'The End of the F***ing World' Season 2: TV Review

Courtesy of Netflix
Still pretty great.
11/5/2019

The acclaimed British Netflix series about two teens on the run finds enough mojo to continue its story in this second season.

The best and most helpful thing to take into the second season of Netflix and Channel 4's breakout series The End of the F***ing World is that it can't be as great as the first season because almost nothing can. 

That's helpful, but it's also a starting point for a debate about whether Netflix should have done a second season in the first place for a show that was based on a graphic novel by Charles Forsman (written for TV by Charlie Covell) that ended rather perfectly where the comic ended: Two 17-year-old teenage runaway delinquents, Alyssa (Jessica Barden) and James (Alex Lawther), have come to the end of the world, literally, at the ocean, their way forward (given what's behind them) completely murky but definitely bad, and James makes a dash down the beach to keep Alyssa out of trouble from the pursuing police. A shot rings out. Fade to black.

It was an excellent, out-of-nowhere series that broke a ton of rules about what usually works in television and succeeded because it was skilled and audacious at breaking them. On top of that, few episodes ever reached the 18-minute mark, containing within them more story and character than plenty of hourlong dramas. It was a real tour de force: The performances of Lawther and Barden were excellent, and Covell's choices in the writing and how to bring the book to life were spot-on.

Well, here we are with all the secrets lost — Netflix did bring back the show for a second season, trusting Covell to come up with a story and in the process deciding that the ambiguity surrounding whether James lived or died on that beach would have to be explained (and the key art for the new season is all the spoiler that you needed, even though the streamer curiously and hilariously asked reviewers not to spoil that; comments from all involved with the show and the production of it pretty much makes that moot as well).

Which is fine, really. Once the decision was made to do a second season and the overriding rule of what would make it work — having Alyssa and James be together in some form — was decided, all that was left was to not fall too short of the high-water mark that season one set.

The good news is that season two of The End of the F***ing World stays true to the vibe of the first season, has a decently good but not great story and manages, by the end of the final episode (of eight in total), to have righted most of the wrongs that came before it.

And yes, there are some missteps. The voiceover trick that worked so brilliantly the first time around even when it shouldn't have (voiceovers are death to drama and lazy, for the most part), not surprisingly, is less effective and sometimes egregious this time out. But then again, when it matches the magic of the first season it's a thing of beauty. And there are some pacing issues, as Alyssa's struggles with overcoming PTSD frequently come off as her being petulant or mean and prolonged bouts of that highlight that there's not a ton of plot here. Perhaps most troubling, one of the later episodes uses a visual cheat that should never have been allowed (grumble, grumble), particularly because its jarring inclusion seems cheap and isn't truly believable anyway.

That said, the better parts are more frequent than the lacking parts; it's a pleasure to have James and Alyssa back in viewers' lives, no matter how damaged they are.

And they are. That's one of two key themes this year. The other is the introduction of Bonnie (Naomi Ackie), who drives the plot in season two because (and this is decently clever) she was in love with Dr. Clive Koch (Jonathan Aris), whom you might better remember as the existentialist author whose house Alyssa and James break into in season one and who happens to be a serial killer.

Bonnie is... not well. And Bonnie is very, very annoyed when she finds out two rogue teenagers have killed her lover (though, clearly, she doesn't really know what he was doing in his free time).

For the most part, the writing still has the same style and zing that was evident in season one. Like when Alyssa, in the first of her lengthy forays into being irritated with everyone around her says, "Being shit runs in my family. It's in my blood." Or when James says, "On paper, things looked quite bleak for me. I was a homeless orphan on the run with a married woman." 

Covell also does an excellent job of having all the characters use the word "okay" in various ways with various inflections and meanings. 

But the truth is nobody is really okay in The End of the F***ing World because there's too much grief and shock and, well, bad deeds (and bad parenting) to overcome. 

"For a while now, I don't think I've been properly in my body," Alyssa says, and the audience has understood this about her long before she's come to the realization herself, mostly because we saw it in her trembling lips and her water-filled eyes even when she was awful or petulant to someone near her (another excellent performance from Barden). 

Lawther also is reliably excellent and conveys grief, confusion and, yes, some joy, in equally revelatory ways. Ackie is equally sure-handed in making Bonnie a compelling compilation of damaged, naive, sad and lethal. 

Ultimately, there's not as much material or story here as in the first season, nor the same amount of magic, but only the former could really have been fixed. It would have been nearly impossible to top season one. The question now, for Netflix and for Channel 4, is whether there's more story here. Probably not, since season two ends on a fine note, but we said that about season one and look what happened.

Luckily, it all worked out in a close enough approximation of the superb highs from the first go-round, but risking a third installment on a story that now seems exhausted wouldn't be wise.

Cast: Jessica Barden, Alex Lawther, Naomi Ackie, Christine Bottomley
Written by: Charlie Covell
Directed by: Lucy Forbes, Destiny Ekaragha
Premieres: Tuesday (Netflix)