“I learned the truth at seventeen,” croons singer-songwriter Janis Ian as The End of the F***ing World’s pilot episode comes to a close. The soundtrack of Netflix’s new British dark comedy is pure gold, with Soko, Mazzy Star, Fleetwood Mac, and the unnervingly fun “Keep on Running” by The Spencer Davis Group providing clever background entertainment, but it is this ‘70s ballad about feeling like an outcast that perfectly encapsulates the sentiments of this quirky, aesthetically pleasing, surprisingly satisfying series: We all play the game, and when we dare/ we cheat ourselves at solitaire/ inventing lovers on the phone/ repenting other lives unknown.
But enough about the music. Let’s get a couple of things out of the way: 1) There will be blood, lots of it; and 2) main characters Alyssa (Jessica Barden, Penny Dreadful) and James (Alex Lawther, Black Mirror’s Shut Up and Dance) are assholes. At least that’s what they would want you to believe, because it’s easier, simpler. They’re not nice kids who smoke pretend cigarettes and visit reclusive authors in Amsterdam—sorry not sorry, John Green. She’s impetuous, perpetually sullen (the rolling eyes emoji is her spirit animal), and rude to an astonishing degree. He kills furry pets and insects for shits and giggles; his left hand is horror-movie grotesque because he once stuck it into a deep-fat fryer just to feel something. “I’m pretty sure I’m a psychopath,” he says. We’re pretty sure he’s right, until things escalate at breakneck speed—the totally binge-able series only comprises eight 22-minute episodes, after all—and suddenly we aren’t.
A story about a pair of assholes needs a solid driving force behind the assholery, and that’s where this show ultimately succeeds. Through brilliantly executed inner dialogue revealing an adolescent vulnerability beneath their brash exteriors, poignant but not melodramatic flashbacks that serve as puzzle pieces to the bigger back story, and an assortment of characters (watch out for Eunice and Teri, who are literally good cop and bad cop) expertly weaving in and out of the plot to give us a deeper understanding of our young Bonnie and Clyde, we soon discover why these kids are the way they are, and though we don’t completely forgive them, we begin to feel some semblance of compassion, and in spite of ourselves, wish that fate guides them toward somewhere a little bit safer and warmer.
What makes this series so delightful is that it is blatantly self-aware. “If this was a film, we’d probably be American,” says Alyssa in one scene, her deadpan tone dripping with snark. The show’s amalgam of influences is obvious but refreshing, borrowing from a heady blend of Wes Anderson, Pulp Fiction, True Romance, and Richard Ayoade’s charming Submarine. A gory heist-road-trip-love-story isn’t exactly anything groundbreaking, but the visuals are striking, the plot compelling, and the performances from Barden and Lawther resolute yet restrained—making the show, much like its two rebellious leads, more than the sum of its parts.
YA romances tend to be sickeningly sweet, but the series seems to catch itself whenever it drifts into dangerously saccharine territory. After a requisite lover’s quarrel, Alyssa sheepishly reaches for James’s hand, then shatters the moment by snapping, “Not your weird one,” referring to the deep-fat fryer disaster. This is not to say that the show falls short in tenderness, though. There is still, despite the bleakness that lurks at every corner, enough love to go around—a truth that the 17-year-olds eventually learn.
Until the very end (of the f***ing world), you’re never really sure if James and Alyssa are good for each other. But there is a glimmer of hope in knowing that there is some good in each of them, individually, if not now, then maybe later. The End of the F***ing World is about our demons—both those born out of our own actions and those handed to us by our murky, unresolved yesterdays—but it is also about the redemption in consequences, and how coming of age always converges at one point where you either float on and let your past decide how your future unfolds, or take control of who you were, who you are, and who you will be, squeezing happiness out of hate, love out of loss, and emerging with some version of yourself you can live with for the rest of your life.