The End of the F***ing World is back for a second season. But where do you go after the first?
The season one ending of The End of the F***ing World was so severe, so final, that it was quite a surprise when a second season was commissioned. A pleasant surprise, but also a slightly confusing one – where to take these two characters, one of whom is dying on a beach, when their journey is so clearly at its natural end? Their shared experience (running away, killing a man, possibly falling in love) had come full circle and it seemed that no more could really be gained by bringing these characters back to our screens, and certainly not under different circumstances.
Here’s where all TV writers can take note from Charlie Covell, in how to double down on your original story to mine new material. Instead of shying away from the events that occurred in season one of The End of the F***ing World, Covell chooses to interrogate that trauma further, leading to a second season which builds on pre-established foundations and deals with the aftermath of the tragic events.
It’s certainly a risk. The End of the F***ing World is such a specific type of dry humour and deeply unsettling drama, and so much of the reason it works is tied up in the narrative of season one. However, by re-entering that space from the perspective of Alyssa (Jessica Barden), James (Alex Lawther) and newcomer Bonnie (Naomi Ackie), a few years later, the show only gets better with a second season.
Returning to Alyssa two years after the dramatic beach climax, the show quickly runs through how she has ended up living in a log cabin in a remote landscape with her mother and aunt. Alyssa’s mother, you might remember, isn’t the most supportive figure in her life, but she is incredibly excited about Alyssa’s upcoming marriage to Todd – a young man who is the reverse of James in every way. From the off, Alyssa seems more tense and wound up than ever – unsurprising as we soon learn that her mother essentially forced James to break up with her via letter – and her journey this season is not so much about letting down her walls, rather putting the slightest chip in them in any way possible. Alyssa does not just have her guard up, the guard is her entire personality. Barden is, as in the first season, incredible at depicting a character so completely insular whilst also encouraging the audience to empathise with her. The dry voiceover certainly helps but Barden’s mannerisms keep Alyssa from being completely unapproachable.
As for James – he has spent the past two years learning to walk again and rekindling his relationship with his hapless yet newly nurturing father who, very suddenly, drops dead of a heart attack soon into the season. James, lost and utterly alone, decides to seek out Alyssa, believing he’s in love with her. And so, our two protagonists find their way back to each other. In any other series this would be the beginnings of a love story, but The End of the F***ing World does not bend that way. This is a show about dealing with pain and trauma, and is refreshingly honest in its message that love simply will not wash away your struggles. If anything, it might make them worse.
Enter Bonnie, the show’s narrative driving force for season two. Bonnie, like Alyssa and James, is fundamentally damaged by her upbringing, her experiences with other people and her relationship to love as a concept. Bonnie, without going into spoiler territory, seeks revenge and will seemingly stop at nothing to get what she desires. Played by the wonderfully stoic Ackie, Bonnie is a force to be reckoned with, and what ensues next walks that difficult, yet utterly rewarding line of dead-pan humour mixed with devastatingly sad home truths. The three of them make an unlikely trio, but Ackie, Barden and Lawther gel seamlessly on screen in moments of awkward silences, personality clashes and genuine heart-stopping tension.
Bonnie’s relentless obsession with love and punishment stems (much like Alyssa and James’ trauma) from her childhood, specifically her mother’s lofty expectations and severe discipline when Bonnie fell short (a flashback involves Bonnie being forced to eat a tube of lipstick for having it in the house). Though James and Alyssa are wrapped up in their own world, Bonnie’s bizarre actions and the revelation of who she actually is forces both of them to look further inward at themselves, and what they need to do to move on.
Other highlights of the season include Paterson Joseph turning up as a good-hearted, unfortunately placed chemist (cast Joseph in everything please!), agonisingly accurate depictions of depression, and an ashes scattering sequence to rival The Big Lebowski. All of this against a backdrop of beautiful, isolating British countryside, the carefully constructed framing emphasising how alone all of the characters are. Yet, by far the most affirming element of season two was the way in which Covell turned the young love narrative on its head, transforming Alyssa and James’ runaway romance into something which feels more adult. Diving head first into a fiery, teen-angst ridden relationship is not the answer. Professional help is.
Screening across four nights in double bill episodes, with the entire season released online at once, The End of the F***ing World is designed for binge culture. Watch it all at once, and watch it now. You won’t regret it.