping. Barden captured the duality of her character perfectly, turning seamlessly from foul-mouthed, stroppy teenager to strong-willed woman to vulnerable child.