The idea of the world ending usually channels excess: humanity running wild because, well, what does it matter anymore? And there’s some of that in Carol & the End of the World, a new animated series on Netflix. But mostly it’s a story about a quiet forty-something woman who uses the impending destruction of the Earth as a chance for self-reflection and discovery. While everyone else is base jumping and traveling the world, Carol slowly finds joy in the mundanity of everyday life. The show is strange yet comforting — and might just be an ideally meditative way to end the year.
Created by Dan Guterman (Community, Rick & Morty), Carol & the End of the World is centered on Carol (Martha Kelly) who is about the most unassuming person imaginable. She’s calm and quiet, rarely talks about herself (much to the frustration of her gregarious sister), and her interests include collecting ceramic mice, listening to Whitney Houston, and going to Applebee’s. So when a destructive planet comes hurtling toward Earth and everyone is given just a few months to live, she doesn’t quite know what to do with herself.
The rest of the world seems intent on living their best lives. Carol’s parents become a throuple with their handsome caregiver, and there are hang gliders and nudists everywhere you look. Carol, meanwhile, doesn’t change much. She stays stuck in a routine that’s only mildly disrupted by the whole apocalypse thing. At one point, she lies about learning to surf just to sound more interesting. But early on in the story, she stumbles across a secret that’s both alluring and mysterious: an accounting office that is somehow still running, even though money is useless and no one needs a job anymore. Naturally, she starts working there the next day.
What follows is more than a pre-apocalyptic version of The Office. Carol is able to slowly discover herself and her ideal life at this cubicle farm, known solely as The Distraction. It’s not even clear what they’re doing all day long (it calls to mind the “mysterious and important” number-crunching that goes down in Severance). She makes friends, builds a sense of self-worth, and even becomes a surprisingly disruptive force for the management.
This premise — coupled with Kelly’s deadpan delivery — has the potential to be dull. But Carol gets around this in a few ways. For one thing, it’s constantly shifting tone and style. Across its 10 episodes, there’s a long road trip with a father and son, a heist on a cruise ship, and a short film about surfing. One episode turns a search through the office’s lost and found into a collection of beautiful short stories about each object, and another intersperses footage of a hike with bittersweet memories recorded on an old VHS tape.
Really, what the show does is use the end of the world as an excuse to explore the stories of people going through critical moments of self-discovery. Carol is at the core of this, of course, but the series treats pretty much every character, even the small roles that seem like one-off jokes, with respect and heart. Everyone from the Somali pirates looking for a chance to finally unwind to a Russian cleaning lady who can’t seem to do anything else are given full satisfying arcs with a surprising amount of depth and care. There’s joy and heartbreak and everything in between. Also a lot of nudity.
Carol does raise a lot of questions, like how the trains and electricity keep running when no one works, as well as what, exactly, The Distraction is really doing. And often it can be hard to tell what’s reality and what’s fantasy. But ultimately that stuff doesn’t matter much. This is a collection of stories about people, how different they can be, and all of the forms that happiness can take. It just so happens to take place with a giant planet looming in the sky — and the tragic irony that even if you find it, that happiness won’t last long.
Carol & the End of the World is streaming on Netflix now.