One of the most bracing Netflix releases of 2018, The End of the F***ing World is based on Charles S. Forsman’s graphic novel of the same name, which follows a pair of teenage misfits who decide to drop their dreary suburban lives and set out on a road trip through the middle of England. On the one hand, there’s James (Alex Lawther) who watched his mother commit suicide, can’t stand his father, and has enjoyed killing animals since he was a young boy. On the other hand, there’s Alyssa (Jessica Barden), whose mother barely cares about her, whose stepfather is openly hostile (and possibly abusive) and who hasn’t made a single friend since starting high school. After falling more or less randomly into each other’s company, James and Alyssa decide to emnark on a road trip together – James, because he wants to see what killing a human is like and decides to use Alyssa as his first victim; Alyssa, because she wants to catch up with her actual father, who has lived in the north ever since she was a young girl, and who she hasn’t seen since her parents separated many years ago.
For the first episode, that plays out in as nihilistic and brutal a manner as you can imagine, with James hitting his father in the face before stealing his car and then crashing it, at which point he and Alyssa decide to proceed on foot. It’s the beginning of a road trip that proceeds in fits and starts, and that is characterized more by fracture and dispersal than any real sense of a promising or comforting destination. When they do finally arrive at Alyssa’s father’s place – after many detours and disappointments – he turns out to be even more dysfunctional, in his way, than any of their parents, culminating with him turning them into the police for a reward, at which point they try to escape and take his boat to Ireland. Part of the reason that wants to turn them in is that they both commit manslaughter along the way, producing a secondary, oddball narrative that revolves around the two police officers charged with the case, Detectives Teri Darego (Wunmi Mosaku) and Eunice Noon (Gemma Whelan), who are in the midst of working out their own complicated romantic entanglement as their investigations narrows on the two teens.
In many ways, the series might be a bit too deadpan – at least for me – if it were static, or if there were even slightly longer episodes, or even if the road trip itself proceeded in a smoother and more streamlined way. As it is, though, that staccato momentum of the road offsets any nihilistic or cynical posturing, while there’s something genuinely punky and angular about the sheer brevity of the episodes (most barely clock eighteen minutes), as well as the suddenness and lack of fanfare that greeted its availability on Netflix. By the time you reach the end, it’s not hard to see why fans of the graphic novel have protested against the idea of a second season, since the sharpness and terseness of the series is part of its originality, in what often feels like a series of observations and utterances scrawled hastily and provisionally on a wall, barely dry before the directors move onto the following episode.
At one level, that makes for quite a discontinuous aesthetic, with some episodes more or less working as stand-alone shorts, and others adopting a more traditional serial continuity with what has come before and after. Running through it all, however, is a deep reverence for and communion with working-class counterculture, as the duo’s journey through the heart of England seems to yearn and brim for the kinds of working-class expression that were so critical to the punk era. As the series proceeds, the nihilism and bleakness of the comedy feels more and more like a way of expunging even the most residual nostalgia or idealisation from the longing for the punk past, and a testament to the series’ seriousness in trying to find some kind of continuity with the present, and a punk ethos for handling the present. Even as James and Alyssa seem consigned to an irrevocably post-punk present, their sense of spontaneity, ingenuity and what might be called a taste for the raw – a DIY aesthetic – finds them trying, time and again, to get at something that ruptures their suburban normalcy, in an era in which even punk seems to have been co-opted by that very normalcy, and to have left them no alternative voice to fall back upon.
For that reason, the duo’s voices are front and centre, continually hesitating and stumbling their way through one sentence after another, as if learning how to speak – or learning how much of their original accents to give away. Writing as k-punk, Mark Fisher once observed that, in England, class is something that you hear before you see, and that’s certainly very much the case here, with Alyssa, in particular, rotating through a vast array of outfits – she eventually decides upon a Barbra Stanwyck-style wig – as if considering all the ways in which she might dress up her accent, and the different options and combinations for concealing and revealing it at the same time. For all the nihilism, that imbues the two characters with an extraordinary vulnerability, as they search for a line of flight that might have once been available to their parents, but which is somehow less available for them.
Rather than provide any easy answer or solution, the series simply escalates the profoundly empty, vacant, denuded spaces – both natural and man-made – that crop up around James and Alyssa, along with a blank sense of time that often makes each episode feel much longer than it actually is. One of the powerful attributes of graphic novels is their ability to spatialise time – or to fuse space and time – and that’s certainly carried over here, with the kinetic ending finally converging on an endless marshland, and the duo’s plan to escape by boat thwarted by their realisation that the tide has receded miles and miles, leaving nothing by a dim, drab conflation of sea, sand and sky. At these moments, the empty time that hangs over so much of the film – the sense that the strictures and structures of societal time aren’t set up to accommodate working folk – at least becomes something that can be visualised, or made visible, just as James and Alyssa are, in these last moments, at least aware of what they’re up against.
The result is quite close to what Gilles Deleuze called the “any-space-whatevers” of the French New Wave, with the film actually ending with a quotation from The 400 Blows, as James runs away from the police out towards the open sea. Yet where Antoine Doinel was at least brought face to face with a barrier in the ocean, here the receded tide – and the uncertainty about whether or not James is shot as he flees – suffuses the end of the series with an even more profound placelessnesss. Setting picaresque and absurd gestures of freedom against that placelessness was the utopian vision of the New Wave, and in its own way The End of the F***ing World continues that gesture here more brilliantly than any number of more slavishly or Francophilic New Wave homages, in what may be one of the most quietly and brilliantly bracing series Netflix has yet commissioned.