We open with Harriet Walter lying in bed with a bag over her head and a near-empty bottle of booze by her side. A log falls out of the fire downstairs and sets light to the place. Burning is clearly not how she wants to go, so she swings herself out of bed, tears the bag off, takes a final swig of vodka and throws herself out of the window. She groans as she hits the ground, but only in disappointment when the impact fails to kill her. She is taken to hospital in an ambulance. “It says: ‘Do not resuscitate!’” she cries fiercely, jabbing at the bracelet on her wrist. “Love,” says the kindly paramedic sitting with her, “you’re still conscious.”

So The End (Sky Atlantic) begins. Walter plays – with such humanity, humour and grace that I hope this early posting in the year is not forgotten when awards are handed out – Edie, widowed six months previously. This seems to be the proximate cause of her suicide attempt(s) but, as we come to see over the course of the subtle, funny and quietly devastating opening episode, rarely is a life-or-death decision arrived at so simply.

Her daughter Kate (Frances O’Connor) brings her over to Australia so she can be more closely supervised. Edie expected to be living with Kate herself (“You’ve got three and a half bathrooms!”), but is instead installed in a nearby luxury retirement village, lest she supervene her mother’s efforts by murdering her.

Kate is a doctor specialising in palliative care at the local hospice. Suicide and euthanasia are outcomes she spends her professional energies trying to avert. Edie is adamant that she has the right to end her life as and when she sees fit, and that she will. The mother and daughter’s relationship is so constructed as to make it clear that this is the cumulation of a lifetime of opposing views, and all the more painful for it.

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Kate has two daughters of her own. Persephone (Ingrid Torelli) is a borderline sociopath (which to my mind is a fair reaction to being named Persephone) who is deeply interested in Grandma’s experiences and unperturbed by her father’s absence (“You have to go to prison sometimes if you’re doing big business”). Titania (Morgan Davies) is struggling with their gender identity (“I thought she decided she wasn’t a lesbian,” says Edie, which is another reason she is in a retirement village and not the family home) and is now known as Oberon and using male pronouns. “It just takes practice,” Kate tells Edie, without much hope. Oberon’s story comes to the fore in later episodes, and the question of whether rebirth as a different gender makes for a good enough life adds another layer of complexity to the family and the story. In addition, Oberon’s relationship with his queer best friend at school is as deft and convincing an encapsulation of a teen subculture and surrounding gender issues as I’ve yet seen in a drama, and deserves plaudits of its own.

At work, Kate is confronted by a favourite patient who, along with her husband, has procured enough of a drug to kill her and wants to go home to do so. Kate cannot countenance it, although she delays reporting it as she should. She argues with the patient’s husband when he waits for her in the car park. “People often grow at the end. It can be a really special time.” “You wouldn’t do it to a dog,” he says. “I hate that argument,” Kate replies. “She’s not a dog.” That night, her patient hangs herself alone in her hospice room. A beloved pet would have had more comfort and dignity, but how can you say who is right and wrong here? Thou shalt not kill – but need one strive ever more officiously to keep someone alive?

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The End is a meditation on what makes life worth living and how much of it is within our control. Edie is probably a natural termagant who would never have been the life and soul of the party, but her story invites us to think about how events cannot help but shape us. It emerges that Edie underwent a double mastectomy for breast cancer, nursed her husband through bladder cancer and Parkinson’s disease, and, after his death, found his diaries full of detailed accounts of various infidelities. Edie has been depressed for decades and the intermingling of it as a cause and effect on the quality of life is another of the questions probed by this intimate, clever, painfully perceptive drama. “I want to be dead because I can’t stand being alive knowing that I wasted all of it,” she says to Kate, who might have hoped she would be a redeeming quality in her mother’s sorrow. The final scene is of Edie, naked in the bath, scars on show, screaming. Whether it is a sign of a new beginning or that the end is nigh neither we nor, we suspect, Edie know.

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.



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