Everything I said in my first recap about this show having the potential to be cloying? I take it all back. I am officially, unreservedly onboard with The End of the F***ing World.
First off, this episode seems to prove that far from being an actual psychopath, James is a troubled kid who sublimated his deep-seated sadness and anger into homicidal urges. James and Alyssa, now free from their parents on the open road, can do anything they wanted to … so, being teenagers, they pick laser tag. James isn’t particularly into it, but Alyssa just blew all the money she brought with her, so then they dine and ditch at a café. We learn that Alyssa’s absent father is a bit of a small-time criminal, and her admiration for him is clear. (He’s the one who taught her the rule, “If it’s a chain, it’s free reign.”)
Later, James accidentally crashes the car after Alyssa tries to initiate what Dionne from Clueless iconically called “vehicular sex.” James gets pretty nervous about the accident, which is understandable enough, since his dad loves that car. But I do not think a psychopath would care if his dad loved a car.
The car blows up dramatically — Alyssa’s mistaken promise that it won’t blow up because they’re not in a film, and “if this was a film, we’d probably be American” really tickled me — with James’s shirt still in it. The pair decide to hitchhike, and flag down an Army veteran driving a minivan. He seems like a decent guy, and he offers James a sweater to wear, but the revelation that he’s on his way to buy a dog for fighting unsettles Alyssa. The man does offer to help the teens get in touch with their families, though, and James tells the driver that his mom is dead. Alyssa gets angry, as James had previously told her that his mom was currently living in Japan.
When the trio stop off at another diner, Alyssa asks about the driver’s family. He reveals that he has a wife and two kids, and Alyssa’s attempts to make fun of his baby seem to put off James. Alyssa walks out, and James is left alone with the veteran, who assaults James in the diner bathroom. In James’s voice-over, we learn that sometimes when things happen, he just goes numb and allows them to happen. It is yet another piece of evidence that his homicidal tendencies may be the result of trauma and not of a lack of emotion. I wonder if he had more than one reason for punching his father in the face, and more than one reason to be afraid of his dad getting upset about the car?
Alyssa walks in on James and the driver in the bathroom, and threatens to call the police or visit the driver’s wife if he doesn’t give them his wallet. He complies, and then Alyssa and James talk outside the diner. Alyssa asks if something like that has happened before. James hesitates just a moment too long before saying no. Alyssa declares that she’s tired, and the two check in at a motel — “a double room with double beds for double sex.”
In Alyssa’s voice-over (side note: now that I fully trust the show, the voice-overs no longer bother me), she admits that she really needs to cry. Once they get into the room, Alyssa has James put on some porn so that she can go break down in the bathroom. James readies his knife and waits just outside the bathroom door, but when he overhears her sobbing, his resolve falters, and he puts away the weapon again.
Once she’s done, Alyssa steps out and uses a payphone to call her mom’s house. Tony picks up, and Alyssa asks to speak to her mother, but Tony says that she doesn’t want to speak to her. Heartbroken, Alyssa hangs up. Meanwhile, Gwen looks clearly disappointed that she didn’t get to speak to her daughter, but she also looks too nervous to say as much to Tony.
Alyssa pulls out an old birthday card from her pocket. It’s from her dad, and includes a picture of herself as a baby.
Back in the room, Alyssa informs James that she is never going home. She asks James if he wants her or if he is just going along with her. James reassures her that he wants her. Alyssa tells him that they’re going to stay with her dad. Then, in a rare moment of vulnerability, Alyssa asks James to cuddle her. He does. She looks content, but his face registers something less certain. His mind flashes to puddles of blood.
Meanwhile, James’s father calls the police.
The End of the F***ing World is nothing if not unflinching and compassionate, which is what makes it so remarkable. This is a show that exposes the demons of its characters — both leading and minor — and finds ways to show compassion for them nonetheless. I worried that the show would try to hide its humanity in much the same way that James and Alyssa do, but just two episodes in, I’ve been proven deeply wrong. With the possible exception of Tony, who so far seems to be flat-out evil, every character acts out of a place of very human hurt. It’s compelling and it’s sad.
I am not particularly worried about whether or not James will end up killing Alyssa, though it does occur to me I probably should be. It sure seems like if James actually wanted to kill her, he would have done it already. But I am also watching this a week-ish out from the show’s premiere, and I am aware that something big happens in the finale. It would subvert all my expectations for The End of the F***ing World to end in a murder, but then, it’s already subverted my expectations multiple times. So maybe that’s exactly what I should expect.