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The End of the F***ing World Reverses the Roles of Its Teenage Leads

Exceptional central performances anchor a strong return for the dark British comedy.
  • Jessica Barden in The End of the F***ing World (Netflix)
    Jessica Barden in The End of the F***ing World (Netflix)

    Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers from Season 2 of The End of the F***ing World., which dropped on Netflix November 5th, 2019.

    "A self-diagnosed psychopath pairs up with someone who feels too much" sounds like the logline for an unconventional crime procedural that will run for six seasons. Instead, it was the dark comedy The End of the F***ing World that told the story of a doomed teen romance that played out over eight blistering episodes on Netflix in 2018. This tale of adolescent angst and rebellion could easily have been an insufferable ride, but in the hands of Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden, the show's central characters James and Alyssa avoided the pitfalls of other annoying TV adolescents. Both shined individually, but The End of the F***ing World was at its most potent when they shared the screen. The newly-released Season 2 elevates their chemistry via a twist: reversing their roles as they try to grapple with the emotional (and physical) fallout of their time as runways.

    James and Alyssa's unconventional love story began in the school cafeteria as two social outcasts drawn to each other in an attempt to fill an emotional void. James believed he was a killer-in-training and Alyssa would make the ideal first victim. What followed was an accidental crime spree across England, which began with car theft before escalating to murder. No, James didn't follow through with his original plan — turns out he's not actually a psychopath. Rather, he saved Alyssa when she was attacked by a serial rapist. But what made the show special were the moments of genuine intimacy shared by two leads. The sweet, unbothered dancing around a strangers' house to the jovial strains of Hank Williams' "Settin' the Woods on Fire," where Alyssa kissed the shy James, for example. As evidenced by dozens od Tumblr blogs and beyond, it was a most meme-able moment, thanks to Lawther and Barden's starry eyes and dopey grins. And it made for a heart-stopping cliffhanger when Season 1 ended with the possibility that James was killed by police officers.

    Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden in The End of the F***ing World (Netflix)

    As The End of the F***ing World returns two years later, the buoyancy of Season 1 has been replaced by bitterness and resentment. James didn't die, but his relationship with Alyssa ended after her mother forced him to write a break-up letter. After years of not registering anything, James is an open wound capable of feeling every dig Alyssa throws his way. She's still prone to impulsive and irrational decisions with wild bouts of anger, but the mouthy teen has changed since we last saw her: instead of feeling everything, she now appears to feel nothing. Spending the majority of the season in a wedding dress, she constantly bats away well wishers. The funeral suit James wears ensures he is mistaken for her groom (they might not actually be together, but their clothes suggest otherwise). Last season, they looked like they were co-splaying a Tarantino movie in their post-murder disguises, now the costume absurdity hits new symbolic heights. Regardless of how twee, farcical, or surreal the story gets, Lawther and Barden ground the emotion (or in Alyssa's case, an attempted lack thereof) with their commitment to character. Once again, James and Alyssa end up in close quarters. A chaste kiss takes place in a motel room, which only complicates matters further. James shares his fears about his inability to perform (due to his gunshot wound) whereas Alyssa can now add cheating bride to her long self-loathing list. In every scene, the tension is palpable, a culmination of Alyssa's anger toward James and her desire to reach out and touch him.

     

    The frivolity and adolescent exuberance that made the first season a breath of fresh air has been replaced by guilt. The fantasy has been shattered, which gives both actors the chance to show maturity in their performances. When they end up in a dangerous situation (yet again), old issues bubble to the surface, as Alyssa tells James he doesn't need to save her. She might have opened James' heart, but the moment she was attacked is a deep cut she carries with her. "I'm always in that house," she says. "I'm always in that room. I can't get out. Maybe I did some things I shouldn't have, but I didn't deserve that." Both are haunted, but there is still love bubbling beneath the surface. Any time it looks like either character might become too saccharine or pessimistic, the other one pulls it back. It's a difficult balance to maintain, but the show pulls it off.

    There are plenty of coming-of-age tales on television, but what helps The End of the F***Ing World stand out isn't the title that reeks of faux edginess, it's the two leads who sell the teen bravado and every raw feeling that no emotional band-aid could ever cover. Without the vulnerability of Lawther and Barden, these antics would be a hard sell. Instead, this second (and likely final) season is incredibly moving, acknowledging the trauma experienced and the lengths these characters still have to go. In the end it wasn't the perfect teen tragedy, it was better than that.

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    Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina

    TOPICS: The End of the F***king World, Netflix, Alex Lawther, Jessica Barden