The End Of The F***ing World Isn’t A F***ing Love Story

Jessica Barden has spent almost 10 years of her life working on The End Of The F***ing World. Now, she’s calling the shots.

Squiggly Line
Jessica Barden can’t attribute her faith in The End Of The F***ing World to more than just a “feeling.” That feeling, combined with the lack of leading roles for women in the industry, carried her through half a decade of waiting as the 2011 comic by Charles S. Forsman went from a 2014 TV short to a 2017 Netflix series. Now solidly a cult favorite, a much-clamored for season 2 arrives on November 5.
Barden’s dedication to the series, and her character Alyssa, has only grown since she first embodied the high schooler when she herself was 19 years old. Now 27, Barden still credits a majority of the show’s genius to the series’ writer, Charlie Covell. But it’s Barden who, alongside Alex Lawther’s James, has spent the majority of her career bringing one of the most complicated and honest young characters to life — which is almost as long as fans feel like they’ve been waiting for the show’s season 2 return after that intense season 1 cliffhanger.
When I sit down with Barden at the Bowery Hotel in New York City in September, I’m still waiting. At the time, I was one of the few people who knew of the season’s return date, and that’s about it. No plot, no photos, and no teasers of what’s to come. Like anyone who watched the show would, I immediately ask Barden what happened to Alyssa’s partner-in-crime, James. We last saw him running away from the police on a deserted beach, a cut-to-black season-ending accompanied by the echoing cry of a potentially fatal gunshot. In full Alyssa fashion, Barden immediately questions why he’s getting all the attention.
“No one ever asks if Alyssa is coming back,” she says. “I could be dead. I could literally just be in one episode. It's always all about James, always about Alex, all the time.”
Having now seen the second season, I understand the playful frustration: This is Alyssa’s story now. Season 1 heavily focused on the dynamic between these two lonely misfits, but season 2 isn’t a love story — it’s a survival one. The show picks up two years after the events of the first season, and a lot has changed. We’ve all clocked the wedding dress in the posters and the teaser trailer, but knowing our British Bonnie and Clyde, there’s a lot more to the story. All Barden will say is that Alyssa channels her feelings from the events of season 1 into something “really relatable,” something familiar to anyone who remembers being young and needing validation, and finding it in the wrong place. 
“You see her make a really big mistake,” Barden teases. “You see her in the most Alyssa way possible.”
That’s what Barden says Alyssa represents to her: rebellion, but also choice. She tells me she took another leaf out of the character’s book when it came to a potential period sex scene back in season 1 that she ultimately chose not to do. In fact, there were supposed to be a number of “gnarly sex scenes” that Barden and Lawther axed ahead of filming the first round of the series. 
“It didn't really feel right for the show,” Barden says. “There are so many other shows where you can watch kids having really great sex.”
She’s likely referring to popular teen shows like Riverdale and Euphoria. While the sex in the latter wouldn’t be described as “really great” — it’s often downright problematic — it does put teen sexuality front and center in honest, gritty detail. That being said, Euphoria and TEOTFW, despite their disparate quantities of glitter, aren’t on totally separate wavelengths. The popularity of the two illustrates teen viewers’ desire to see more content exploring mental health, something that Barden actively thinks about when choosing her roles. 
“The scripts that I’ll be signed on to have always been the same because I choose things which I relate to,” she explained. “That's how I choose work. They all have themes of mental health.” 
In TEOTFW, both characters are very frank about feeling “different” from everyone else — parents, peers, convenience store workers, good ol’ Marvin at the diner, you name it. For Alyssa specifically, everything changes in season 1 after she becomes the survivor of an attempted rape. James ends up killing the rapist, changing the trajectory of the show from the story of high school runaways seeking adventure to teens at the center of a nationwide manhunt. The trauma of the attempt follows her throughout the season, and it’s even more present in season 2.
The arrival of newcomer Niaomi Ackie (in a breakout role) puts another wrench into things. Ackie, who next appears as Jannah in Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, plays Bonnie, a new character on her own tragic journey. 
“It's the most perfect, incredible female relationship ever,” Barden says. “[Bonnie]'s intertwined with a character that you saw in the first series in a truly fucked-up way.”
But just as notably, Ackie is the first woman Barden gets to properly spar with in the show, an experience that is rarer than you’d think for an emerging actress. 
“Everybody thinks that because of all the stuff that happened last year there's loads of opportunities for actresses now,” she says, referring to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. “There's not really, because not a lot has changed.”
That’s not specifically why Barden only worked with women directors on new projects this year. She doesn’t think you should choose work based on gender, but she does choose based on quality, and it just so happened that all the good scripts that came her way were from women. 
Two of these women-led projects, Holler by Nicole Riegal starring Pamela Adlon (“Pam has changed by life”) and Pink Skies Ahead by Kelly Oxford (“We feel like the same person”), are the hands turning the page to Barden’s next chapter. 
The former is about scrap metal — it's not a glitzy project, but “the type of movie that people like should actually really watch.” The latter is based on the essay “No Real Danger” from Oxford’s book When You Find Out The World Is Against You.
As for the TEOTFW, after watching the final moments of the second season I’d be happy if things ended there. If this is Alyssa’s swan song, ushering Barden into a room of future Adlons and Oxfords, then that’s really not the end of the — well, you know.
The End of the F***ing World season 2 is available on Netflix November 5.

More from TV

R29 Original Series