What Netflix’s The End of the F***ing World Tells Us About People We Label “Freaks”

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What Netflix’s The End of the F***ing World Tells Us About People We Label “Freaks”

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

In the third episode of season two of Netflix’s The End of the F***ing World (TETFW), a bedraggled Alyssa (Jessica Barden) loses it at James’ (Alex Lawther) worn-out car and calls it “the bane of our life”. Unaffected by her mini-tirade, James thinks to himself, “It’s nice that she said ‘our’ life,” touched by her assumption of their shared intimacy. It’s not the kind of thought that most people who have just been hollered at would have. But then those are the eccentric charms of this show that has quietly scripted an affecting tale of unlikely love between two teenagers who would otherwise be enlisted into society as “psychopaths”. 

Fresh off the cult of the first season, the Netflix series first addresses the cliffhanger ending and subsequently builds on it. But beyond the charms of its storytelling, what TETFW has over a span of two seasons managed to effortlessly question is the socially acceptable set idea of normality, rallying against conformity.

TETFW isn’t the only show attempting to tackle sociopathy with a lenient gaze. There’s also Killing Eve, which revolves around Villanelle, a manic contract assassin who revels in murdering people. If we were to go back in time, there are several films, like American Psycho (2000), Natural Born Killers (1994), and Taxi Driver (1976), that have explored similar themes. Lately, Hindi cinema has also tried to move past the trope of villanising social outcasts – this year’s Judgemental Hai Kya is a worthy example. The difference seems to be that over the last few decades, socially abnormal behaviour isn’t instantly reduced to handicaps that must be exploited for shock, gore or vulgarity. Instead, as TETFW shows, they are mined as valuable traits of vulnerability.

Perhaps, the most radical intervention of a series like TETFW is its disinclination to grade peculiarity. If you care to pay attention, words like “pagal” and “psycho” are tossed around in our daily lives with nonchalance. The ones using it view habitual, behavioural deviations as qualifiers for medical conditions without bothering to acquaint themselves with any context. TETFW, cleverly, doesn’t try to move the compass as much as it just tilts it. Both Alyssa and James become the lens we see the “normal” world through: James’ father seems ludicrously inept at everything except carrying a weak emotional core and Alyssa’s mother is hopelessly in denial about her brokenness. On the face of it, both parents understand the geometry of palatable social behavioural cues, like smiling when speaking or following state-sanctioned regulations. But as the show progresses, our sympathies go further away from them.

TETFW reminds us that it’s okay to be yourself. That is not to say that violence drawn from rebellion is acceptable. It still isn’t.

TETFW for instance, disarms its characters of social obligations. In one scene in the second season, Alyssa tells James, “Bonnie is weird, she does weird things. It’s not that interesting.” In the first season of Killing Eve, when a girl tells Vilannelle that she is a good person because she is “sad,” she responds with an unflinching “Oh God. You are one of those profound kids”. On countless occasions in life, I have wanted to tell off annoying children but have stopped short of doing so because it’s not acceptable behaviour. TETFW  reminds us that it’s okay to be yourself. That is not to say that violence drawn from rebellion is acceptable. It still isn’t. But the gaze of these two shows at least seeks to contextualise their choices if not understand the reasoning behind it.

TETFW is certainly wiser, for it rarely brutalises its set-pieces and bypasses the keenness to show sexual aggression. Not to say that no such thing happens in its world, but it is more keen on telling the story of two teenagers, who rarely smile, can’t understand conventional wisdom or fail to bring themselves to care for rules. The second season, adds another arc of fellow oddball Bonnie, the self-assuming girlfriend of the man James murdered in the first season. Shows like Killing Eve and TETFW justify their existence in the current TV landscape that is dominated by the social butterflies because they tell us that social awkwardness isn’t necessarily a prison people need to be broken out of. That, looking and behaving like everyone else isn’t the end-all of our existences.

In fact, the second season of TETFW slowly transforms from a wicked and weird tale to a familiar tale of love, longing and woe – only it speaks a different language. Alyssa and James don’t look into each other’s eyes, hold hands, or look longingly at surreal views. They communicate differently, their feelings remain understated even in each other’s presence. Not because they are distant, but because they are comfortable. They may not literally open their arms to each other but in supplementing each other’s freakiness, they provide something that society’s cold and conditional embrace wouldn’t: warmth.

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