Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old.
Must we be punished for our enjoyment of seemingly singular entertainments? We, like many Netflix subscribers in the US, fell in love with the British limited series The End of the F***ing World early last year. The adaptation of Charles Forsman’s graphic novel of the same (yet uncensored) name made our lists of the best TV shows of 2018 and the best TV characters of 2018. We implored everyone to binge the series and excitedly shared a guide to what to watch after doing so, highlighting such obvious influences as True Romance and Heathers. We even expressed optimism at the idea of a second season, despite our agreement with many fans that the first was perfectly complete.
In retrospect, we weren’t wrong. The first season is exceptional. And there was definitely room for something unexpected that also honored the characters with a return to The End of the F***ing World. But like other popular one-offs that unnecessarily spawn follow-ups, the second season (or second series, or sequel serial) is a huge disappointment that in its existence dilutes the strength of the original. Did anyone really desire or expect a happy ending? Was that the message writer Charlie Covell got out of the success of the first season? Did she see a repetition of the plot — only this time with a lot more sadness and psychological justice — as being the key to bringing back the characters of Alyssa and James? And did Netflix really believe the best way to market the new season was by hiding the return of the latter character and just generally looking less fun?
The beginning of the second season actually starts off really promising. The first episode introduces us to a new character, Bonnie (Naomi Ackie) and follows her backstory from her narrated point of view. She’s a troubled young woman, not unlike the two original leads. The difference is that she purposefully murdered someone and is now set out to kill again. Following that first episode, though, the series never again provides the internal voice of Bonnie and doesn’t seem that interested in her story after all. She’s entirely abandoned by the finale, too. That’s a very odd choice, and it makes a story that began with a twist, as well as added depth, feel like an afterthought. And most scenes with Bonnie, even if she was purposefully quiet, had become a bore anyway. She has one dimension, fueled by her naive love for an awful man and her drive to kill his killers.
Meanwhile, we’ve got the least spirited case of will they or won’t they in television history as neither Alyssa (Jessica Barden) or James (Alex Lawther) become any more interesting or likable this time around. Maybe Alyssa has finally stopped rolling her eyes in the final episode and come to terms with her need for help, but she had begun to show signs of growth in the second episode when she realizes not only the irony of her waitressing job but shows remorse for how she’d treated others, particularly in that job. Then we get a lot of the same from her until the very end. James, on the other hand, is a sad sack throughout. He deserves better and needs help, too, not just someone to love him. These characters didn’t seem right for each other in the first season, but that was part of their star-crossed intrigue. This time I wanted them so badly to move on.
If it weren’t for the continued constant needle drops and the one crazy scene of violence, the second season of The End of the F***ing World would have been completely bland. The dark humor is mostly gone, replaced by humdrum melancholia. What Alyssa and James go through might be a genuine follow-through to what they’ve experienced, but that doesn’t make it worth watching, and I don’t think the happy ending is the honest conclusion to all that, either. The ambiguity of the ending of the first season did leave a narrative mystery that leaves us charged in contemplation. The new ending could also be considered ambiguous if you don’t buy it. Are these kids going to last? Or aren’t they? Is this truly a happy ending depending on our choice? It’s not as curious an inquiry, and I sincerely hope we never get another season to find out what Covell would answer.