How 'The End of the F***ing World' Embraces the Absurd

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The End of the F***ing World, Netflix’s newest dark comedy imported from England, is creating a sub-division of television that is very much its own. Over the course of its eight episodes, the show emulates the style of an eighties cult classic, as if directed by Wes Anderson himself. While the quirky British humor and execution of subject matter has obviously separated The End of the F***ing World from other new releases on Netflix, it is the show’s take on absurdism that garnered a devoted following in less than a month after its premiere. The philosophic conflict between the human tendency to seek value and the human inability to find any has always been a favorite among pessimist audiences; however, the protagonists’ constant embracement of “the Absurd” is what fabricates the unprecedented tone. The fleeting moments that shape James’ inner monologue, present male stock characters, and narrate escape sequences all contribute to the absurdist approach that appeals to both the romantics and the cynics.

James, portrayed by the multifaceted Alex Lawther, is a seventeen-year-old that strongly believes he is a psychopath. While the equally confused Alyssa (Jessica Barden) sees James as a means of escaping her awful life at home, James views Alyssa as his first victim. Bored of killing animals, he pretends to fall in love with her so he can have his shot at murdering an actual human. He claims he cannot feel anything, relying on killing small animals and placing his entire hand in a vat of boiling oil in an attempt to reach some plane of emotion. These small moments are so ridiculous that we can't help but laugh at James. But as the show progresses, these absurd scenes begin to slowly explain his inner complexity. Intermittent flashbacks are strategically arranged in each episode, inviting us to sympathize with his otherwise disturbing mentality. One flashback in particular, placed after Alyssa temporarily leaves James due to a disagreement, reveals the childhood origins of James' depression; while he was feeding ducks, his mother proceeded to drive their car into that duck pond, successfully killing herself. Though unstable, James is arguably the most lovable character of the show. His inner monologue, as conveyed through these small yet absurd moments, combines empathy with the show's persistent nihilism.

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In almost every episode, a new minor character in introduced, each one having his very own set of distinctive qualities. First, after hitchhiking a ride from a war veteran, James ends up getting sexually harassed by this man in a diner restroom. Next, to make James jealous, Alyssa tries to sleep with a stranger named Topher. But when she changes her mind and revokes her consent, Topher goes absolutely ballistic. Then there is the serial killer, who owns the house James and Alyssa break into. When the serial killer returns to home to find Alyssa, he tries to rape Alyssa himself—James stabs him in the throat. And lastly, there is Frodo, the lonely gas station worker that helps James and Alyssa escape on their hotwired car with stolen gasoline. Though these four men have very few lines, they are all presented in the most ludicrous situations and end up heavily influencing the characters’ subsequent choices. It takes us a second to realize that James committed first degree murder, simply because the serial killer shows up with little notice and dies almost immediately. These strange yet memorable stock characters come and go, making us immune to the growing cynicism of the overall story.

The major characters of this show are constantly on the run, the vehicle of flight being the driving factor of the plot. During their initial run from home, James ends up driving his dad’s car into a tree. It subsequently blows up. Later, Alyssa’s deadbeat father, in an attempt to escape confrontation, drunk drives home. He runs over a dog’s neck, forcing Alyssa and James to kill it out of mercy. And then there is James who impulsively runs towards the ocean, in a futile attempt to outrun the police force. This motif of escape provides the audience with constant spontaneity, keeping us on the edge until the last minute of the eighth episode. These escape sequences are vital to the story, placing unexpected comedic moments within dramatics scenarios, blending the contrasting genres amongst the darker themes.  

Taking in the initial premise, the mere idea of a psychopath and his intended victim being in love seems highly unusual. However, compared to the chaos that ensues, their relationship is what is the least absurd. James and Alyssa can work because compared to the tragic backstories, eccentric male archetypes, and bizarre routes of escape, their romance is the only thing that really does make sense. With all of these sequences in mind, James and Alyssa have every right to believe the world is purposeless—yet with no one else to rely on, they find meaning within each other. It is their united interplay with the Absurd that solidifies the marriage between the comedic and dramatic, the romantic and the cynical. These fleeting moments of The End of the F***ing World create an unparalleled interpretation of absurdism, separating the series from its Netflix counterparts and making it worth the single, sit-down watch.