I’ve been weighing Rupi Kaur’s poem “What love looks like” in my head recently. It’s interesting to think how many great poems I probably could have appreciated more if I’d read them at a time in my life when I could truly relate, rather than just parse the poet’s point. Ironically, the same truth I felt in the poem, I witnessed in Netflix’s dark comedy series, “The End of the F***ing World.”
The show is a British romance about a 17-year-old self-diagnosed psychopath named James and the classmate he plans to kill, Alyssa. It has eight, 20-minute episodes featuring an expressionless James sharpening his knife with a steel rod. Doesn’t sound like the stuff of poetry, does it? Stick with me though; I’ll get there.
In the first episode, James and Alyssa have possibly the most uncomfortable kiss I’ve ever seen. James keeps his mouth closed and eyes open while Alyssa sloppily attacks his face and he fantasizes about stabbing her. Already I doubted I would finish the show. But what originally struck me as gross became a love story that I was emotionally invested in.
First and foremost, I appreciated that the show skips puerile outbursts and pandering a fluffy, teenage stereotype of love. It opens with James’ dry voice over: “School was beneath me. But it was a good place for observation and selection.”
The show assumes teens too have taste and culture—a refreshing concept! The tracking shots and absurd characters are reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s films. James and Alyssa pay homage to Tarantino in a Pulp Fiction dance scene. And the soundtrack features classics like Francoise Hardy, Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” and the Buzzcock’s “Why Can’t I Touch It.”
But most importantly, the show treats Alyssa and James’s love story with respect, giving the teen characters the same emotional depth that Kaur demonstrates in her poem. Kaur writes: “…Love does not look like a person/love is our actions,/love is giving all we can…understanding we have the power to hurt one another/ but we are going to do everything in our power/to make sure we don’t…” Alyssa is calm and rational after walking in on a pedophile touching James in the bathroom or when James puts his deformed hand on her boob. Here’s the poetry in that—Alyssa and James are real.
Although young, they demonstrate their love through actions instead of words. While many of their decisions are flawed, they have truly good intentions, they make sacrifices for each other’s well-being and demonstrate selflessness in the little ways they can.
Kauer ends her poem with, “(love is not) something meant to crash into us…looking the right amount of sexy and intellectual…love is figuring out all/the kind sweetness we deserve/and when someone shows up/saying they will provide it…/but their actions seem to break you/rather than build you/love is knowing who to choose.”
Before “The End of the F***ing World,” I never would have approached the kid who looks like a school shooter sitting alone at a cafeteria table with an unfortunate bowl-cut and faraway stare. But by the end of the show, I’d reconsidered my conception of love. I came away with a desire to be less caught up in fantasies of perfect, charming guys. I realized superficial and narrow benchmarks would cause me to miss out on romances like the one James and Alyssa share.
It’s not often that binge-watching a suspenseful, criminal drama brings poetry to my mind, and yet that’s what made the show so satisfying. “The End of the F***ing World” manages to strike the difficult balance between being entertaining and making me think.