Carol And The End Of The World Makes The Boring Beautiful
The Netflix show is a love letter to mundanity
10:47 AM EST on January 16, 2024
Over the holiday weekend (OK, last night), I binge-watched Carol and the End of the World, an animated series that came to Netflix back in mid-December. Over its 10 episodes, it turns “how you’d live if the world was ending” narratives on their head: while everyone else is living their wildest dreams, Carol mostly wants someone to compliment her banana bread.
The show follows Carol Kohl (voiced in a deadpan that’s both hilarious and moving by Martha Kelly) as she faces the impending end of the world at the receiving end of a planet called Keppler that’s set to destroy the Earth in roughly seven months. Everyone else is doing what people say they’d do in this situation: traveling, partying, wearing wacky outfits and celebrating the holidays whenever they want. Carol’s elderly parents are nudists in a throuple with their home health aide. Her sister is exploring the world, skydiving, and learning French. People steal cars and squat in mansions. No one goes to work.
But Carol doesn’t want any of that. In the first episode, she tries to book a dental cleaning. She tells the soldiers who run the grocery store that they’re out of frozen burrito bowls. She goes to the laundromat, where a little kid demands to know what she’s doing there and she says, desperately, “My clothes were dirty, so I’m doing my laundry.” She lies and tells her parents she’s learning to surf; they buy her a surfboard, and we watch her try to fit it into her small, practical car.
At the end of the first episode, she follows a woman in a business suit to a gleaming glass building, where on the one unabandoned floor, people are doing office work. It’s the accounting department of a megacorp, but the people there call it The Distraction, and Carol becomes an administrative assistant simply by wandering in. There are hints that The Distraction is more nefarious than it seems, but the show is mostly concerned with it being exactly what it says on the tin: people, unsure how to handle the impending end of the world, following their old routines to bring a sense of structure to their lives. There are lovingly-rendered shots of copy machines and staplers and coffee makers. The boss stays long into the night trying to account for a stray 38 cents. Carol ultimately upends the place’s status quo, but in small, familiar ways: she learns her coworkers’ names, makes friends, and organizes a happy hour.
The show remains refreshingly non-judgemental about the other people who work at The Distraction, but it doesn’t turn into “return to office” propaganda either. It never makes a call about whether “real life” is the thing you live at work or outside of it, instead finding the beauty in both the everyday and the more extreme. It shows the value of office friendships without forgetting their boundaries. It portrays those out-of-office adventures your coworkers bring back pictures of in their fullness: In one episode, Carol goes on an ambitious hike with her sister, which features life-changing vistas alongside the mundanities of camping. There’s a hilarious episode late in the show that’s structured as a surf film, with all the classics of the genre: beautiful locales, amazing friends, cringy lingo. But, narrated entirely in Carol’s deadpan, it shows the kind of life most people would think of as a dream as just another job, replete with routines and challenges.
Carol isn’t some sad loner who needs to be pushed out of her comfort zone, though of course that happens. Instead, the show finds beauty in her satisfaction with modest pleasures, while still reminding the audience that there’s more important things than your job out there. It would be easy for a show about the end of the world to go full-tilt into a lesson about throwing caution to the wind, but those kinds of lessons aren’t actually useful to most people–eventually, most adventures end, and you need to come back to everyday life. Carol and the End of the World makes that return a choice, and in the process finds a loveliness in it, letting its characters find their joys in both around-the-world cruises and after-work hangouts at Applebee’s.
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