"I'm James. I'm 17. And I'm pretty sure I'm a psychopath."
That's how Netflix's The End of the F***ing World opens. It's a line that elicits a laugh, because it's just so, so...well, teenager. What teenager hasn't imagined themselves to be some dark and brooding mystery? What teenager hasn't had a moment (or thirty-seven) where they thought they were unique in a way no one else could possibly understand? What teenager hasn't felt like a weird misfit at some point?
In James' case, however, it quickly becomes apparent he actually is a psychopath—well, sort of. At the very least, he's a sociopath, well on his way to being a serial killer. A void where there should be human emotion, James (Alex Lawther)—who once shoved his hand into a deep fryer just to feel something—has already cycled his way up to killing neighborhood pets. We know how this story ends.
He meets his unsavory match one day in Alyssa (Jessica Barden), a new girl in school whose angry streak rages from within and who operates in a constant state of aggressive rudeness. Teenagers are rebellious, but Alyssa is an entirely new level of hot mess, verbally assaulting anyone that dares get in her way—and in particular anyone who shows kindness. One thing leads to another and, after stealing James' dad's car, the two go on the run, a Bonnie and Clyde for the post-millennial generation.
The first few episodes find James constantly fantasizing about killing Alyssa, and as for Alyssa, well, she'd wear anyone down. She's awful. On paper, they are eminently unlikable characters and hard to connect with. It's hard as a viewer to connect with James as he constantly reminds us he's not just a kid but a killer in the making, and Alyssa is so abrasive that she continually pushes the audience away just as she does the people in her life.
Multiple taboos are explored in the series. There are typical teenage moments, such as an awkward kiss, but there are also notable moments that are typical of the teenage experience that are nonetheless rarely if ever depicted on screen, ones that involve sex and normal bodily functions and physicality. Adults like to avoid thinking about teenagers in any sort of way that indicates they are sexually mature and active; depictions of teenagers tend to enclose them in glass cases and keep them away from anything that hints at it, particularly girls. And you know what? It's funny. These embarrassing, shocking, awkward moments are ones we all experience. TEOTFW tells us it's okay to laugh at them.
There are even darker currents and more taboo subjects to be found beyond the scenes of fumbling teen discovery and sexual awakening. It's bleak, black stuff, even for a YA series based on a graphic novel.
Yet, the murder and the depravity and the nihilism work. Something happens as you watch. Eventually you find yourself laughing, and then empathizing with, and then liking James and Alyssa. The series is narrated in turns by each and you learn that what's going on inside isn't necessarily what they project outwardly. James has a sly, deadpan sense of humor and we see, even before he does, his growing feelings for Alyssa. And Alyssa isn't unaware of how awful she is—she just has no idea how to stop herself from saying the things she does, but she has enough self-awareness and humility to be embarrassed every time she lashes out.
They both wear masks to protect them from a world that has rejected them in some way, constructs designed to get them through miserable lives. Slowly, their nihilism and sociopathy are stripped away to reveal the raw core of trauma that made each of them what they are. James' past has left him emotionally crippled, drowning in his own repressed grief but unwilling to deal with it. Alyssa's father abandoned her family years ago; her boozy, weak mother is remarried to a man who neither loves nor wants Alyssa around, but is more than happy to leer at her developing body when they're alone.
It's not that these kids don't feel anything—it's that they've felt too much and it broke them. The darkness of the subject matter is fitting. James and Alyssa aren't sheltered teenagers; both learned at a young age that the world is a dark and screwed-up place. It's through the framework of that darkness that you view the pair, however, and because of it, empathize with them. Yes, the world might be a dark and screwed-up place, but sometimes that darkness can be funny in a cackling-into-the-abyss sort of way. We all use gallows humor to get through difficult times. The difference is that The End of the F***ing World doesn't apologize for it.
By the end of the season, you find yourself rooting for the pair to evade capture, even though you know in your heart there can't possibly be a happy ending for two kids just trying to survive in a world that has proven utterly indifferent to them. The black nihilism of the show accomplishes something remarkable. It allows the quiet moments of character development and vulnerability to be that much more meaningful and to resonate more deeply. There might not be redemption in their world for James and Alyssa; instead, they find their redemption in the audience. The world may not accept them, but the audience ultimately does. And for two kids who have never belonged, that might be enough.