This essay contains mild spoilers for Carol & The End of the World
Carol & The End of the World is an apocalyptic workplace dramedy that asks a single existential question: “Was it worth it?”
The Netflix Animated Limited Series takes place in an alternate reality, where the world is ending not due to the threat of climate crisis or global fascism, but because the planet Keppler 9C is set to crash into the Earth seven months from the first episode. Through the entire series, the cosmic horror hangs omnipresent in the sky, a physical reminder of everyone’s looming mortality. The show’s protagonist Carol, an unconfident, monotone, middle aged woman (voiced by Martha Kelly), tries to continue the mundane operations of her daily life while society fractures around her.
The story starts after the initial wave of societal redistribution and destruction has subsided. Normal day-to-day interactions occur against the backdrop of abandoned parking lots and walls covered in existential graffiti saying Die Free and Death is Just the Beginning. Laws of a centralized government seemingly no longer exist, but order is maintained through their base forms: social contracts and the threat of violence, specifically through the heavily-armed soldiers who have been reassigned to work as clerks at the grocery store. They also defend property, such as the abandoned Applebee’s Carol frequently visits with a wistful yearning for a world that no longer exists.
While using an apocalypse story to critique our own dystopia isn’t a novel concept, Carol & The End of the World is unique due to its radically honest approach. It shows how people whose lives have been made hollow by capitalism find joy, meaning, and authenticity when these central frameworks no longer provide purpose and stability.
From the moment we enter this fictional world, it’s clear many have abandoned the constraints of our heteronormative capitalistic society to focus on joy and pleasure in their final months. Queerness and sexuality at large is so normalized it exists within the world of the show without comment. (A statement unto itself.) While some people, like our protagonist, desperately cling to normalcy, we are consistently reminded that society’s arbitrary rules have lost their value — ie Carol’s casually nudist parents who’ve entered into a consensual throuple with their live-in caretaker. They, like many others who can, travel the world and indulge in bacchanal-esque raves where substances and sex flow freely.
Our protagonist will not allow herself to indulge in any of this hedonistic pleasure-seeking — for no other reason than it will not bring her the joy and comfort that she so desperately craves. Though Carol’s parents are deeply concerned that she is squandering the time she has left by maintaining her mundane routines, the show itself doesn’t frame either option as preferable. They are simply different methods of coping with The Horrors of reality. As the story progresses, and the end times approach, we watch as Carol and the other characters discover the people they could have been in the old world, and who they want to become in this new, fleeting one.
Carol finds solace and purpose through work. In the world’s impending end she becomes an administrative assistant at a company called The Distraction. The Distraction exists as an accounting firm operating on a single floor of an abandoned office building. This dystopian corporate institution has perfectly replicated the cubicle-based lifestyle that has sustained late-stage capitalist society for decades. No one knows each other’s names, no one knows how The Distraction functions, but they go into work Monday through Friday regardless.
Mirroring the systems of our own slow-rolling apocalypse, The Distraction’s HR describes friendship as an “existential threat to the office” and attachment between coworkers as a “virus that threatens to destroy [it].” And those who work there are content to keep it this way. Despite the active alienation The Distraction engenders in its employees, Carol attempts to foster genuine human connection as the series progresses. She has not simply gone to work to find distraction, but to find herself — and for that, she needs community.
Carol bakes banana bread to share in the break room, connecting with two other employees, Luis, a gay man who traveled the world alone and still has not found meaning, and Donna, a middle aged single mother of five who realizes she’s missed the lives of her children by spending her life working. After fostering genuine friendships with the two of them, Carol breaks the rules and learns the names of every person who works in their office.
“When your name is spoken a type of intimacy is created,” The Distractions head HR person describes. “You are no longer a stranger or a coworker, you are an acquaintance, with the possibility of more.” In an explicit satirical critique on how small acts of community care can disrupt the individualistic drive of capitalism, the character goes on to say, “Potlucking is a gateway to comradery. A simple potato frittata could make someone feel more loyal to their coworker than to their duties.” And isn’t that what every company wants? Our loyalty to them over the humans we collaborate with?
While many apocalyptic shows offer the idea that love is salvation, they often focus on romantic love. Carol rejects that idea, discarding a desperately lonely potential love interest in the first episode. The show focuses instead on the love that is all around us: from family, to friendship, to the love we must foster for ourselves.
In Carol’s largest act of defiance, she, Luis, and Donna restore the abandoned Applebee’s and host weekly happy hours, creating a sense of community that leads to the show’s most devastating scene. In the series’ finale, we watch a collective eruption of grief overtake the office, as people realize the bonds they’ve created in the office are doomed by the very apocalyptic nature of its existence. Regardless, they continue to hold dear to them, as the joy their community provides is the only thing that gives their finite lives meaning.
Carol & The End of the World is a hopeful, if melancholy, meditation on finding meaning in being ourselves and loving other people — because at the end of the world, it’s all we have left.
This is where the show diverges from our world. We still have hope. Our planet is not yet doomed, but The Distractions of our world want to convince us it is. The powers of corporation, fascism, and neoliberalism hope to alienate us, to keep us focused on survival and production.
Community isn’t the only thing we have left, but it is the only way forward.
Carol & The End of the World is now streaming on Netflix.