tv review

The End of the F***ing World Should’ve Ended With Season One

Jessica Barden returns as Alyssa in season two of The End of the F***ing World. Photo: Netflix

In the ongoing case of “Well, That TV Show Definitely Did Not Need a Second Season,” I present exhibit No. 812: the second season of The End of the F***ing World. The follow-up to the first season of this British series, picked up by Netflix for international distribution, takes what was an audacious riff on the classic “two crime-committing lovers on the run” story and drains it of anything resembling a pulse.

On one level, I can understand why the first season, based on Charles Forsman’s comics, seemed to merit a second. After the two troubled and misunderstood protagonists, James (Alex Lawther) and Alyssa (Jessica Barden), killed a professor in self-defense — he was trying to rape Alyssa when James stabbed him right in the jugular — the season ended on a cliffhanger with police closing in on them. A gunshot was heard as the finale cut to black, making it unclear whether James was dead or alive. It was natural to wonder what had happened to him, and to Alyssa, even though The End of the F***ing World stood on its own just fine as a contained, eight-episode series with a deliberately ambiguous ending.

But thanks to a fandom that built around the show, a second season was commissioned, with creator and writer Charlie Covell back on board to script the episodes and collaborate with a pair of female directors: Lucy Forbes, who handles the first four, and Destiny Ekaragha, who tackles the last four. Things get off to a promising start with the introduction of a new character named Bonnie (Naomi Ackie), a woman who, like James and Alyssa, grew up in a highly dysfunctional family environment and is both aimless and a bit dead inside as a young adult. Via flashback, the series lays out how Bonnie became one of the victims of Clive Koch (Jonathan Aris), the previously mentioned professor who, as is made clear in season one, is a sexual predator. But Bonnie doesn’t see him that way. She considers him her boyfriend. In the present, when she finds out he has been killed, she sets out to seek revenge on the person she considers responsible for his death: Alyssa. If the first season came across as an update on Natural Born Killers, the second begins with a very strong Kill Bill vibe.

Unfortunately, it’s a vibe the season can’t sustain. As Bonnie, minus her Clive, hits the road to track down Alyssa, now working in a diner and living in a rural area with her mother and her mother’s best friend, the suspense leaks progressively out of the season until all that’s left is a flaccid, deflated balloon. When Alyssa eventually connects with Bonnie, not realizing at first who she is or what her intentions are, they wind up encountering new kinds of trouble. As for James, yes, he does enter into things, though I can’t say how because Netflix has asked that his condition be kept under wraps for spoiler reasons. What I can say is that every character in this show, most especially and crucially Alyssa and Bonnie, are, by design, completely stripped of any emotion. That makes it hard to care what happens to any of them.

This was an issue in season one, too. Both James and Alyssa were outcasts who had trouble relating to others. But when they were together, they started to find some version of joy, or at least reason to emote. Some of the pleasure came from watching the two of them start to come out of their fogs, even though the things that jolted them awake were, you know, heinous crimes. By contrast, in season two, everyone stays stuck in a fog. It’s like the entire season has Resting Ambivalent Face.

Ackie is convincing as Bonnie, who is so numb that she barely makes facial expressions and responds to most questions with one-word answers. When her expression changes and she finds reason to smile, there’s something foreboding and unnatural in it. There are shades of what Lupita Nyong’o brought to Us in Ackie’s performance, but the character, as written, is missing depth and a sense of genuine mystery. Barden’s Alyssa, with her thick Yorkshire accent, remains an interesting presence, but she’s either irrationally angry about something minor or, more often, completely flat in her tone and affect. Given the trauma she’s been through, her behavior may be understandable, but it’s hard to hook into her story as a TV viewer.

In End of the F***ing World, whose episodes are only around 20 minutes or so, there’s both a lot that happens and, at the same time, nothing at all. There’s a ton of exposition packed into each episode to help fill out what went down for Alyssa and others in the year since we saw them last, and plenty happens in Bonnie’s interaction with her alleged nemesis, too. But when the season ends, you’re left with a strong sense of, “Is that all there is?” There’s no new perspective or deeper point made by season two that wasn’t already conveyed more effectively by season one.

One notable thing about the series is its soundtrack. Practically every moment is filled with the sound of an old rock, folk, or pop tune, from “This Would Make Me Happy” to The Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” to “I Lost Something in the Hills.” It gives the series a strong sense of mood, but it also feels like it’s compensating for the lack of feeling in all other aspects. There may be a lot of songs on the season-two soundtrack, but what’s missing from these eight episodes is a sense of music.

The End of the F***ing World Should’ve Ended With Season One