“I’m James. I’m 17. And I’m pretty sure I’m a psychopath.”
James has no sense of humour. He kills animals in an attempt to make himself feel something. But animals are no longer enough: now he wants to kill something bigger. Alyssa has a sense of humour. She also has a stepdad who makes suggestive comments to her, and a mum who only seems to care about her new twin boys. Everything seems like the end of the world when you’re a teenager. But when these two meet, for them it just might be.
Written by Charlie Covell, The End of the F***king World is an adaptation of Charles Forsman’s 2013 graphic novel of the same name, and right from the first scene it’s clear that it is something special. As comedy-dramas go, the humour in this one is extremely dark, and although sometimes subtle is unwavering. Stylistically, with its striking visuals and forceful soundtrack, this production couldn’t be further from the simple black and white drawings of Forsman’s comics. And whilst some of the comic panels are reproduced faithfully in dramatic form, Covell’s adaptation makes both major and minor changes to the setting, plot, and characterisation.
For a start, Forsman’s graphic novel is set in the United States, and whilst this adaptation feels very much like an American road movie, with its 50s-style diners and remote petrol stations, it is firmly rooted in the south of England. “If this was a film,” says Alyssa, in a self-aware nod to both the source material and the original movie proposal, “we’d probably be American.”
James, who has set his sights on killing Alyssa, instead ends up being persuaded to steal his dad’s car and run away with her. From there, misadventure turns into misdemeanour, and then escalates, at first unintentionally, into a series of major crimes, as the teenage runaways make one bad decision after another. James keeps finding excuses to postpone murdering Alyssa, and when she ends up in mortal danger he doesn’t hesitate to kill in order to save her. This act – unsurprisingly – further complicates their relationship, and the pair end up actually on the run from the police. As Alyssa realises that James isn’t what she thought he was, he is having the same revelation about himself.
It’s easy to feel affection for these characters, despite their terrible behaviour. Alyssa is all rudeness and snark; brazen bluntness to cover her uncertainty. James is equally unsure of himself, but covers by lying, or pretending that he wants to follow Alyssa’s instructions. Both, in their own way, also try to do the right thing, try to rectify some of their many mistakes, but their misunderstanding of the world, themselves, each other, means that they just keep getting it wrong. Along with their errors, however, comes growth: “I was never Alyssa’s protector,” says James. “She was mine.”
Lead actors Alex Lawther (James), and Jessica Barden (Alyssa), never fail to convince, with performances that are straightforward, simple, understated. In playing characters who are angry, hurt, and slightly unhinged, their range crosses from comedy, through poignancy, to horror, often flitting back and forth within the same scene, and all flawlessly executed. Their opposite numbers are DC Teri Darego (Wunmi Mosaku), and DC Eunice Noon (Gemma Whelan), the police officers assigned to their case: a fascinating pair who both echo and throw into relief the actions and relationship of James and Alyssa.
The dialogue is stunning: crisp, clearly intentioned, perfectly honed. It reads like poetry. And yet, at the same time, it feels like realistic British teen dialogue: stumbling, blustering, testing boundaries. There’s a rhythm and a flow to it, and in performance Lawther and Barden provide the timing that turns their exchanges into a dance. Frequent, and appropriate, use is made of the voiceover as a technique for James and Alyssa to comment on the action, and to reflect their true feelings in the moment: feelings which often contrast starkly with their actual conversation. In James’ case, the voiceover also reflects on future events, imparting a sense of foreboding in the viewer. “I’d give us fucking medals,” says Alyssa. “They didn’t,” reflects James.
Whilst the action is set firmly in the present, circa 2017, both the production design and the eclectic choice of music are suggestive of a range of eras, from the 1940s to the 1980s. This has something of a bewildering effect on the viewer, and adds admirably to the overall quirkiness of the show. The story is not shown completely chronologically either, instead using the tension-inducing technique of jumping ahead in the action, and then later cutting back to show the viewer how a situation played out. It is also interspersed with flashbacks and thought-flashes which eventually shed light on James’ and Alyssa’s backstories. The editing of the piece is sharp, and quite fast, keeping pace with the idea of being on the run. Directors Jonathan Entwistle and Lucy Tcherniak do a stellar job of pulling together a patchwork of pieces into a visually distinctive cohesiveness with its own particular style.
First broadcast on the UK’s Channel 4 in October 2017, The End of the F***ing World picked up a new viewership, and further critical acclaim, when it moved to Netflix in January 2018. Currently no second season has been announced, but rumours suggest that it is a possibility, although it is arguable that the story as it stands is better off without a sequel.
A tale about teenagers will almost inevitably, at some point, focus on the testing of boundaries, as they try to work out how far they can go. But what do you do when you’ve gone too far? Do you just keep going? And how far are you willing to let things spiral out of control before stopping and claiming responsibility? These are amongst the questions raised by James and Alyssa’s horrifying, and yet somehow also heart-warming, story. Because The End of the F***king World, much like its lead characters, is a morass of contradictions. It is light-heartedly dark, hilariously bleak, ridiculously poignant. It could be discordant, but it is actually harmonious, surprising, and full of delights.
Embark on this journey with James and Alyssa, and you’ll want to just keep running.