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‘The End of the F***ing World’ Successfully Combines Romance and Moral Ambiguity

The British comedy brings a misanthropic love story to Netflix

Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden standing in the woods in ‘The End of the F***ing World’ IMDb/Ringer illustration

There’s been a lot of “boy meets girl” on our TV screens of late: Lovesick, Catastrophe, and Jane the Virgin all fit the rom-com bill. There’s even been “terrible boy meets terrible girl,” á la the aptly named You’re the Worst. What there hasn’t been is a show that pursues television’s twin impulses toward the morally ambiguous and the romantic quite like The End of the F***ing World, the British Channel 4 comedy that landed stateside via Netflix last Friday. Over the season’s brisk eight episodes, young lovers James (Alex Lawther) and Alyssa (Jessica Barden) commit sins far more egregious than skipping in the brunch line or puking in an Uber—forging a connection that’s deeper and stranger for them.

The End of the F***ing World, sourced from a 2013 graphic novel by Charles S. Forsman, has a macabre, deadpan style that practically screams “cult hit.” The two protagonists, bored teens in a boring English suburb, alternate voice-over duties, letting the audience in on the perversion that lies just behind their stoic facades. (This dynamic is already a specialty for the two young actors: Lawther broke out as an online harassment victim eventually unmasked as a pedophile in Black Mirror’s “Shut Up and Dance,” Barden as a brutalized child prostitute turned misandrist serial killer on Penny Dreadful.) James is a self-described psychopath and aspiring serial killer who once stuck his hand in a deep fryer to see if the pain would register; he’s already experienced in pet butchery and hoping to make the leap to larger prey. Alyssa is less violent but much more ferocious, perpetually pissed off at everything and everyone around her—especially her douchey, creepy stepdad. One day at lunch, Alyssa marches up to James, tells him his skateboarding fucking sucks, and an epic love story begins. She sees a fellow traveler. He sees a perfect first victim.

Given the aforementioned background information, it’s neither a surprise nor a spoiler to say that James and Alyssa’s adventure racks up a body count once they decide to ditch their hometown in search of a fresh start, though it’s hardly the stuff of James’s fantasies. (There’s a lot less planning involved, and a lot more panic.) What is surprising, however, are the changes that take place in James, Alyssa, and their desperate, destructive bond. A lesser show might cling to the shallow thrills of a British Bonnie and Clyde tearing their way across the countryside, maintaining a cooler-than-thou detachment from the consequences of its leads’ actions. That’s the vibe on Preacher, another stylized comic book adaptation with a two-lost-souls pairing at its center that insists it doesn’t care so firmly it has trouble getting the audience to when the time comes. The End of the F***ing World, however, understands James and Alyssa’s performances of all-knowing assuredness—to their families, to each other, to the viewer—are just that: performances. In this respect, if not many others, they’re typical teenagers.

Slowly, The End of the F***ing World slips us into James and Alyssa’s skins as they get under each other’s. (Though not too slowly: Every episode clocks in at around 20 minutes, an underrated key to pulling off an audacious tonal experiment like this one. Like fellow Netflix comedy Neo Yokio, The End of the F***ing World buys our patience by knowing not to demand too much of it.) Both reveal deeper traumas linked to a missing parent: Alyssa has an absentee father who walked out when she was 8, though she insists she doesn’t blame him; James initially tells his girlfriend that his mother “lives in Japan” instead of disclosing that she died by suicide in front of him when he was a small child.

All of this is simply plot, however. What distinguishes The End of the F***ing World is how it incorporates James and Alyssa’s hang-ups into their behavior and interactions rather than simply using them for twisted bits of color. As James morosely admits to himself once he’s satisfied his bloodlust, he’s not an actual psychopath: He’s just been repressing feelings all his life (or at least he was until Alyssa came along) lest the pain of his mother’s death break through the emotional dam. Alyssa, for her part, has picked up on her mother’s subliminal messages that she’s the only thing standing in the way of Mum completely immersing herself in a refurbished life: new husband, new kids, old, sullen teen daughter. It’s Alyssa who initiates the road trip.

James and Alyssa’s dual narration, often a superfluous means of injecting exposition, proves crucial to how the story’s action unfolds. The End of the F***ing World mostly uses its heroes’ inner monologues to highlight the distance between how they present themselves to the outside world and how they actually are. At first, the device is a comic one, with James using a mild-mannered exterior to conceal the full extent of his bloodlust. Then, it’s instructive: Alyssa confidently instructs James about what to do in the wake of a murder, though the viewer knows she’s panicking on the inside. Finally, the voice-over is downright sweet; when Alyssa and James’s conversation finally syncs up with their thoughts, we know both how unusual that is and what they’ve had to work through to achieve that level of honesty.

Both Lawther and Barden give excellent, hopefully star-making performances, as they must for The End of the F***ing World to pull off what’s essentially a four-hour two-hander. The cops on James and Alyssa’s tail get their own running B-plot, though they can never hope to compete with the renegades on the run. And unlike on Hulu’s The Runaways—streaming-hosted comic book shows about teen runaways being another bizarrely narrow niche enabled by Peak TV—the protagonists’ parents are never fleshed out into full human beings with issues like those of their children. That leaves Lawther, who almost physically transforms as his character opens up from bitter recluse to a scared kid with something to lose, and Barden, who understands that toughness and neediness aren’t mutually exclusive, even in the same moment, to shine. They’re more than enough.

The End of the F***ing World may or may not continue past this first season, which ends in seemingly definitive, definitely satisfying fashion. But what that one season accomplishes is something truly impressive: an ironic romance that blossoms into a real one without ever feeling like a betrayal of its authentic, misanthropic self. Alyssa and James are a couple we root for because we know we shouldn’t, then root for because anyone with a beating heart should. Who are we to deny the power of two crazy kids in love?