This review contains spoilers for the second series of “The End of the F***ing World”
The first series of the End of the F***ing World did not lend itself to a second. Following a darkly funny and deeply watchable Bonnie and Clyde-esque cross-country romance, in which teenagers Alyssa (Jessica Barden) and James (Alex Lawther) stole a car, murdered a rapist, and robbed a petrol station, the show wrapped up on James’s birthday.
Hit by the realisation that he was not, as he had previously believed, a psychopath, James sacrificed himself to save Alyssa: confessing to the police before hurtling across the beach with snipers shooting after him.
The final gunshot was heard, but not seen. “I’ve just turned 18,” said James, part of his internal monologue that runs throughout the series, “and I think I finally understand what people mean to each other.”
Although different to the ending of the comic by Charles Forsman on which the show was based, it was equally ambiguous. “Yeah, I didn’t really want to say one way or the other,” said Forsman in a 2018 interview with Vulture. “I like to leave things up to the reader. That’s a big thing.”
It was surprising, then – disappointing, even – to hear of a second series. This picks up with the ambiguity on which the first ended, reeling audiences in with a new plotline that, for the first episode, leaves us unsure whether James has survived.
Instead we meet Bonnie (Naomi Ackie), who, in true TEOTFW style, has suffered an abusive childhood and fallen in love with the first man to show her kindness. Unfortunately this kindness comes in the form of £10 for a taxi home after their weekly secret rendezvous; even more unfortunately he is the rapist Clive Koch, who was killed in the first series by James as he attacked Alyssa.
Bonnie has been in prison for murdering a woman – a victim, we realise – she saw at Clive’s home. Freshly released, she has a mission: revenge on Alyssa and – in a reveal that is by now a surprise to nobody – the very much alive James.
While his death would have perfectly rounded off the first series, the explanation for James’s survival – “It was a fitting end, a doomed love story, a perfect tragedy. And then I did not die” – is hard to argue with. Obviously he didn’t die, the viewer realises, that would have been too easy an escape for such an embattled character.
Throughout the second series, the audience’s doubts are repeatedly explained away in this no-bones-about-it manner as though writer Charlie Covell has realised all the plot holes that might have turned an audience off, and returned to neatly sew them up.
When we learn Alyssa is engaged, for example, I get it. We have already watched her character deepen, growing from an irritatingly brattish teenager to one simply seeking the attention deprived of her by her parents; perhaps it makes sense that she has settled down with a stable partner.
But when her fiancé quickly descends from amusing amateur Reddit conspiracy theorist to levels of stupidity that could rival Joey in the tenth season of Friends, hers becomes an odd decision for a woman who takes no shit. But my doubts are once again countered three episodes later, when, discussing Bonnie’s actions, Alyssa shrugs: “She’s got low self-esteem. People do all kind of shit when they feel bad about themselves.”
The series is not without its flaws, though, such as the eventualities that bring James, Alyssa and Bonnie together. Living in his car and permanently clutching the ashes of his recently deceased father, James receives what he has been waiting for: a reason to see Alyssa, delivered in the form of a bullet engraved with his name.
But after it becomes clear that Alyssa does not want to see him, James begins dejectedly driving home. Until, that is, she realises her mistake about 30 minutes too late, and walks out of her wedding reception – and straight, somehow, into his path. The pair begin what looks likely to be yet another difficult road trip – which is quickly interrupted by a stop to pick up a hitchhiker. Bonnie, obviously.
But the audience does not have time to wonder whether there is, in fact, just one road in this entire town. Instead, they’re distracted by Bonnie, whose few words are delivered in an alarmingly sinister manner by the brilliant Ackie.
Another grievance is the show’s reliance on sexual predators, which begins to feel like an overused and easy plot device; having in the first series already encountered Alyssa’s gropey stepdad, a man who inappropriately touches James in a service station toilet, and Clive Koch.
So when things take a dark turn with an apparently very lonely motel owner, who spikes Bonnie’s drink before asking her to watch him masturbate, it seems as though we should by now expect every character we meet to be a looming threat. Yet he, as with the others before him, serves a purpose: unwittingly saving James and Alyssa from what looks to have been their murders – for now at least – and the trio continue along their journey.
For the most part, the series is fast-paced easy watching, which keeps the viewer hooked through a series of heavy cliffhangers. Highly bingeable, it’s easy to see why Channel 4 felt the need to release it online in one fell swoop.
It’s weirdly nice to have Alyssa and James back on our screens, too, like old friends you haven’t seen in ages, and didn’t realise you missed. Barden and Lawther excel; their characters perfectly toeing the line between being haunted by their pasts – both are subsequently more awkward and angry around one another – and confused teenage chemistry.
The series also has pleasing symmetries with the first, both in that Alyssa seems destined to forever travel with a person who wants her dead – and in that James is again hiding a secret from her. Having spent their first journey together waiting to tell Alyssa that he was a psychopath intent on killing her, he spends the second waiting to tell her that he loves her.
Whether he will this time succeed in his aim – and whether their second trip will be any better fated than the last – remains to be seen.