The End of the F—ing World doesn’t want your morbid fascination. Or, unlike almost every other show with similar subject matter, it doesn’t want it to stay morbid. A show about a boy bent on killing his road trip partner as the two high schoolers run away from home sounds more like the grisly true-crime TV we’ve been groomed to enjoy since news channels realized fear, violence and tragedy attracted eyeballs. Yet the The End of the F—ing World gives the middle finger to this Nightcrawler-esque worldview, finding hope in a world of psychopaths, within the context of a TV landscape that loves them.
James (Alex Lawther) is 17 and kills enough small animals that he truly believes he’s a psychopath. So do we, for that matter. Hurting anything with fur is the international sign for “this kid is going to jail on Law & Order.” Alyssa (Jessica Barden) is 17 and kills nothing, not that her words lack for trying. Both are unbelievably good at being at the wrong intensity levels for normal human interaction: Barden goes loud and acerbic, while Lawther shuts down so completely it’s hard to tell if he was born or simply emerged from the Britain’s collective post-punk sigh, like a Promethean clay figure stirring from Athena’s breath.
“I’m James. I’m 17. And I’m pretty sure I’m a psychopath” is a far cry from Jughead’s treatise on being a weirdo, but it’s also a bit of self-diagnosed misdirection. Teens can want to punch their dorky dads in the face without being monsters, but more importantly, argues the show, someone who thinks they’re a monster (or even is a monster, for a moment) doesn’t have to stay that way. When James meets Alyssa, decides she’s the perfect stepping stone to test his thirst for killing, and takes her on a road trip, nobody expects where it’ll go—and that’s the series’ brilliant subversion.
The characters are ripe for a will-they/won’t-they plot, but instead of the anticipated romance, it’s murder. And we’re not rooting for Alyssa’s survival. We’re rooting for the deed to be done. Not because we’re as sadistic as the show sets up its creature-killing, dad-punching protagonist to be, but because we were trained to. While we approach The End of the F—king World with the conventions of TV psychopathy in mind, it’s desperately trying to help us unlearn our indoctrinated bloodlust—just as its hero is similarly dissuaded after actually killing someone, with a completely justifiable defense.
In dissecting why there are fewer TV series focused on redemption than on continued crimes, the autopsy must start with the body of work that already exists. We know R-rated promises get eyeballs and press (Why do you think Game of Thrones is still being discussed? Its artistic merit?) but the unredeemable villains in so much critically acclaimed TV make for weary watching and a woeful worldview.
Some shows focus on the diagnosis, pursuit, and confrontation of psychopaths: The Alienist, Mindhunter, Criminal Minds. Others place their anti-social anti-heroes in the limelight: See Sherlock’s questionably autistic genius (there’s a whole piece to be written about that trope) and Dexter’s murderous do-gooder. It can be engaging to leer at an Other, especially if that Other has already been defined as a criminal. It’s also exhausting.
In The End of the F—ing World, that tiresome heaviness has been helpfully undermined by a self-aware format that opens with brutality and depression and hopelessness—all the fun stuff that’s enamored modern TV audiences even in their animated comedies (Hi, BoJack!)—before promptly unravelling it. The characters’ existential crises are faced with deadpan humor, as well as the softness that accompanies young love. The revelation that these kids aren’t as horrible as the world around them floats the show upwards, when most would dive deeper into the gutter.
The End of the F—king World certainly wears its misanthropy on its sleeve, but as it goes on to prove, it’s not unwarranted. Most everyone else is awful. Not fascinatingly awful; not awful like a screwed-up savant in an Oscar-bait movie is awful. Banally awful. Sloppily awful. Exhaustingly, inevitably, obviously awful. Its very mundanity is both cynical (like teens are cynical) and liberating (as teens are liberated when they realize they don’t have to fit in to their cynical worldview). Here, the rebellion comes from giving in to hope.
When James and Alyssa set off into the world, they think they’re too fucked-up for it—then realize that, if anything, they’re the least fucked-up people around. While James harbors his cruel intentions, everyone they meet is a rapey creep. But as his intentions shift and he begins warming to Alyssa’s particular brand of overzealous defiance, the goodness in the supporting characters begins to break through. The romantically entangled cops pursuing the protagonists, played by Wunmi Mosaku and Gemma Whelan, are mismatched and charming in their own right; the main pair’s parents are bumbling victims of their own pasts. James’ father lost his wife to suicide and Alyssa’s mother suffers her horrible new husband, yet both make efforts towards their children. There’s also a kind clothing store security guard, a concerned yet incompetent cop who misunderstands James at an Olympic level, and a teen gas station employee named Frodo.
All are initially antagonistic figures in positions of power, and all end up showing signs of compassion when their power is undermined by the lead characters’ offbeat charm. It’s the opposite of the cynicism found in the first few episodes (and in many other TV shows, for that matter), where the evil in an otherwise normal person is slowly revealed. Here, goodness is drawn up over and over again from what we are initially informed is a dry well.
Though Alyssa’s biological father, Leslie, the Wizard of Scumbag Oz that the pair seek in their escape from their lives, is a drug-dealing beach rat and a deadbeat dad, even at his worst he’s trying to look out for his daughter in the only stupid, misguided way he can. His repeated mantra, “To be mad in a deranged world is not madness. It’s sanity,” is the thesis of a show bent on redeeming characters with a streak of madness in them.
This and the show’s spectacular character arcs lead to James becoming the ultimate antithesis of a psychopath: someone willing to sacrifice themselves for another person. His lack of empathy isn’t his draw, it is his addressable flaw. The final shot of the first season—from a lawman’s rifle rather than a camera—is built on the premise of hope. We no longer want to see the promised psychopath kill. We want to see someone with the capacity for growth survive. Only then can he continue to change, which is foundational to the medium—so dependent on character development—and yet has become, in a TV landscape rife with killers, as rare as a fair trial.
The End of the F—ing World is now streaming on Netflix.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.