The End wastes no time establishing the spiky tone prevalent throughout this very witty and entertaining black comedy and drama series, which pries open a topical conversation from an irreverent perspective. That conversation is the assisted dying debate, which the series – created and written by Samantha Strauss, whose scripting credits include Dance Academy and its movie spin-off – leaps into by depicting a suicide attempt from the recently widowed Edie (an acidly charismatic Harriet Walter).
Director Jessica M Thompson begins by painting the details of a house fire – spreading from the kitchen to the rest of the apartment – then introducing Edie, who is awoken by the fire. She tries to kill herself but the attempt fails, and she moves to the windowsill, where she chugs down spirits straight from the bottle. Outside, in the ambulance, Edie holds her wrist up to the medic and shows him the label around it: “It says do not resuscitate!” she says. To which the man responds: “Luv, yer still conscious.”
The tone is provocative and a little off-colour but not flippant, setting in motion a series that walks a tightrope, sometimes morbid and sometimes a touch absurd. Edie is promptly whisked to Australia by her headstrong but frazzled daughter Kate (Frances O’Connor in fine form) and placed inside a retirement village. “I’m planning on doing it again,” the dour ageing lady snarls, setting up a prickly mother-daughter relationship that’s chipped away at throughout the entire 10-part arc, which gradually reveals where their tensions come from.
For Kate the issue of assisted dying is personal, with Mum wanting to end it, as well as professional, as she is a doctor who works in palliative care. One of her patients is Beth (Brooke Satchwell, in a brief but memorable performance), a woman with motor neurone disease who – with the help of her husband, Josh (Luke Arnold) – has procured a lethal drug on the black market. They ask Kate for help testing it but discover she’s opposed to euthanasia – a perspective we expect will change over the course of the series.
Thompson and Strauss’s show expresses in visual terms discrepancies in the attitudes people have towards dying: namely that they are often OK with putting animals out of their misery but reluctant to do the same for other humans. In one scene, the director cuts between the death of a character in hospital and the last moments of an injured bat in the backyard, which Kate kills with a shovel. It’s a very bold and potentially insensitive connection but it works, buffeted by the sharp, stinging power of the drama and its slightly in-your-face attitude.
This is not a moment played for laughs, but in The End a cheeky, mordant sense of humour is never far from the surface. The show’s unorthodox spirit sometimes expresses itself in weird ways. During the beginning of episode six, for instance, director Jonathan Brough plays a cover of Nick Cave’s Into My Arms over a scene that cuts between Kate’s 10-year-old daughter, Persephone (Ingrid Torelli), ascending a high diving board and one of Edie’s friends from the retirement village, Art (Roy Billing), climbing a ladder into the sky.
The old man goes up and up and up, cartoonishly high and into the heavens, busting through the clouds, beautiful birds flying around and a divine sun glaring above him. This magically weird moment leaves you wondering – in the best kind of way – what the hell did I just watch?
The End’s outré elements sometimes manifest in the actions of the characters, whose erratic behaviours can seem abrupt. This is partly due the way Strauss slowly reveals important things others might have signposted from the outset – such as the transitioning of Kate’s oldest child, her son Oberon (Morgan Davies), who was assigned female at birth but identifies as male, and Kate’s previous struggles with alcoholism.
When you think you’ve got the story pegged, Strauss et al have a way of taking the drama someplace else, often with a cheeky joke. Tonally, I was reminded of the morbidly funny 1995 Australian film Mushrooms, in which Lynette Curran and Julia Blake play dodgy widows who dispose of the corpse of a lodger by cooking him. And in its more serious moments, I was reminded of the more recent Relic, which has a very different vibe, but also explores a mother-daughter dynamic in the context of people trying to bridge gaps between them.
The euthanasia movement is sometimes perceived as being pro-death – a perspective that is true to a point but gets the framing wrong: it’s more about advocating quality of life. That attitude is reflected in the spirit of Strauss’s writing, which contemplates grim issues with naughty exuberance and joie de vivre – making the point that you can confront death while loving existence. Maybe that’s the message of the scene in episode six: that there’s nothing wrong with staring down from the edge of the mortal coil into the abyss of the great beyond – but why not do it with your head in the clouds, listening to birds and admiring the view?