Thursday, December 28, 2023

On the bittersweet sincerity of Carol & the End of the World

Yes, yes, we know, the world is ending, but do you really need that bucket list?

In the world where Carol Kohl lives, the days of humankind are numbered. A rogue planet will crash against Earth in just a few months, and there's no way to avoid it. Governments have collapsed; money has lost all meaning; shops and streets have become lawless playgrounds; and everyone is frantically squeezing all the excitement they can get out of their precious last months.

Everyone except mild-mannered, gentle Carol. If you ask her what she wants to do with the quickly shortening rest of her life, she'll have a hard time deciding what to say. While her parents are out on a cruise ship with their new lover, her school friends are going on spiritual self-discovery adventures, and her sister paraglides across the world, Carol would rather just sit at a cafeteria and have a relaxed evening. She has no stomach for wild parties or car races or last-second impulse tattoos. That whole "seize the day" ethos ends up seizing too much of you. Yes, life is short and we only get one, but what's the rush? You may call Carol depressed, but isn't it a sign of a deeper malaise to be constantly in a state of pursuing the next exhilarating, unforgettable thrill?

However, even Carol eventually finds her bliss, and it's hidden in what is apparently the only company still in operation. Every morning, she puts on her business suit, drives through the noise of improvised concerts and public orgies, under the ever-growing silhouette of the approaching planet that will put an end to everything, and sits at a desk to look at a computer screen and type numbers. What does the company sell? It doesn't matter. It's not the result that motivates her to get out of bed. It's the safety of the familiar. It's the distraction from the imminence of death.

Carol & the End of the World weaves the most caustic nihilism with a deep compassion in an unlikely mix of emotional punches that hit hard, but never low. If, as the scriptwriting manuals say, true character is manifested at times of crisis, this animated limited series pushes its characters to the ultimate stress point and forces them to disclose their sincerest selves. But Carol doesn't even need to be at the top of the world to show us who she is. We hear all the time of people who go windsurfing and mountaineering and backpacking in search of awesome, but what of those who are satisfied with nice? What right does the adrenaline junkie have to pity the tranquil?

The treatment of characters in Carol & the End of the World is a difficult needle to thread: the script is funny enough to let us see them at their limit, but aware enough to not fall into mockery. We're meant to laugh at the absurdity of mortality, but not at these characters who are doing their best to keep their head in one piece while civilization falls irreversibly apart. It's as if the plot of Don't Look Up happened to the cast of Please Like Me. It's simultaneously hilarious and painful and ridiculous and poignant and impossible and true. It's beautiful.

Of the works of science fiction that delve into social commentary, the best are those that describe the real, everyday world at just the right distance to expose the strange bits we haven't noticed. Yes, this life is indeed very weird. We're not all that different from the inhabitants of Carol's world; the only change is that their memento mori is plain to see, a huge ball of rock hanging in the sky. So the question that this show is asking us to consider is not "What if we had a permanent reminder of our mortality?" No, that's already the world we live in. We already know our time is finite, and we're bombarded with exhortations to make the most of it.

Nor is the question "If we know for a fact that we're going to die, why hasn't our society blown up like this?" No, it's not that, because, again, that's already the society we have. We're awash in the cultural messages that warn against regret and urge us to collect souvenirs of what this world has to offer. Every bookstore has its version of "1001 dishes/museums/singers/beaches/cocktails you have to try before you die." But do we have to, if we're being honest? Why treat life as a scavenger hunt game where you're counted as a loser until you've done it all? What's so wrong with wanting little?

Despite Carol's quiet contentment at finding a thing to do with her final days, the office atmosphere can still use some improvement. And here is where Carol shines: what she brings to work is a dose of much-needed human connection. Keeping your mind distracted from the ever-present horror of death won't do the trick; you need others to endure it with.

Which is basically what life in this world of ours feels like. It doesn't matter if you suspect everyone else is having more fun than you. It doesn't even matter if they truly are. Sometimes sitting on a park bench and having a soda with a stranger is enough. Sometimes late night TV is enough. It's all going to vanish in the end anyway. Faced with the approaching shadow of eternal oblivion, the fact that there's a you at all is enough.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.