The first season of the comically harrowing, rudely melancholy British series ‘The End of the... World’ finished with what could be construed as a cliffhanger. A teenager fled the police across a dingy beach; the screen went dark; a shot was heard. Credits.
Modern television abhors the vacuum of an unanswered question — just ask David Chase — and season two of ‘End’ has the answers. Raising the question of the new season’s necessity might seem unkind, especially when watching its eight short episodes takes less than three hours.
But the question kept nagging at me as the suspenseful but altogether less urgent events of the second season ticked by. In its first season, ‘End,’ written by Charlie Covell based on Charles Forsman’s graphic novel, was exactly the type of show — unpredictable, sardonic, disorienting — that didn’t call out for a neat resolution. The new batch of episodes, which Covell has indicated will be the last, is essentially all resolution, a season-long working out of the original story’s loose ends, and while it’s as assured in its execution, it’s ordinary by comparison.
To recap (season one spoilers ahead, season two spoilers right after): Alyssa (Jessica Barden) and James (Alex Lawther), 17-year-olds whose boredom, anger and alienation are at Chernobyl levels of intensity (and consequently both sad and hilarious), take off in a stolen car. There’s petty theft and the mistreatment of hapless service workers, but there’s also an encounter with a sexual sadist that results in a killing and the hopeless flight that ends with James running across that beach.
Season two, which continues the story past the end of the graphic novel, is haunted by those events in a literal way: They keep flashing onscreen, in the jagged, agonised memories of Alyssa and James (yes, he’s alive). It’s two years later, but neither can move forward from what were the most horrible and, in the unexpected closeness they shared, the happiest moments of their lives.
It might be the biggest spoiler to say that this eight-episode coda involves them finding their way back to each other and figuring out how to express their feelings despite their terminal awkwardness and protective armour of nihilism. But what else would it be about? To complicate the process, Covell introduces a third young character, a woman named Bonnie (Naomi Ackie), who like Alyssa and James has been warped by the harsh indifference and creepiness of the adult world.
Bonnie’s damage intersects with that of Alyssa and James, and she joins them in a violent misadventure that recapitulates some of the motifs of the first season — aimless road tripping through a backwoods British countryside reminiscent of ‘Twin Peaks,’ severe harm to an adult male who probably deserves it. The show’s attitudes and comic strategies are still in place, too, with the not-too-subtle punch lines delivered in an affectless deadpan and the reflexive undercutting of sincerity or sentiment.
It’s all still amusing, and the notes of strangled romanticism and just-perceptible nobility are still in place. But the plot doesn’t have the momentum and the crazy energy it did the first time around, and it’s harder to ignore the show’s calculating nature: how it uses Alyssa and James’ interior monologues to tell us what to think, and the constant musical cues to tell us how to feel, and the flashbacks to continually remind us of the stakes. You could make an argument in favour of this, as forthrightly postmodern mediation, but it’s really just predigestion.
The worst effect of this spelling everything out is the way it boxes in the actors — there’s not much left for them to communicate, and Barden’s relentlessly flat affect, in particular, starts to have diminishing returns. Lawther fares better if only because James’ cringing neediness is inherently funnier. Ackie, whose face fully registers the tumble of emotions inside Bonnie, dominates the scenes among the three of them.
Covell, working with directors Lucy Forbes and Destiny Ekaragha, still has a deft hand at embedding emotional epiphanies in the most rushed and unlikely moments, such as a remark James overhears while he crawls across the floor of a diner kitchen. This time, though, the story builds inexorably toward its big catharses, and unlike in season one, you’ll see them coming.
‘The End of the... World’ season 2 is now streaming on Netflix.