THE END OF THE F***ING WORLD, Episode Three
Starring: Jessica Barden, Alex Lawther
Director: Jonathan Entwistle
Writer: Charlie Covell
Based on the comic: TEOTFW by Charles Forsman
Review by: Joshua Leto
The first two episodes of this show used flashbacks and flash-forwards to both showcase thoughts competing with actions and to open up the perspective on previous scenes. We see or hear the scene from a different character’s perspective repeatedly. Episode three starts with a dark, subtle flash-forward, and with sinister music, which will pay off with primal fear by the end, but now I’m jumping ahead.
I think the dark comedy of the previous two episodes limited sympathy or empathy for the characters. I don’t want to start a long discussion about creating engrossing characters in comedy versus drama, but comedy can have a distancing effect. In a narrative that is happy to dive into self-harm, animal murder, sexual abuse, and nihilism in the first forty minutes, sympathy must not be the first goal. These topics, taken as comedy, are more likely to engender nervous laughter than uninhibited guffaws.
After the menacing image of pooling blood that kicks off this episode, we dig into the road trip narrative of our traveling teenagers, still on a bit of a romp. Unable to pull the trigger on visiting her father, Alyssa finds a house for them to squat in, junior-sleuthing her way into a fancy suburban home.
In the house, they begin playing grow-up, and in another unsubtle bit of dialogue, Alyssa thinks, “I’m trying to think of what adults do in situations like this.” We didn’t need to be hit over the head with this. She is showing us over and over that this is her goal. They make dinner and have wine, and then return to nihilistic form by throwing the plates in the pool, the last step of which felt telegraphed. By the time she did it, I knew too well what was going to happen.
The characters generate a bit more camaraderie through a charming sequence in which alcohol-damaged inhibitions relax to start a dance party of two. While this is a scene that has been shot many times, it is carried by strong performances. Jessica Barden shows that Alyssa is confident past her skills, which comes through in the body language and eye contact. James’s shyness and introversion are broken down by her appeal, and Alex Lawther offers some wonderful subtle changes in expression as he loosens up. The whole thing is held together by the smart choice of a whimsical Hank Williams tune.
Alyssa jumps back into playing adult with a clumsy sexual advance which quickly goes haywire. Alyssa storms off and James pines while she’s gone. There is a shot of James in a flashback that leads me to believe we will learn in a later episode that his mother has drowned. If I’m right, it’s some subtle foreshadowing. If I’m wrong, I’m a dopey reviewer.
A happenstance meeting on the street brings in a chance for Alyssa to make James jealous for his perceived slight with another uncomfortable sexual encounter. She meets a guy and literally parades him in front of James. He has as much character definition as any supporting cast member, which is to say, just enough. He is, of course, summarily dismissed as Alyssa recognizes and honors her feelings for James.
While they romp upstairs, James finds out why I believe in the rule Never trust a mustache. He finds evidence that the owner of the house is a true psychopath, well past James’s aspirations. The music dips low and industrial, and we know more bad things are coming.
When the homeowner returns, Alyssa is sleeping, and James is fawning. Jessica Barden again gets to show her acting skill when confronted by the returning owner. She shows that she is both afraid and shrewd, offering fear with her eyes and deference with her tone of voice. We have seen repeatedly that Alyssa reads danger in people quickly. She is looking for an angle of escape but also knows that she doesn’t want to antagonize the predator. Again, a fairly common scene held together by an actress showcased well. When James saves the day, all his conflicting wishes to come true, he is a hero to Alyssa and also gets a taste of blood. This whole tableaux very nicely allows our characters to keep their internal and external conflicts while still developing their relationship. There is also a wonderful visual bit of dark comedy as Alyssa is covered in blood that provides an absurd mask of a smile. This is then punctuated by dialogue that confirms that James isn’t as worried about taking a life as he is with impressing Alyssa.
Verdict: Watch It. And now we have thrust our characters into their next complication. I hope that this is the last of the escalating plot complications, as the strength in the writing so far is the internal character struggles, rather than some occasionally rote plot mechanics.