“I feel, I dunno, I feel comfortable with him,” Alyssa explains via inner monologue in the first episode of “The End of the F***ing World.” “I feel sort of safe.” Meanwhile, her gangly new beau James wildly sharpens a hunting knife, plotting how best to kill her in cold blood. Such is the sardonic, dark humor of the Netflix show that’s disrupting the coming-of-age genre.
The 8-part series follows what becomes an endearing love affair between James and Alyssa, a 17-year-old, self-diagnosed psychopath and petulant misfit, in what feels like a cross between an alternative British comedy, classic heist films like Natural Born Killers and an indie with retro texture. Alyssa aims to escape her predatory father-in-law and idle mother. The couple runs away, driving through woodland and pastoral English landscapes on their journey to find Alyssa’s deadbeat father. The runaways go on the lam after they become the subjects of national murder case manhunt, though.
Aside from an excellent supporting cast, Alex Lawther (“Black Mirror”) effortlessly delivers a comically disturbed portrayal of James who doesn’t blink quite as often as the rest of us. When he speaks, his sentences are short and simple, and during his first kiss with Alyssa, he stares vacuously into the distance. Alyssa is at least partly aware of his oddness, saying he seems “a bit dead” at one point. And that’s what makes their relationship as compelling as it is unnerving: James constantly recalibrates to keep Alyssa comfortable around him, especially after he gives her reason for fear. Viewers are caught in the crawlspace between concern and secretly rooting for the tenuous but genuine emotional bond the pair forms. Thankfully, “The End of the F***ing World” doesn’t romanticize stalking or glorify violence.
In a breakout role, Jessica Barden holds the show together with her layered reading of truculent, foul-mouthed Alyssa who alienates everyone she meets, including James at times. While she reveals her character’s secret vulnerability in inner monologues, it is James who ultimately reckons with the vulnerabilities endemic to being human, serial killer in-the-making or not.
“The End of the F***ing World” is a gem that visualizes beyond the teenage ennui cliché to bring into focus two young people discovering who they really are the hard way and, in James’ words, “what people mean to each other” in a world more fearsome than themselves.