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‘The End of the F***ing World’ Is Finally Being Honest About Love

The Netflix show’s second season lacks the fireworks of its first, but its sober assessment of relationships may be more gripping

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Most critical assessments of The End of the F***ing World’s first season agree that it was just about perfect, striking the exact right balance of whirlwind, heat, and flash. In 2018, the show rolled onto Netflix and exploded like a cherry bomb. It immediately invested you in the internal and almost physical transformations of two loser teenagers as they stumbled through small-town Britain, and then evaporated after achieving the emotional catharsis it came for—all in less than three hours. Once James (Alex Lawther), the would-be serial killer, commits his selfless but very flashy act of love, and Alyssa (Jessica Barden), his savior, has gotten a decent glimpse of what love looks like, what’s left is the actual work of being in a relationship which, understandably, nobody was all that stoked on. When The End of the F***ing World was renewed for a second season, the overwhelming response was why?

Season 1 was self-contained, ending on a deliberately ambiguous note: James led police on a chase across the beach after killing the creepy and predatory professor Clive Koch (Jonathan Aris), who was about to force himself on Alyssa. There was sad music, and then there was a gunshot, and finally an ominous fade to black, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions. I was 100 percent certain James was dead, because it’s pretty difficult to run in Dr. Martens when you’re not running on sand, and also, his form was atrocious—he was never going to make it.

The big reveal of Season 2, however, is that he did, after a fashion. “It was a fitting end,” James says via voice-over. “A doomed love story. A perfect tragedy. And then I didn’t die.” He beat the murder case on self-defense and recovered from his gunshot wound at the hospital, where he also reconnected with his dad, who then promptly died. His grief drives him out of his house, after which the real-life estate was demolished, but the writers agreed that showing that in the series would’ve been a little much. Alyssa hasn’t fared much better: She was catapulted to the English countryside when her mother panicked over the collapse of their nuclear family and took Alyssa to live with her aunt. Also, Alyssa’s marrying an absolute dullard she seems to have known for all of two weeks. The feeling you get from Season 2 is that of a devastating comedown from a dizzying high. Even though none of this happened in the book that Season 1 is based on, I maintain that Season 2 is good.

When our two star-crossed lovers meet again, Alyssa believes James to be a random stalker, and he is stalking her, even if he thinks of it as “making sure she’s safe.” When Alyssa confronts him, he crashes the car. It’s funny in a mortifying way, and though she asks what he’s doing here, her internal monologue tells us that her “heart is beating in my face.” The End of the F***ing World has retained the morbid sensibility and dark situational humor that made it a cult favorite, I am happy to report.

However, the second season isn’t as magical (?) and doesn’t boast the emotional growth of the first, because James and Alyssa are getting back to zero, rather than going zero-to-60. Season 2 is about a breakup, but it’s really about grief, but it’s really, really about the ways we thwart ourselves on the long and winding path to meaningful resolution, which may not actually exist. The source material, the nihilistic graphic novel by Charles Forsman, is pretty clear on this. In the end, James dies, and Alyssa goes mad with loneliness, eventually branding her dead lover’s name on her forearm with a hot nail. The End of the F***ing World, the show, is more hopeful that closure exists, even as it tries to convince us that it doesn’t, not in the way we’d like to think it does.

The new face on the show is Bonnie, who gets the entire first episode to herself. She’s also a despondent teen from a broken home who’s killed before. She’s played by Naomi Ackie, who can hide so much anguish and rage in a forced smile, and pack so much personality into a subtle neck shimmy. Somehow an overbearing mother explains why she almost became a victim of Koch, whom Bonnie believed to be her boyfriend, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. She wants revenge, and in a pivotal scene when she confronts James and Alyssa at a diner—a kind of hammy literalization of the past coming back to haunt the present—she asks, if you can’t just kill your way out of it, “then what do you do with all the pain?”

The show doesn’t offer any good answers, because there aren’t any. If the first season was a smash-and-grab, series creator Charlie Covell has been discussing the second as a matter of sweeping up the broken glass, which is obviously a lot less fun. It may be precisely what fans who didn’t want a second installment feared: an epilogue that ends not far from where it began and doesn’t connect as well as the original story. It is, however, honest about the gas pockets we can hit while mining past trauma as we attempt to better understand ourselves and connect with each other.

In Season 1, The End of the F***ing World was a well-produced show where two teens were headed nowhere fast. In Season 2, it’s a show where three teens could be headed somewhere, possibly, at a much more cautious pace.