NOTE: This contains spoilers so do not read this article unless you have finished End of the F***ing World, which you really should do because it’s very good and there are only eight very short episodes.
The third episode of The End of the F***ing World opens with the song “Laughing on the Outside,” a doo-woppy 1940s ballad covered by Bernadette Carroll, while the camera pans over a pool of dark blood that’s only just stopped spreading over a wood floor. The music sounds as if it’s playing underwater, or like it’s diegetic sound coming from a record player somewhere unseen and off camera. “I’m laughing on the outside, crying on the inside, ‘cuz I’m so in love with you,” the voice warbles, every syllable extended, somehow upbeat and depressed at the same time. The incongruousness of it — the song, the as-yet mysterious blood — makes you want to burst out laughing, even though you’re not sure why.
The soundtrack, which whiplashes from 1950s pop to quick interludes of heavy metal — is just one of the hidden weapons of the fully-weaponized The End of the F***ing World, a Netflix original about two troubled British teens who run away from home together. Gradually, TEOTFW unfolds itself from something funny and charming to something heartbreakingly tender and pitch black. It is the television show equivalent of a dying bird you find on a beach that you somehow can’t bring yourself to tell your friends about or a CD from your childhood you forgot about until you rediscover it years later, broken and unplayable. A rarity in an era when television is big and sharable and meant to be consumed in community, TEOTFW is tiny and precious and delicate, best watched alone in a dark bedroom.
The two teens, freckled and awkward, heartbreakingly vulnerable as they pretend to be tough, are James (Alex Lawther, from Black Mirror’s “Shut Up and Dance”) and Alyssa (Jessica Barden, Penny Dreadful): the former, a self-proclaimed sociopath who has grown bored killing animals and plans to make the latter — a sailor-mouthed 17-year-old trying to escape her wretched home life — his first human victim.
The show, written by Charlie Covell, is based closely on the comic series-turned-graphic novel of the same name by Charles S. Forsman. Some of the shots in the show — like James’ layout of all of the animals he’s killed — are pulled straight from Forsman’s black ink drawings. The changes are minor and trivial, things that don’t upset the basic plot of the show or its delicate emotional balance: James sticks his hand in a deep-fat fryer in the show instead of a garbage disposal; the owner of the house James and Alyssa squat in is just your run-of-the-mill rapist/murderer and not a Satanic rapist/murderer.
But there is another small change the show has made to the graphic novel that might have profound consequences: the ending.
Both the graphic novel and television show end with James and Alyssa finally being surrounded by police, with Alyssa’s deadbeat dad having called the cops on them. In the television show, James knocks Alyssa out and runs up the beach so that she’ll look like an innocent hostage. The police call after him — he’s armed, and already killed — and then fire. The show cuts to black just as a gunshot echoes, and then we get a saccharine Brenda Lee cover of (appropriately) “End of the World.” We do not see where, or if, the bullet hit.
In a film, this ending would have been absolutely perfect. The End of the F***ing World is a master class in that old filmmaking cliché of showing not telling, allowing tiny details — Alyssa’s stepdad’s hand on her back and her mother’s lingering gaze, for example — reveal more than any overt explication. The voiceover is straight from either James or Alyssa, colored by their perspectives, their doubts, and their limitations. At that moment, the cut to black, the ending is far more serious than either of their internal monologues could have anticipated. Their fun, seemingly consequence-free joyride had gradually dissolved into bleak and bleaker reality until it became an irrevocable tragedy.
But in 2018, all television shows operate under the threat of a second season. Both Big Little Lies and 13 Reasons Why seemed satisfactorily complete but, after massive popularity, both announced they would be returning for second seasons. (The latter is even more inexplicable: Hannah is already dead! She’s already left her 13 reasons. How could she possibly assign more homework from beyond the grave!? Well, here’s the how, apparently, in case you missed it.)
The TEOTFW graphic novel ends with a coda, revealing what we already more or less knew: Alyssa is home safe, and James is gone, and Alyssa carves his name into her forearm with a nail she runs through a flame. But in the universe of the television show, James might still be alive. And if that television show included a second season, he almost certainly would be.
Although no plans for a second season have been announced, I know that Netflix — and the entertainment industry as a whole — loves milking good content until there is nothing left to give (Scrubs went on for a ninth season, remember?) But when there’s something so perfectly self-contained as The End of the F***ing World, a dreamy, tragic arc from “sociopathy” to love to sacrifice, it seems a different, uglier sort of tragedy to try to wrestle more content from it. Like a cut-out paper snowflake, the most beautiful things about this show are the missing pieces, the cut-out stories are feelings that are implied by what we’re given. It’s almost impossible to imagine that filling in those gaps wouldn’t be sloppy with glue.