What constitutes a great sequel? Another adventure that contributes to and expands upon the universe and the characters established in the first work? A new and more formidable adversary for our hero to take on? A satisfying outcome to the problems left unanswered in the antecedent? Or an exploration of new challenges and conflicts that are then seen through to the end?
At a time when cinematic universes and film franchises have taken over both the box office and our cultural imagination, we are constantly inundated with sequels, prequels and spin offs. And more often than not, producers greenlight unwarranted sequels in a bid to turn highly appreciated small-scale projects into mammoth money-minting franchises (a case in point being La Casa De Papel). Thus the trepidation with which I approached Season 2 of The End of the F***ing World (TEOFW) was not uncalled for.
However, Season 2, as a sequel, offers a very interesting case study. Unlike what we usually encounter, Season 2 of TEOFW does not follow its protagonists on a new adventure. Rather, it is rooted in the first season, lingering on the aftermath of prior events and undertaking painstaking psychological explorations of the deeply troubled protagonists. In an interview with the BFI, Charlie Covell, the scriptwriter of the series, mentions that this was a deliberate step. She says, “There’s a world in which you could just re-set, but we were telling a story about murder, deep trauma and various forms of abuse. You couldn’t just go, ‘oh well, what’s the next adventure?’” However, despite being rooted in its predecessor, the second season also carries out a reversal of the tone and nature of the characters as established in the first season. The characters, especially the two protagonists – James and Alyssa – undergo sweeping changes and become almost opposites of who they were in Season 1. If Season 1 was about running away from a troubled life with nihilistic abandon, Season 2 is about homecoming, embracing one’s circumstances and learning to live with them.
In Season 1, we witness how James and Alyssa abandon their homes and set off in the car James steals from his father. Alyssa wants to escape from her family, where she is made to feel excluded; James on the other hand tags along with Alyssa in the hope of making his first human kill. However, both are troubled teenagers who have been abandoned and outcast by the people meant to take care of them.
Alyssa tries to cope with her family, where her pervert stepfather does not want her. He brazenly asks her to leave, while her mother remains a silent bystander. Even though James, in his deadpan voiceover, declares himself a psychopath devoid of any feeling, we realise that he is a person going to desperate ends to squeeze some emotion out of himself. As the season unfolds, we realise that he too is a victim of trauma, having witnessed his mother die of suicide. In the end, both James and Alyssa are survivors in the cruel world, where having a family does not necessarily guarantee emotional support. Their nihilism, sociopathic traits and irreverence towards the institution of family and modes of socially acceptable behaviour thus stem from their circumstances.
The journey the two embark upon together is both an act of revolt against and an escape from those dreary circumstances. However there is no escape. In the end, when James and Alyssa find themselves stranded on the beach with no possibility of escape as the police surround them, one realises how futile their entire journey had been. The final shot of James running on the beach trying to make a futile escape from the armed cops, echoes the final shot of Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows: even though Antoine Doinel is able to fulfil his long-cherished wish of seeing the ocean, he is met with the tragic realisation that there is no escape from his incarceration; similarly, James too, after having finally understood the value of social relations, realises that he had nowhere to escape to. For him, it truly was the ‘end of the world’.
However Season 2 sees a complete reversal in the direction of the protagonists’ trajectory, as they return to their families. Circumstances change for the better following their reconciliation with their respective families. Alyssa’s mother separates from her toxic husband and leaves with her children to settle at her half-sister’s place. James too finds in his father a supportive companion, who sticks by him throughout his ordeal at the hospital. Most importantly, they themselves change. We see them get enmeshed within the world of responsibilities and attachments, all of which they had shunned previously. Alyssa starts working as a waitress at her half-aunt’s diner. She meets Todd, whom she decides to marry quite out of the blue (even though she asks for a divorce within a few days of the wedding). Though she retains her intractability, an unsettling calm appears to have descended on her. She is no more a recalcitrant teenager on the run. James too, on the other hand, is no more a “psychopath”. He is now able to communicate and form meaningful relationships, as he does with his father. The father-son duo visibly tries to work on their relationship. Yet tragedy strikes when James’s father dies of heart attack, while out bowling with his son. Following this, James finds it impossible to continue staying at his house where he had so many memories associated with his father. He turns his car into a makeshift home, and travels around, always carrying the urn containing his father’s ashes. He clings on to it, unable to part with his father’s remains. This is a potent metaphor for his newfound ability to form attachments, and how he can no longer let go of them easily. It is a far cry from the James who had punched his father in the face and left with his car. He also spies on Alyssa with whom he was in love, since he was forbidden to contact her. In light of this, his primary intention behind accompanying her in Season 1 stands out in stark irony.
While Season 1 portrays James and Alyssa on a frenetic journey that takes them farther and farther away from their life of exasperating normalcy through one defiant act after another, Season 2 sees them dwell in the doldrums of resignation after the fire dies out. Escape is an easy way out; sometimes returning is far more challenging. Life does not let go easily, and it is harder to hang in there and traverse the ‘post-apocalyptic’ hell-scape shaped by the events of the past. Hence the decision to bring these characters back for another season to explore how they survive is a far more interesting creative choice than ending the story with Season 1. Seeing the characters evolve in these interesting ways makes it a highly satisfying watch. This entire theme of returning and carrying on is conveyed succinctly in one cut in the second episode of the season. James is shown to be reminiscing about the moment he was shot on the beach. A short montage plays out the last moments of Season 1: James, after having knocked out Alyssa so as to exonerate her, frantically runs. Alyssa cries out to him. James’ voiceover commentary goes as follows: “It was a fitting end. A doomed love story. A perfect tragedy.” A gunshot is heard. James is shown lying on the beach in a pool of blood with Alyssa by his side. The music soars. But the shot abruptly cuts to James lying on a hospital bed, as his voiceover wryly remarks: “But I didn’t die.” The humour arising out of the bathos in this cut deflates the lofty theme of tragic sacrificial love established at the end of the first season with hilarious effect, while also setting the theme of return for the second season. Sacrificing oneself for a loved one in a moment of epic glory may be the perfect way to go, but life seldom plays out that way in reality.
However, this ‘post-apocalyptic’ landscape that James and Alyssa currently find themselves in is the purgatory, a place of suffering and punishment. They experience torment because of their past actions. It is no coincidence that punishment is an important theme in this season. Alyssa is revealed to be grappling with the trauma related to the incidents surrounding Clive Koch’s murder. She had been assaulted by him before James had slit his throat open, drenching Alyssa in blood in the process. It also marked the point when everything descended into chaos and they turned into fugitives from the law. James, during his stay at the hospital, also felt like he was “being punished”, as he mentions in the second episode. The past, which James and Alyssa had apparently left behind in favour of a changed life, comes back to haunt them, quite literally, in the form of Bonnie. Held at gunpoint, Alyssa confesses to Bonnie in the seventh episode that she had never been able to overcome the trauma of Clive Koch’s murder. The suffering she had had to endure because of it had been enough punishment. These revelations explain the subtle changes that had crept into her character in the second season.
The two protagonists are further fleshed out in the second season, which makes their relationship more interesting. James is in love with Alyssa, but she marries Todd. Yet he still accompanies her. Alyssa, on the other hand, is mired in doubts, hesitations and anxieties. She is unsure about what she wants and vacillates between accompanying James and returning to her family and husband. In an attempt to overcome her trauma once and for all, Alyssa retraces her path back to Clive Koch’s house in order to confront it. James misinterprets the note Alyssa left behind and begins to think the worst. He rushes to Koch’s house in a panic-stricken state, only to be relieved after finding Alyssa there. Despite portraying emotional frailties during adversities, Season 2 is also about resilience. Both James and Alyssa exhibit resilience as they make their Dante-esque journey through the Purgatorio, hand in hand, suffering at the hands of ghosts from the past, towards some kind of Paradiso where they find love. Love is not easily within the reach; a kind of purificatory suffering is required before one can finally attain it. Covell’s marvellous writing and her use of subversive humour keep the emotions in check and never allow them to brim over. Towards the end of the last episode, Alyssa confesses that she too loves James. She adds a few disclaimers – like, she will need some time, some psychological help, and so on – following which James mumbles an “I love you too”. Alyssa in her characteristic manner cuts in: “Yeah, don’t go on about it.” Covell’s writing offers a quiet, restrained and refreshing take on teenage romance, which does not view love through rose-tinted glasses or brush ugly moments under the carpet. Rather, facing these ugly moments together with resilience is what forges the love.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.