Midway through the final episode of The End Of The F*cking World season two, Alyssa (Jessica Barden) has a kind of epiphany. She’s walking up the drive of a house. The house. The house where she and James (Alex Lawther) murdered the sadistic professor Clive Koch (Jonathan Aris) back in season one. It was a turning point in the show, a moment when this darkly comedic Bonnie & Clyde tale of two unfeeling outcasts hitting the road together in search of meaning (or, at the very least, a good time) went from idealized escapist fantasy to … well, something else. Something bleaker, something nastier, something that won’t wash away as easily as Alyssa’s boxed hair dye.
In fact, what happened in that house, and the way it’s been haunting our antiheroine for the past two years is the reason creators Jonathan Entwistle and Charlie Covell brought this show back for another season.
“You can think you’ve run away from something,” Alyssa says in a monotoned voiceover. “But actually, you’ve been carrying it with you the whole time.”
I won’t tell you that season two is as fun as the first go-around or that this revelation Alyssa works towards isn’t anticlimactic. But that doesn’t mean fans shouldn’t be thankful for more of this show and its strangely grim young leads.
In a time when we’re constantly questioning the need for more of a good thing – more seasons, more sequels, just more – The End of the F*cking World season two proves that a bit of fan service doesn’t mean the death of good storytelling. Did we need a follow-up to the cliffhanger of season one, an ending that saw Alyssa and James on the run for a variety of crimes and James shot (presumably) dead on a beach? Maybe not. But if that installment was dedicated to the evolution of Lawther’s offbeat loner from presumed psychopath to murderer, but with feelings, season two is all about Barden’s depressed, despondent rebel Alyssa. And that’s a story that deserves to be told because after the wild rush of petty theft, breaking and entering, and yes, killing, wears off, going home again? It sucks. It’s also inevitable.
At the start of the second season, Alyssa and her mom escape to the countryside after she’s cleared of all charges. She serves up hot plates at a diner, goes steady with a hopeless dimwit who doesn’t push her to examine her past any more than what is comfortable — when she tells him of her time on the run, he asks for her opinion on chicken fajitas — and she most definitely doesn’t think about James, or Clive, or swimming in the latter’s blood. And while she’s actively not feeling, James is feeling everything. He’s alive, his body is broken by the bullets, his spirit is crushed by the loss of Alyssa. The two are forbidden to see each other and Alyssa’s mom gets James to end their relationship in writing. Which makes the prospect of Bonnie (a terrific Naomi Ackie), an actual psychopath on a mission of revenge, even more terrifying.
Bonnie, a maladjusted young woman, struck up a relationship with Clive in the not-too-distant-past, a one-sided romance that consisted of trysts on his corduroy couch in between his pornographic torture fests with other students. She fancies herself in love with Clive, so much so that she ran a woman he most certainly assaulted down with her car on his word that she was a former lover blackmailing him. When she discovers what Alyssa and James have done while serving a prison stint, she coldly calculates serving them their due “punishment.”
Most of the season is a cat-and-mouse game in which the cat rides in the backseat of a beat-up Honda and the mice bicker in the front with no clue the mouse has a gun lodged in her backpack. There’s the needed tension to move the story forward, a few romantic revelations along the way, another accidental murder to keep the bloodthirsty amongst us sated, but the whole season boils down to Alyssa, who despite escaping that house, still feels like a ghost haunting its halls. And there are fewer adrenaline rushes — save a standoff in the cafe between Bonnie, Alyssa, James, and an apple strudel — but there’s more insight, particularly into the aftermath of trauma and the inertia of living a “normal” life. It’s unsatisfying, deflating even and yet, after her crime spree, it’s all Alyssa wants. To feel, to forget, to forge ahead without debilitating flashbacks.
What’s worse, when James stumbles back into her life, he looks at her like she might be able to save him. He’s lost his dad to a heart attack, he’s been living out of his car, he’s killed a man for her. It’s that last fact that weighs heaviest on Alyssa, the guilt nearly crushing her when they’re forced into long periods of silence. If season one was about the fever and madness of young love, season two is about the uncomfortable reality of starting over after a break-up, when one half is desperately searching for love and acceptance and the other is scrambling to find an escape.
There are still bits of the show’s trademark humor — Bonnie deadpanning the truth that she killed someone, on purpose, to her old classmate, or James discovering his father’s ashes have gotten wet, forcing him to clumsily pour the muddy remains out under an overpass. It’s funereal fun stretched out a bit too long to hold any spark, but there’s meaning, a sense that even the anarchistic among us must grow up and deal with our sh*t, which is what Alyssa does by the end of the season, accepting her love for James and the very real truth that that love doesn’t fix her internal problems. She’s shattered. She must put the pieces back together herself. And James must find a way forward that doesn’t hinge on another person, especially one as damaged as Alyssa.
It’s not the Romeo & Juliet ending we were promised. It’s kind of better.
Netflix’s ‘The End Of The F***ing World’ is currently streaming.