The End of Us: How The Pandemic Gave Birth To A New Kind of Storytelling

COVID-movies, like “The End of Us”, are knocking at the door. Should we let them in, or keep our distance?
The End of Us: How The Pandemic Gave Birth To A New Kind of Storytelling
Buzzfeed Studios (Production Company)

Back when we were first placed under quarantine, I had mixed feelings about the whole thing. The extrovert in me was upset that my life had been hijacked by a disease that closed bars and restaurants. The introverted side of me felt kind of relieved; I had secretly been wishing for a break from my daily commute across New York City’s grimy underground and the increasingly obligatory binge drinking that accompanied college friends whenever we hang out. I believed I had the perfect excuse to stay in and recharge. I was wrong, but only kind of.

Two actors and three crew members. That is everything it took to make The End of Us, a romantic comedy about a couple that decides to break up moments before the governor of California announces a stay-at-home order to combat the spread of COVID-19. The movie, which premiered at SXSW film festival, begins during a time when the pandemic was not yet being referred to as a pandemic, and ends with the grim realization that people will probably have to live in the shadow of the virus for longer than they can handle.

The End of Us is only the latest film belonging to a steadily growing sub-genre of COVID-inspired films: stories in which the real-world pandemic is both an essential plot device and a central theme. Other movies include the Michael Bay-produced sci-fi thriller Songbird and Anne Hathaway’s British heist dramedy Locked Down. Though neither overly imaginative nor particularly inventive, The End of Us is a terrific example of how personal experience can inform artistic expression, as well as proof that cinema is not only there to merely distract us from our woes but help us make sense of them as well.

Stimmy Checks For Everyone

The protagonists’ contrasting personalities do not just make for good relationship drama; they also represent two different approaches to handling a pandemic. Leah is a hardworking but uptight businesswoman who must put on rubber gloves before she can accept her neighbor’s double-packaged, homemade banana bread. Her (ex) boyfriend Nick is a laid-back but struggling actor whose already slim chances of finding work have grown even more slim following the film industry’s overnight shutdown. 

The socially distanced duo periodically erupts into arguments about nothing and everything at once, which every household across the country can relate to. Leah thinks Nick, who will wear a face mask when he goes grocery shopping but not when he jogs down a completely deserted street, is not taking the crisis seriously enough. Nick, in turn, is convinced Leah’s doomsday mindset and obsessive-compulsive use of sanitizer may be doing her more harm than good. 

Writing for Indiewire, film critic David Ehrlich points out that, going off such an admittedly corny premise, you would almost think The End of Us was the brainchild of a Hollywood think tank looking to cash in on early-pandemic nostalgia with a forgettable feel-good sitcom. Conversely, the film’s saving grace is that it wasn’t produced by a big studio, but a group of friends who used their stimulus checks to rent a nice Airbnb and spent two weeks trying to make a full-length motion picture. Knowing this, the all too familiar plotline starts feeling much more organic than contrived. 

Nowhere To Hide

Those who went into quarantine thinking they would be able to escape their real-world problems were setting themselves up for quite the reckoning. The couple in The End of Us illustrates as much. The main reasons for their breakup (careerist Leah thinking Nick is leeching off her income, and aimless Nick feeling emasculated by his lack of purpose and direction) amplify as the pandemic rages on. Leah gets mad at Nick for playing accordion while she is on a business call, which he does because she changed the password of her Netflix account. Stuck inside, there is nowhere you can run to avoid whatever—or whoever—is bothering you. 

The pandemic also changes the power dynamics of Leah and Nick’s relationship in ways that neither could have anticipated. When Leah, who works in the tourism industry, is laid off because of travel restrictions, the two find themselves, for the first time ever, on equal footing. To cheer her up, Nick drives them out to an abandoned plot of coastline where the two have fun for the first time since the virus took over the country. A welcome, albeit temporary relief from their current situation. 

Finally, both characters use their fear of catching COVID as a scapegoat. When Leah gets sick after having an isolation-fueled one night stand with her flirtatious co-worker, Nick berates her for bringing a “lethal virus” into their household. Given how careless Nick has been, it’s safe to say he isn’t angry with Leah for potentially endangering his life, but rather because he still has feelings for her. 

The End of Us and History’s First Draft

Is the so-called COVID-genre a thoughtful take on present times, or are these narratives as unwelcome as the viral outbreak they are built upon? Journalist Laura Spinney resides in the first camp. Writing for The Guardian, she points out that most of us are familiar with the tragedies of the First World War only because it featured so prominently in literature. The Spanish Flu, a virus which spread around the globe the same year that the war ended and claimed at least 10 million more lives, was largely absent from our fiction. As a result, it also faded from our collective memory. 

While a movie such as The End of Us isn’t comparable to books like A Farewell to Arms or All Quiet on the Western Front, it too will surely go on to serve as a kind of time capsule, a story which future grandparents show their yet-to-be-born grandchildren what this unimaginable moment in history was like for those who lived through it. Stories destined to serve such a special purpose must not only strive to accurately describe the setting in which they take place, but also include an important moral message. 

For writers Ernest Hemingway and Erich Maria Remarque, this message was that warfare can only lead to death and misery. What idea COVID movies should carry across is not really all that clear, perhaps because the pandemic—as of May 2021—still hasn’t come to an end. That didn’t stop the directors of The End of Us from leaving their strung-out audiences with some tried but true words of advice, though. Life goes on. Be nice to each other. And don’t forget to go outside once in a while. Good stuff.

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