‘The End of the F***ing World’ — A Subtle Masterclass
I must confess that I was ambivalent to start this series. I had heard friends rave about this show, revelling in its hilarity and its inventive plot. Naturally, therefore, I was sceptical. In the words of Super Hans from Peep Show, “People voted for the Nazis and like Coldplay. You can’t trust people.” Of course, seeing a swear word in the title is always a bit of a red flag — it’s generally quite pretentious, a bit attention-seeking, and therefore there is the immediate implication that it’s trying to make up for the show not actually being that good. However, I finally decided to try it, reasoning that if I didn’t like it, I would only lose about 4 hours of my life. Well, these were 4 hours very well spent. It was truly understated brilliance.
Essentially, this is a show about two misfits trying to find their place in a world which they hate. Throw in a bit of a love story, a bit of murder, a dash of revenge, and load of tension, and you’ve got the plot. It’s not totally unique in this sense, and it clearly got inspiration from the great Thelma and Louise, but it is definitely a sound synopsis. And it is definitely gripping for the audience. It works off a nice model, where each season builds to two climaxes: one midway through the season, and then the ultimate climax at the end of the season. I found myself physically gasping at each of these moments, which is a rare experience for me. I am not an expressive viewer in general. I very rarely elicit physical responses to shows, so when it does happen, I generally take that as a good sign. So yeah, it’s got a good plot. But plot alone is not enough to make a show worth writing about. A show needs great writing, great editing, great characters, great performances, all of that stuff. Well, this had all of those in spades.
The standout aspect of this show is the performances of Alex Lawther (James) and Jessica Barden (Alyssa). I have seen a few things which Alex Lawther has been in, and I’ve generally been impressed by his work. Jessica Barden, on the other hand, was much more of an unknown for me. In any case, these performances seem defining in their respective careers. I was so impressed by both of them. It’s often the case that young actors have a tendency to over-act everything, especially when they’re meant to be displaying a more intense emotion, and this is excruciating to watch. Just look at Tyger Drew-Honey in Cuckoo (and in fact, everything he’s ever been in since Outnumbered). But these two manage to restrain themselves in this sense, and don’t compromise any of the emotional conveyance. These characters are full of teenage angst and anxiety, and not only is this totally clear, but the subtlety of the performances render them more human for the audience. In addition to this, the pair develops very well over the two seasons, especially over the season gap. It’s a development that doesn’t require any cheesy plot-points where the characters take a step back and verbally assess the lessons that they are learning in a very American way. The two just change naturally. Yes they do reflect, and they do notice themselves changing, but this is done very neatly. The fact that we as spectators are allowed access into their own private thoughts in a sort of more serious Peep Show way is helpful in this regard. But generally we see the effect of their journey and their time together having a direct impact on the two of them. And as if this wasn’t enough, they are funny together. This isn’t just a drama after all; it is a comedy of sorts. James is beautifully understated and often quite careful and particular about his actions in quite an anal way. On its own, this isn’t that significant, but in the context of the high intensity plot, this creates a juxtaposition that is funny to watch. Possibly the best example of this is the scene when he and Alyssa are trying to break out of the car impound lot, and to do this they must drive through a locked gate. However, James’ quiet and understated nature leads him to drive much slower than necessary, as he “didn’t want to make too much noise.” Lawther plays James as if he shouldn’t really be in this story, and it totally works. Alyssa, on the other hand, is much more confrontational and almost represents everything that everyone wants to be, but can’t for lack of courage. She seems not to care about anyone else in a really ballsy way, and when the filter is turned off, she can say anything she wants, and this is genuinely funny. I have no idea whether the accent Barden uses in this show is her own, but it totally fits her character, which is yet another key example of the attention to detail that she brings to the role. So yeah, hats off to the pair of them.
The other key feature of this show is the editing style. As previously mentioned, this is a crazy plot, and generally with crazy plots come crazy edits. The pacing is often very fast, there is often a lot of extra-diegetic noise, and the camera angles tend to change very quickly, often lots of colour, et cetera. This project, however, takes almost the opposite approach. The whole edit is very subtle and precise. We are often left with no extra-diegetic noise whatsoever, and this often results in near silence. When extra-diegetic noise and music is used, it’s often just to reflect a character’s mood more than anything, rather than to artificially inject adrenaline into the scene. In addition, the pacing is generally slow, even in the ‘action’ scenes. Perhaps most significantly of all, the scenery and cinematography is very ordinary. Not in the sense that it is mediocre. Not at all, the series is full of great cinematography and great camera work. Rather, it doesn’t exaggerate anything. It’s all quite grey and gritty. It depicts England. England in its most ordinary, naturalistic sense. The whole edit made me think of what No Country for Old Men, or even Thelma and Louise, would’ve been like if they were set in England. It’s a strong depiction of the forgotten England that is so rarely seen in TV. And this is the perfect choice, in my opinion. The whole edit perfectly encompasses the boring worlds that both James and Alyssa don’t fit into, and are desperately trying to escape. Given, therefore, the fact that these two are our whole focus, and that we are allowed access into their psyches, we are seeing the world through them. We are immersed at a distance. The whole style is divine.
And as if this weren’t enough, the edit allows for humour really nicely. Throughout we have these smash cuts to previous events in the character’s lives, as well as imagined scenarios. Though sometimes these are used to show us the inner workings of James’ disturbed brain, they are usually used for visual gags. This is a tried-and-tested technique, particularly in American TV comedy. Just look at 30 Rock, Brooklyn 99, New Girl, Family Guy, to name just a few off the top of my head without any real careful deliberation. Here it works very nicely, and the edits on these are very clean; no side-wipes, no ‘swoosh sound’ (for want of a better term). Of course, the insights into the two main characters’ thoughts work well for the comedy, as these insights often directly contradict what the character then does. Peep Show pioneered this really, and though it is very similar here, it’s not gimmicky; it doesn’t feel at all stolen and crammed in for the sake of it.
On the whole, the edit is really impressive for me, and it really elevates the whole show from being good to being great.
As if this wasn’t enough, I do want to make a special mention for the supporting cast, in particular Naomi Ackie as Bonnie, the psychotic lover of the murdered professor. Throughout the second season, she acts as a perfect antagonist. Her performance is necessarily cold and disturbed, and yet she manages to convey her character’s humanity. This is a character that has had all sense of morality perverted, both from her difficult upbringing and her damaging relationship with the professor, who also happens to be teaching, or rather dictating, philosophy. It’s a really complex character, and Ackie manages to convey this often just through the way she moves and talks. Again, it’s the subtlety that’s so admirable here. Everything is done to just the right degree, and we, as an audience, can’t easily assess her character, which is just what makes her a great character.
Besides her, the majority of the supporting cast are made up by cameos from a few big names, such as Tim Key, Paterson Joseph, Juliet Cowan, Matt King, and the list goes on. These characters tend to be there almost as caricatures to allow for comedy, which I quite like. In a project where we are evaluating two to three characters at great detail, it’s nice to have these guys working as a comic relief, though again, they are all subtle and perfectly naturalistic in their performances. They just fit. I tip my hat to the casting director.
It’s not a perfect show. I do have my issues with it, but they are so minor by comparison that I feel little need to mention them. I am just much more interested in everything this show does right. And essentially, it’s the subtlety I love. Despite the craziness and the drama of the plot, it’s all very reserved in a very British way. There are a million stories of murderers on the run, and yet this one really stands out because it doesn’t try to do too much. It’s very real. It’s very human. It’s very, very good.