End of the F***cking World

Here’s a major f***ing spoiler alert for the series “End of the F***ing World”. If you haven’t seen it yet, you really f***ing should.

Historically, television has played second fiddle to film – if not in terms of popularity, then certainly in prestige and critical acclaim. Film calls to mind the casual elegance of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the lush cinematography of auteurs like Kubrick or Kurosawa, and a tradition of smart writing with snappy dialogue. Every generation has a film that captures the spirit of the age – though what exactly that film is will vary depending on who you ask.

Recently, television has been stepping out of its elder brother’s shadow. The rise of intelligent, acclaimed series from the early 2000s have encouraged higher production values and attracted major talent to television. Showrunners such as Aaron Sorkin or Shonda Rhimes have become iconic in their own right, and new forms of storytelling have developed, notably anthology series like American Horror Story or self-contained episodes à la Black Mirror.

This television renaissance has entered yet another phase with the evolution of online streaming services from distributors to fully-fledged production studios that have proved their ability to compete with mainstream outlets. While streaming is an increasingly crowded field, Netflix is both the pioneer and dominant player, consistently putting out a range of varied content. It’s willing to take risks on niche pitches and original work that falls between the gaps in a ‘money talks’ industry – and this is reflected in its broad slate of programmes. While Netflix’s experimental approach has had hits and its misses, it’s undoubtedly revolutionising television as a business and an artistic medium.

End of the F***ing World is a newcomer to Netflix’s cast of originals which manages to engage in sensitive, thoughtful, and realistic discussion of many issues that society would much rather sweep under the carpet. While topics like suicide, eating disorders, and abusive relationships have become cable television fodder in recent years – possibly because dark, sexy topics attract our morbid fascination – they are rarely handled well. This series, however, takes a frank, open but also comic approach to navigating these modern teenage realities – much the same way we ought to deal with it in our own lives.

While topics like suicide, eating disorders, and abusive relationships have become cable television fodder in recent years – possibly because dark, sexy topics attract our morbid fascination – they are rarely handled well.

The show does not depict the teenager in trite student scenarios – instead, the plot is entirely centered around two socially awkward seventeen year olds, Alyssa and James, who run away from home and their respectively disastrous family lives. One of our leads believes himself to be a serial killer with the initial goal of murdering his female counterpart. However, written into this somewhat outlandish plot are key parts of the human experience that are usually either overused for dramatic impact or completely ignored. End of the F***cking World, instead, finds a clear and poignant balance between the two.

Alyssa, the object of James’ love / murder interest, decides to run away because she feels undervalued by her family, and in particular because of her relationship with her emotionally abusive stepfather. He jokingly instructs her in the first episode to, “Just leave. Do us all a favor.” Elsewhere, he puts his hand on her side and says, “You look good when you make an effort, don’t you?” In other shows, this might foreshadow the big reveal that Alyssa’s father had been sexually abusing her the entire time. But here, it’s just one of many sinister undercurrents that have become so commonplace in reality, they’re no longer convincing or compelling as show-defining plot twists.

While the relationship  between Alyssa and her stepfather is not fleshed out completely, it doesn’t need to be. The simple act of him putting his hand on her, the offhand cruelty in his tone, and how scared Alyssa’s mother seems to upset him in the slightest, is a perfect representation of abusive relationships and parenting, and how these dynamics can exist in the background of one’s life. The audience is given just enough information to shade in this tragic reality, but not enough to let it become the singular focus of the show. Instead, End of the F***ing World is more interested in showing how all these occurrences can be part and parcel of someone’s life – and how two young people grow and cope with it.

Sexual assault is another recurring theme in the show, from Alyssa’s stepfather’s casual inappropriateness, to outright rape and violence against women. End of the F***ing World portrays a broad spectrum of harassment, many of which transcend our standard, legalistic definitions.

One sexual encounter, not unlike that of the recent Aziz Ansari controversy (if you’re looking for a similar visual account of the experience), featured clear signals of discomfort: “I changed my mind. I’m sorry; I’m not into this…” that were met with opposition and continued advances by the partner. And when Alyssa adopts the “clear no” that some critics have called for by saying “Respect me changing my mind and f**k off, please”, the man involved gets angry, storming off while calling her a “prick-tease b**ch.”

These questions on the nature of consent and whether it can be withdrawn are not new, but are infrequently depicted in media. Such storylines are difficult to run because there aren’t clear-cut answers, and studios may worry about dividing their audience. End of the F***ing World takes a risk by engaging with potentially messy issues, and it has resonated with the many women who find themselves in sexual situations that they don’t want to be in. Having Alyssa defend her choice and her body onscreen is empowering for anyone who has felt coerced by social expectations or fears of reprisal.

Later in the same episode, Alyssa gets attacked and held down by a serial rapist. This is a separate version of sexual misbehavior, moving into the realm of outright assault and rape. The progressively escalating depictions of sexual misconduct each have a deep impact on the survivor, and are all incredibly common in today’s society. It is necessary to acknowledge these occurrences, to be aware of their nuances, and recognize the female power in all of them. End of the F***ing World does this with remarkable insight, especially through Alyssa’s reflection: “It feels like sex can go from something you want to do, to a punishment, really f***ing quickly.” It’s part of a larger cultural moment that includes short stories like The New Yorker’s Cat Person that are opening up a dialogue around the disparities in expectations from sexual encounters today.

The show further demonstrates that women are not the sole victims of sexual assault. After crashing their car, James and Alyssa hitch a ride with a seemingly normal and kind man with a family. While stopping at a restaurant for some food, the man follows James into the bathroom, takes James’ hand, and puts it on his own penis. Hitchhiking is well known to be dangerous for women, but the idea that men can only be sexually inappropriate towards women is false.

James’ home life is equally complex. His interactions with his father are defined by the early trauma of his mother’s suicide – each have their own ways of coping, either by blocking out any and all emotion, or trying to fill the void. As explained by James, “I think maybe my dad spent his whole life trying to avoid silence. When you have silence, it’s hard to keep stuff out.” Both approaches acknowledge the difficulty in dealing with loss, and how mourning is at once a collective but also isolating activity. This aspect of the show also touches on themes of masculinity and the aggressive avoidance of emotional labour – but without being preachy. James’ reaction is to withdraw from the world, choosing to suppress his feelings rather than go through the messy, painful process of addressing them.

The result? James believes himself to be a psychopath. It’s a realistic depiction of how past trauma affects our mental health and behaviour, as well as how death and suicide can affect a family.  The ‘damaged psychopath’ trope is somewhat overdone these days, but the show fleshes out James’ backstory in a way that allows the audience buy into its pulpy premise.  And while such a plotline could easily lend itself to melodrama, the show handles it with humour and delicacy. James’ condition is certainly played up for laughs, but we’re never laughing at him – it’s more the perfect absurdity of the situation, married with an empathy that anyone with strained parental relationships can offer.

James’ identity is a common topic on the show, including discussion of his sexuality. Due to his lack of stereotypically “manly” qualities such as sexual aggression, this is often questioned. When he first brings Alyssa home to meet his father, James’s dad voices happiness at him finally having a girlfriend after assuming he was gay for so long. Alyssa immediately responds, “Maybe I’m gay. Maybe he’s asexual. We’re dealing with a really broad spectrum these days.” While said in jest, she makes a fair point. Sexuality can be conceived as it as a non-linear spectrum that defies convenient pigeon-holing.

The show also touches on eating disorders; while Alyssa loves to eat, her mother does nothing more than stare balefully at her food. As Alyssa explains, “My mum says that if food were her boyfriend, she’d be in an abusive relationship. She says it like it’s a joke but it’s not.” The metaphor here is apt – while eating disorders have gradually made their way onscreen (Netflix’s recent To The Bone is another example), there have been varying levels of success in unpacking the true nature of them. It’s rarely as simple as ‘I don’t want to eat’ – the relationship with food is about control, it’s about ownership, it’s a constant push and pull between one extreme and the other. Abusive relationships are much the same, and it’s difficult to get over both, even if you’re aware of the problem.

All of these concurrent tensions are intertwined – Alyssa’s mother is shown cooking and serving food but never eating it herself, while looking for approval in the eyes of her controlling husband. That one line also captures our tendency to deflect with self-deprecating humour – almost as if telling ourselves that if we can make self-deprecating jokes about it, we must be the ones in control. The show works this into its own format – dark humour is at once a way of concealing and also coping with the characters’ individual struggles, and a vehicle for the show to raise these heavy issues and start conversations around them.

The show also provides an alternative depiction of friendship and intimacy. While James and Alyssa are in self-proclaimed love, their relationship is not really physical.  Alyssa talks about wanting sex, but whenever she actually gets down to it, she realises it’s not what she truly desires. The show does not make it clear whether this is because she is asexual, just not ready, or something else altogether. This is powerful, because Alyssa is still young and trying to understand her own interests.

There doesn’t have to be a fully rationalised answer to these questions the protagonists confront. There may not be an actual answer at all. In doing so, the show eschews the usual conventions of coming-of-age dramas by not using sex as shorthand for character growth. Instead, Alyssa and James’ development is portrayed through other plot devices. By avoiding lurid Hollywood glamorisation of intercourse, the show centers the relationship on the emotional connection between James and Alyssa, as well as their growing maturity and transparency with each other.

End of the F***ing World acknowledges all of these conflicts as common and universal. They’re things that most of us live through at least once – each and every one of them a miniaturised catastrophe, our own personal end of the world. It could very well be depressing, but the magic of this show is that it isn’t. Instead, it’s compulsively watchable, often hilarious, and its brief run lends itself well to bingeing. It juggles weighty issues while committing to an outlandish, pulpy premise (love! murder! impulse road trips!), the disparate threads of which eventually come together for a satisfying emotional payoff. So the next time you’re in the mood to skip your lectures and lie in bed all day, we highly recommend  recommend End of the F***ing World as the perfect waste of your afternoon.

by Genevieve Grant, Rhe-Anne Tan, and Safia Southey

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