When Alyssa (Jessica Barden) and James (Alex Lawther) meet in the first episode, they’re both 17 years old and full of fury: At their parents; at their stupid small town; at the other idiots in their school. But before this sounds just like the shape of a misfits’ romance, “The End of the F***ing World” gets under the viewer’s skin with sharp, bloody intensity. James introduces himself by hypothesizing that he is a psychopath; before more than a minute passes, he’s slitting the throat of his neighbor’s cat and fantasizing about moving on to larger prey. When Alyssa first tells him to “go f— himself,” what he sees is his next victim. What she sees is someone who listens to her. So when she tells him she wants him to steal his dad’s car and get the hell out of dodge, he does.
It would be too simple to label what happens next as “falling in love,” because both Alyssa and James are too selfish and dangerous to be swept away by romance. They’re also hilariously mismatched; Alyssa and James take turns narrating the story of how they met, in blunt voiceover that reflects their respective personalities. James is analytical and detached, while Alyssa is taut, introspective, and rebellious, even just when she’s talking to herself. They describe their surroundings with droll, teenage resentment — amused to the point of frustration by the world around them, and sharing their bleak humor with the audience. “The End of the F***ing World,” based on Chuck Forsman’s comic, delights in leveraging their viewpoints against each other, in exposing both their own frailties and the frustrations of the world around them. There is something bleakly comic about their situation, after all — James thinks he’s prepping his next murder; Alyssa thinks she’s in love.
But what emerges is a portrait of two characters who find in each other a refuge from an uncaring and often cruel world. Our teenagers can be violent, but as the show makes clear, violence has also been heaped upon them — in the form of neglect, trauma, and attempted rape, just to name what is revealed to the audience in flashbacks. At one point, while driving a stolen car, Alyssa says to herself, “Everything feels really simple.” The look on her face is one of relief, despite how precarious their stolen freedom is. The reckless abandon with which these two take on an indifferent world has shades of “Thelma and Louise,” or more precisely, Quentin Tarantino’s “True Romance” — late in the season, James dons a red Hawaiian shirt, and Alyssa pulls on a pair of round sunglasses. But “The End of the F***ing World” isn’t just about struggle and passion; it’s also about how connecting to another person can bring you closer to becoming the person you want to be. Alyssa and James have a very unlikely love story, but it’s a love story all the same.
Appreciably, too, the eight-part series snaps by in 20-minute installments that are written and edited with admirable economy. Necessary flashbacks and contextual information are cut into the narrative without slowing down the story, which lets the real focus of the piece emerge — the puzzle of these two characters, and the evolution of their relationship to each other. Thanks to writer Charlie Covell and showrunner Jonathan Entwistle, the episodes are seamless. They are assisted by two lead performances that are both entirely hateful and utterly charming, like the worst parts of every teenager combined with what makes that time in one’s life so heightened and meaningful. Lawther — who starred in the “Black Mirror” episode “Shut Up and Dance” — delivers a really affecting performance, granting him sympathy that other actors might not be able to earn. When he begins to smile, partway through the season, there’s something so tremulous about his love that even though he’s often really scary, it’s hard not to root for him. And though James is on paper the flashier role, Barden lends Alyssa a knowing, wry smile and eyes that can switch from soft to glassy at a moment’s notice.
The best thing about “The End of the F***ing World” is that it’s hard to describe. It’s funny, and it’s sweet; it’s violent, and it’s romantic. Its leads are both reprehensible and totally sympathetic; both scared kids and responsible adults. It seems the mark of an honest production that the characters are arrestingly recognizable — and revealed so thoroughly to the audience that judging them feels impossible. By the end I was unsure if I wanted them rounded up by the authorities or free to go out in a blaze of glory; the only thing I was sure of was I wished there were more episodes.