When The End of the F***ing World was being written, no one could have known how prescient or satisfying an episode like this would turn out to be. Alyssa’s summary of sex from a woman’s point of view — that it can go from feeling like pleasure to punishment in an instant — neatly summarizes what’s so necessary about the national conversation on enthusiastic, ongoing consent. Alyssa and James are a sort of modern, teenage Thelma and Louise, holding onto each other as they travel through a world that proves itself dangerous to them at every turn, avenging each other as best as they can.
Alyssa and James wake up, still snuggling, still fully clothed, on the motel bed. Before she opens her eyes, he flashes once again to his mother on the swing bench in his backyard.
Alyssa wakes up and they check out of the motel, paying entirely in cash that they stole from the man who assaulted James. James seems eager to get to Alyssa’s dad’s house, but Alyssa demurs, saying that they should try to lay low for a few days. They are criminals, after all.
Her idea of laying low involves breaking and entering into a house whose current occupant is on holiday. After expertly observing the piled-up mail and lack of burglar alarm, Alyssa smashes open a window, and she and James play house for a bit. The home’s owner is an author named Clive, and he’s got a generous liquor cabinet of which Alyssa immediately partakes. (In voice-over, she muses that she might like to become an alcoholic so she’ll always have something to do.)
As they consider what to do with their time, what we’re really watching are two children playing worldly dress-up. (Alyssa still calls adults “grown-ups,” after all.) James makes dinner for the pair — he had to learn to cook because his dad doesn’t — and they sit in the backyard drinking wine. After dumping their plates in the pool, Alyssa suggests they dance, and James finds that he’s unable to say no to her. He closes his eyes and gets into the music, and she notes that he is “properly beautiful.” She kisses him, and, for the first time, he kisses her back.
Alyssa attempts to give James a blow job — both of their first — but he has her stop. She’s immediately offended. That she takes his rejection so poorly and so personally speaks to another facet of consent culture: the idea that all men constantly want sex. Alyssa has internalized a need to be the object of male desire, and James seems to be just now grappling with the fact that he may be interested in sex at all. It’s a bad combination, and Alyssa storms out of the house in a huff. Walking around the suburban neighborhood, she meets a man who goes by Topher, whom she only speaks with briefly before inviting to come home with her.
James, meanwhile, considers the fact that he may have real feelings for Alyssa, and with real feelings come real complications. Pushing past his own resistance, James, sweetly and boyishly, picks some flowers from the house’s garden, and then puts them in a vase he finds too close for comfort to multiple gallons of bleach.
Alyssa arrives back at the house with Topher in tow, leaving a dejected James sitting in the living room with a pot of wilting flowers. In a very sweet moment, James picks up Alyssa’s discarded jacket from the floor and carefully folds it over a chair. While he waits downstairs, he rifles through the home’s cabinets … and finds some disturbing Polaroids of women that Clive appears to have abused. James also finds a video camera and a tape showing similarly disturbing footage.
Meanwhile upstairs, Alyssa asks Topher to have sex with her. Almost immediately, though, she tells him to stop, and he leaves, reacting just as poorly to rejection as she did with James.
James waits for Alyssa to fall asleep so he can kill her. Or at least, so he can use the pretext of killing her to sneak upstairs to sit next to the bed, quietly observing how peaceful she looks when she sleeps. He falls asleep on the floor, in a beautiful little moment of sweetness and respect before something really awful happens: Clive comes home.
Hearing the door open, James immediately hides under the bed. Clive investigates the mess that the intruders have made out of his house, but his initial fury eases when he sees Alyssa in his bed. He approaches her sweetly at first, then immediately turns sinister, asking if Alyssa is a virgin before attempting to rape her. Once again it seems worth pointing out just how good Jessica Barden’s performance is — this scene is hard to watch, and it must have been exceptionally hard to perform.
James slips out from under the bed and stabs Clive in the neck. Then, in a sequence reminiscent of Gone Girl, he bleeds out onto Alyssa. Shell-shocked, Alyssa and James stare down at his body. He asks her if she’s a virgin. She says that she is.
When you consider what happens whenever James and Alyssa open themselves up to each other and the world, it’s easy to see why each of them built up their own protective shells. Tony, the veteran, Clive, and possibly James’s father: There is an element of sexual violence to all of the adult men in their lives, and a lack of protection from the seemingly similarly abused adult women. There’s a hostility to the world that they — and the audience — inhabit, and it’s understandable why they would become hostile in return.
But at the center of it all, a fragile beauty exists in Alyssa and James discovering each other and skirting the edge of falling in love. The world is ending in flames and a phoenix is rising.
(By the way, the song featured in the credits is “Laughing on the Outside” by Bernadette Carroll. You’re welcome.)