It’s been a while since death has been a central character on a series. 16 years ago, “Six Feet Under” gave us its iconic series finale. And now, creator-writer Samantha Strauss’ pitch dark comedy “The End” aims to capture some of the same messiness and beauty of mortality surrounding one family in Australia. Trouble is, it doesn’t always come together as meaningfully as it should.
The premise is certainly interesting enough, though, amplified by a standout cast to boot. Frances O’Connor plays Kate, a doctor specializing in palliative care. Day in and day out, she comforts people who are sometimes in their final days, offering both medical and emotional guidance to those who may be spiritually depleted. So, you could infer, especially from O’Connor’s wonderfully controlled performance, that death has become somewhat desensitized for Kate. But she is in the business of trying to avoid it as much as possible, even when her patients sometimes beg for mercy.
It’s devastating to witness, but “The End” doesn’t wallow so much in the tragedy of death as much as it also explores how it might be the only source of freedom for some, especially for elders. For example, Kate’s mother, Edie (Harriet Walker) attempts to die by suicide, albeit unsuccessfully, by jumping out of her window. And right on cue, Kate swiftly responds by sending her to a nearby retirement community, much to her chagrin.
This is the perfect catalyst to a series that is in constant debate with itself over people like Edie having the right to die, and doctors like Kate enabling them to do so. It’s the antithesis of what we expect doctors to do, and it also subverts expectations of what people want to do. Consider it, essentially, humanizing the Dr. Kevorkian method in a way we’ve never really seen before on television.
With that premise, “The End” opens a story that is most interestingly centered on the lives of Kate and Edie, two women in a complicated relationship with each other and with death itself. Now living among people approaching the end of their lives, including the effervescent Pam (Noni Hazlehurst), Edie must decide how to embrace life while the expectancy of death, and its allure, surrounds her at every turn. And Kate, a begrudgingly single mother, has to come to grips with death as a potential liberation.
Both women are compelled to make decisions outside of what they previously determined was right. Kate’s kids — daughter Persephone (Ingrid Torelli) and son Oberon (Morgan Davies), who is trans — also grapple with the myriad of issues that come with adolescence, including sexuality, as well as how and whether to speak out against something they feel is wrong.
But it’s Kate and Edie’s dynamic that anchors the audience, and consequently, O’Connor and Walker’s portrayals as the two women mainly exchange bitter dialogue. And though the writers try to appeal to that with intriguing flashbacks of their strained relationship, going as far back as Kate’s childhood, they fall short of what you expect those memories to achieve. They’re not especially revelatory or more interesting than, say, what could be accomplished with a present-day conversation. The season’s ending also leaves much to be desired on that front.
Though, where “The End” does succeed is how it complicates already complex conversations around life and death — for doctors and patients as well as those like Edie who aren’t really either. They just want a sense of relief on their own terms. For that, and the graceful way it centers an imperfect family in many ways on the fringe, it’s an engrossing watch.