I’ve seen these discussions before revolving around what makes a character compelling. For the most part, it seems obvious. The audience has a connection with the character, can see a vague reflection of themselves in it. Or maybe they see a person they like and want to be, or would like to know. Even “evil” protagonists can be compelling if done correctly. Think Dexter. Or perhaps Loki, for you Marvel fans out there.
I sat down to find something to watch last night, and landed on a British show called “The End of the F***ing World.” Initially I thought it was about two troubled teens facing the literal “end of the world.” You know, zombie invasion, global environmental destruction. Maybe the invasion of metal men from planet Z. Some such nonsense like that. Instead, it’s about two very trouble teens who fall in with each other and the destruction they leave in the wake of their own lives as they try to find meaning in a world that they don’t really understand.
There are massive spoilers ahead as I try to work through how I feel about this show. Massive. If you intend to watch it, skip to the last paragraph and read my conclusions instead.
The teen girl is named Alyssa, and is played by Jessica Barden. Her problem is that she hates everyone and actively sets out to annoy the world as much as possible. Her back story is a tale of a little girl abandoned by the father she worshipped, left with a mother who has a new boyfriend and new twin babies and seems to treat her daughter like a babysitting service. Of course the boyfriend is also creepily hitting on the teen daughter, a fact mom knows about and completely ignores. Mom’s too tied to keeping her man to address this issue, let alone how she treats her own daughter like a servant.
I find Alyssa plausible. Even sympathetic. Ah, there’s the word I’ve been searching for, sympathetic. Her rage is an outgrowth of her abandonment issues, and while it’s sometimes painful to watch her lash out at the world, it’s understandable. Yes, she’d fucking hate me for saying that, too. She doesn’t want to be understood, or tolerated. She wants to be… something. She’s not even sure what. She wants to feel something, feel wanted, feel needed, but on her own terms. The actress does an able job playing her, too, with just enough sadness and emotion underneath the course exterior to keep us grounded with the character, to see the potential for her redemption.
James, played by Alex Lawther, is an entirely different beast and the crux of my problem with the show. Alex is a sociapthic, psychopathic, emotionless monster. He feels nothing, not even for his father. He’s been that way as long as he can remember. He started hurting himself just to feel anything. Then he started killing animals. Now he wants to kill a person. James comes off as dead to the world, robotic, emotionless. Again, the actor does a great job at playing this role aptly, and I’m frankly fucking scared to death of what James is going to do. There are brief flashes of his thoughts, less than a second of an image of Alyssa’s blood spilt as he holds the knife that cut her throat. You know, things like that.
I have no sympathy for James, not even when I learn his mom died when he was young. None. This boy is a danger to everyone around him, and eventually he will kill. I’m not sure even years of therapy would help him. Now, let me be clear. I’m sure my inability to engage with this character is on me, not the creators of the show or the writers, or even the actor. As James feels nothing for his world, I feel nothing for James but unrelenting terror. A desire to see him locked up where he can do no harm.
The show throws these two people together and has them run away. They’re escaping the terrible worlds they live in to forge something new. She’s contantly trying to rattle him. She suggests he fuck her. She convinces him to have sex while driving, which causes him to crash the car they stole as he tries to undress. She gets him to agree to dodge a check at a resturaunt when they realize they are out of money. She’s a very bad influence on him, and yet… I still fear for her. I still dislike him. Her actions seem reasoanble given what she’s been through. His seem to be devoid of anything beyond fantasies of murder, and staying with her long enough so he can accomplish that. Of course, I suspect he won’t, because that would be a short television series.
But three shows in, and I simply dislike the character of James so much I won’t watch any more. Again, that’s on me. Others might love the dark humor and the great acting both these young people do. They might see a path of redemption for James that I don’t. But I don’t want to watch two messed up kids further messing up their lives. It doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t want to wait for James to finally get his wish and murder someone. I don’t want the fallout of all that pain and misery. There’s already too much of that in the world today. The mental health issues on display here are deep and need addressing beyond “let’s treat this sociopath as a funny, humorous character.”
Characters have to be ones we sympathize with. Ones we can put ourselves into from time to time, even briefly. Even if they are killers. But with The End of the F***ing World, I can’t do that. I can’t sympathize at all with James and who he is, and find him so unsettling and creepy that the humor of the show fails for me. And I’m very much into morbid, gallows humor, so it’s not the content of the show that bothers me. It’s my inability to connect to one of the two main characters that leaves me feeling disappointed in this offering. If I had to offer it a rating, it would be 5 out of 10 pieces of Reynolds Wrap. 5 because the writing and acting is excellent. But only 5, because sympathizing and connecting with the characters is vital for a person to enjoy a show, and I simply can’t do that with this one.