On Sunday, I binge watched all eight episodes of ‘The End of the F***ing World’, the dark-comedy masterpiece from Channel 4 that everyone’s talking about and honestly: it lives up to the hype. It was brilliant, mainly in its boldness in tacking some pretty heavy themes (murder, sexual assault, suicide) in an innovative - often darkly funny - way, and not trivialising the subject matter just because it’s experienced by teens; if anything, it felt more emotionally raw than anything on TV in the last few years for precisely that reason.
But beyond the excellent casting, off-beat dialogue, and quirky cinematography, what really struck me was its treatment of inter-family relationships. More specifically, its exploration of Alyssa (Jessica Barden) and her relationship with her estranged father, held together by nothing more than a string of yearly birthday cards which, we find out later, have been forged by her mum in an attempt to fill a paternal void.
Speaking as someone who doesn’t know their dad, it really hit home for me.
I’ve grown up watching programmes that glamourise not having a father. I’ve often seen it used as a trope, a childhood trauma that works to allow the character in question to act selfishly, recklessly - and then expects everyone to forgive them because of it (Hi, Serena from ‘Gossip Girl’). I’ve lived with the awkward pause whenever I’m asked about my dad, and have been greeted with the equally loaded silence on the other end when I answer for a full 23 years now. It’s such a personal subject, and I’m always intrigued to see how it’s handled on screen.
Programmes which deal with parental estrangement, especially in father-daughter relationships, often give themselves up to lazy labelling (don’t get me started on ‘daddy issues’) and tired, over-done portrayals of fatherhood. This kind of oft-copied stereotyping does nothing to understand the intricacies of family and strained filial relationships, and turns something which, done right, could be an interesting and informative plot point into a trait which often comes to define a character.
Equally, from the perspective of the daughter, it usually goes one of two ways: she meets her father and they get on like a house on fire, do all the things they never got to when she was growing up, and all is forgiven over a sickly-sweet ice-cream sundae and soppy dialogue to match, or they have a dramatic separation, unable to reconcile because too much hurt has been done in the past.
But not this time. ‘The End of the F***ing World’ works to throw a third option into the bag of worn-out stereotypes, adding meaningful discourse to the series. Alyssa’s dad is problematic for sure, but he’s never portrayed as a monster, as so often happens to absent fathers on screen. It’s a much more realistic representation of someone who has run from his responsibilities, but isn’t necessarily a categorically bad human being, and for that, this show needs applauding.
For a while, Alyssa is happy to be with her dad again, but the illusion is soon shattered: the man she remembered from her childhood is still there, but he’s different now, and she gains a far more adult understanding of abandonment as a consequence. Although her relationship with her father is a key vehicle for advancing the plot, it doesn’t define her as a character - just as it doesn’t define me as a person.
In spite of this, I’m not going to pretend not knowing my dad doesn’t affect me at all, because it does. Obviously, it hurts when you realise that someone who is supposed to love you unconditionally, doesn’t. And, while it may not define me, I can’t help but be a product of my experiences.
But equally, it’s given me some wonderful things in life: I was brought up by my grandparents, my mum is one of my best friends, and as a result, my bond with all three of them is stronger and more precious to me than anything I could ever have imagined. In losing a parent, I feel like I ended up with three.
Both Alyssa and James (Alex Lawther) come to realise that while they may be rebellious teenagers who don’t think their families care about them, they’re both wrong. At its most basic, family is just a collection of blood relatives.
But I’ve come to learn, as they did, that the strongest bonds you can form are sometimes represented in the family you fashion for yourself.