“You’re trying to punish me. Surely the Southern Hemisphere is bad enough.”
So says Edie Henley (Harriet Walter) to her daughter Kate (Frances O’Connor) in the early scenes of the drama “The End.” This dark comedy created by Samantha Strauss comes to Showtime after a 2020 run in Australia; its first episode shows us how and why Edie, a widow, has been brought to Australia from her native England. She has only recently attempted suicide, and her new proximity to her daughter — as well as that daughter’s work in palliative medicine and adamant opposition to assisted suicide — would seem to provide grist for good drama.
The result is a bit mixed, though Walter (a recent standout on TV projects from “The Spanish Princess” to “Succession”) and O’Connor (credits including “The Missing) do good work. For a show intended to contemplate the end of life, the desire to expedite it, and the inborn need to make the time between birth and death count, “The End” lands a bit too often on an uncomfortably jokey tone. Sometimes it generates real and mordant laughs, as when Edie, working on a pro-con list about staying alive, lists “cake batter” as the first reason to go on. More often, the humor — especially about Edie’s peers in her retirement community — seems a defense mechanism, a way to push away from the serious things on the show’s mind. And the show’s juggling a lot of them: Kate’s son Oberon (Morgan Davies), who is trans, has himself previously attempted suicide, while Kate’s daughter Persephone (Ingrid Torelli) has her own troubles, ones the show glances at.
Even at 10 episodes’ length, the show seems unsure how best to use its time, not resting long enough on a single storyline to really let it sink in; it often kills time with old-codgers humor that feels a bit dated. Walter’s rage — pounding drinks, stripping down and revealing the ravages cancer has left on her body with an anger at her own fallibility — fuels her scenes. O’Connor, meanwhile, is so tightly wound as to lend her time onscreen a rich and meaty tension that the script doesn’t consistently provide. Though “The End” has a probing curiosity about all manner of issues — contemporary medical ethics, queer youth in the 2020s, divorce and widowhood — it follows through on them less well than it indulges, and dives deep into, the elemental emotions of its two leads. For too much of its running time, “The End” seems unsure what it most wants to be about and how it wants to balance all it has to say.
When Walter and O’Connor are allowed to really go for it, though, there’s a purifying effect: “The End,” too briefly but enough to recommend the series, comes to rich and vivid life.
“The End” debuts on Showtime Sunday, July 18 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.