Featured image: 12 pubs, 12 pints, 1 night. Simon Pegg stars as 40-year-old alcoholic Gary King in quintessentially British comedy The World's End (2013), which poignantly touches on philosophical themes of Nietzschean fate, substance addiction, social conformity, and aging. (Universal Pictures)
Do you ever wish that some part of your life never ended? Perhaps it was an era of comfort and satisfaction that slowly faded away; or a period of blissful ignorance, of exploring boundaries, drenched in the happy naivety of youth; or a mere fragment of a time—an exhilarating night out, a romance of pure elation, a lesson in culture, a chance friendship.
Do you accept that this part can never return, that it can’t be relived? Or do you wistfully long for its return and rue its departure? If only you hadn’t taken it granted; if only you didn’t untighten your grip …
But oftentimes in life there isn’t anything you can do to prevent change. Things change all the time beyond your control: architecture, local shops, music, the scents that fill the air. They develop gradually and are inevitably replaced. People, too, mutate: their attitudes, their beliefs, their expectations, their passions. They become unrecognisable to whom they were prior.
You are powerless to prevent it but you can make a choice: you can adapt to your changing environment like everybody else; or you can cling on. In the latter case you may cut a misfitted figure, alienated by a desire to keep things exactly as they are. However, maybe—just maybe—you will be granted your wish.
Welcome to the world of Gary King of The World’s End (2013).
The boys are back in town: From left to right: Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine), Gary (Simon Pegg), Andy (Nick Frost), Peter (Eddie Marsan). Also featuring in the film: Pierce Brosnan as the boys' old schoolteacher Mr Shepherd; Rosamund Pike as Oliver's younger sister, Sam; Bill Nighy as the voice of 'The Network', which secretly governs the town; and David Bradley as Basil, a human blending in with the 'blanks'.
Four old schoolmates are duped into returning to the ‘boring black hole’ they grew up in, Newton Haven, by their former friend, Gary King. Gary is a curiously self-assured, 40-year-old alcoholic who is dead set on picking up where he left off with his mates on 22nd June 1990 as teenagers: to finally complete The Golden Mile.
The Golden Mile is a legendary pub crawl which entails drinking 12 pints of beer at 12 different pubs in one night—quite the feat. They only failed last time because the marijuana came out …
The Golden Mile: 'Tonight, we will be partaking of a liquid repast as we wend our way up The Golden Mile, commencing with an inaugural tankard at The First Post then onto The Old Familiar, The Famous Cock, The Cross Hands, The Good Companions, The Trusty Servant, The Two Headed Dog, The Mermaid, The Beehive, The King's Head and The Hole in the Wall for a measure of the same, all before that last bitter sweet pint in that most fateful terminus, The World's End. Leave a light on, good lady, for though we may return with a twinkle in our eyes, we will, in truth be blind … drunk.' (Jake's Work)
Gary’s mates are less keen on the pub crawl than Gary is. While they did make the trip to Newton Haven for it, Gary had to coax each of them into attending with his personable, if not manipulative, ways. Nevertheless, they join for the trip down memory lane.
The differences between them are stark. Whereas Gary has not got much going for him, in a societal sense, the others have lives involving families and stable jobs to go back to. They also rarely swear and constantly maintain contact with their partners via mobile phone. Gary, conversely, is a pub aficionado who habitually takes recreational drugs, who still wears a Sisters of Mercy t-shirt, and who drives a car called ‘The Beast’.
Nostalgia: 'Because we're young // Because we're gone // We'll scare the skies with tigers' eyes' — lyrics from Suede's 'So Young', which plays as Gary and 'the boys' swagger and mingle once more.
In a significant development it turns out that nearly all of Newton Haven’s inhabitants are replicas (‘blanks’) idly playing out the roles of humans as lifeless, blue-blooded droids. A blip reveals that over time nearly all the humans in Newton Haven have been killed (made into ‘empties’). ‘The Network’, a galactic overlord which digitally runs the town as well as many other places in the galaxy, used their residual DNA to replicate their bodies and install new personalities into them.
This is quite the twist and the group have to be diligently on their guard. The Network, at any point, may acquire their DNA and convert them into blanks. Who is real and who is a blank? They are sent into a state of paranoia and have to convince each other of their humanity.
A word with Slavic origins: The blanks desperately appeal not to be called 'robots', a word loosely translated to 'slaves'. They believe they are leading good lives, of course, but they are brainlessly following The Network's commands for the sake of a purpose too great for any individual to benefit from: intra-galactic civilization.
Seemingly ever-optimistic, Gary has an idea which they all surprisingly agree to follow: carry on with the pub crawl.
Gary will move Heaven and Earth to finish the journey he started all those years ago. Plus he is finally sensing camaraderie between the guys. The obvious downside is that the longer the group stays, the greater the chance The Network can collect their DNA and force-assimilate them into its lifeless community.
But there is also a method to the madness: fleeing now will arouse suspicion; playing along puts them in control. The Network has been monitoring their situation since they arrived and is expecting them to continue the night. The group bandy together in their moment of crisis, coming closer together because of it, and crack on with the drinking, albeit on Gary’s terms.
Gary's philosophy: 'We are here to get annihilated.'
Hereon the story is one of survival. Each of ‘the five musketeers’ must resist the temptations of The Network and together craft a plan that eventuates an escape from Newton Haven.
Sadly, by the end there are only three musketeers left.
In the final pub, the eponymous The World’s End, Gary, Andy, and Steven come face to face with The Network. The Network attempts to convince them of a greater cause: civility, harmony, and sustainability on a galactic scale. But Gary, Andy, and Steven take this attempted erasure of humanity’s individuality as an affront to basic principles of liberty, identity, and character, however flawed they may be.
Proud of imperfection: 'Hey, it's our basic human right to be fuck ups. This civilisation is founded on fuck ups. And you know what? That makes me proud.'
The Network decides that it is utterly pointless to argue with humans, stubbornly armed with self-persistence and stupidity, and swiftly exits Newton Haven, triggering an explosion. This causes an apocalypse that effectively takes the world back to the Dark Ages: a wasteland comprising primitive communities, unequipped with technology and forced to focus on the simple things.
Despite failing to drink his twelfth pint at The World’s End, owing to Andy’s paternalistic intervention, Gary finds peace and becomes clean of his prior addictions to alcohol and other substances. He now roams the barren territories of what’s left of the world with younger-looking clones of his mates—blanks, who have been ostracised by the now-all-human society—demanding they can all have access to tap water.
Just as he did as a teenager, Gary leads the life—of no responsibility, of carnage, of companionship—he loved and reluctantly left behind all those years ago. He improved his situation, not with group counselling, but by tending to what he felt was the root cause of his addictions: that he was left behind by his friends.
Gary reaches this weird and wonderful closure, ironically, wherein the problems began: at the pub.
Happy or sad, that ending is delightfully consummative.
Self-unity: 'They call me The King.'
The day of the pub crawl was destined to be Gary’s day—and that was by design. Gary devised the completion of The Golden Mile and nearly everything was planned on his terms, under false pretences for everyone else. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t find respect for Gary, a man who was pulled together by greater drives towards meaning in his life, unlike the others. Cue some cool existential philosophy.
Gary fell into a state of suffering by experiencing life incompletely over many years. Thus his desire to complete The Golden Mile represented an even greater desire to escape his suffering. His healing wouldn’t come with medical treatment—a fix in itself—but by embracing the fate that connected the events of 22nd June 1990 to 2013’s pub crawl and, further, to the present day.
To the tune of Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘amor fati’ (‘love of fate’), Gary perceived the reunion as fateful. Over time he located reasons to affirm this belief, finding multiple signs of connection between events back then and now. For example, Gary almost punched a hole into a pub wall for the second time in over twenty years. This near-event catalysed a growing wish in Gary to see moments in his life repeat themselves, again and again, and recognise his desire to see them recur eternally (amor fati). These events’ recurrences, born out of delusion or not, provided Gary with a meaningful narrative which was timeless—one founded on continuation of friendship. Gary eventually reached a state of completion by undertaking a post-apocalyptic pub crawl over and over.
In this way I have great respect for Gary. However befallen and languished others may see his life, Gary coveted order and wasn’t afraid to believe in a near-mystical concept of eternal recurrence to restore it. In embracing his fate he affirmed his life as it was, uniting himself across time, and escaped his suffering.
The others led orderly lives, too, but only in a conventional sense. Their lives were boring and predictable. Nietzsche would have called them weak-willed: each lacked mental coordination and animality in their motivations. They were buoys, lamely floating with the noise of the ocean, neither striving for meaning nor fulfilling desire with it. When called upon it was Gary who saved the day: he resuscitated their individuality, bringing back to life their stronger wills and finding himself in the process.
We are social creatures: A moment in group counselling prompted Gary to return his life to the point at which it began to derail: when he started to cling onto something that couldn't be. But the reunion was never born in a desire to connect with his old pals on a shared, meaningful level on which they were heard by him: it was born in the desire for continuation of his old life. Isn't that sad?
Despite Gary’s love of fate, he cannot be extolled as a person completely. He had problems with addiction to substances, for which he attended group counselling, but he was overtly selfish.
Addicts are often selfish, not necessarily in ways we can’t feel sorry for them, and Gary was no different. He granted himself the freedom to self-indulge and make decisions in his best interests. He was stubborn and didn’t listen to the needs of his ‘friends’. Any desire for camaraderie was self-centred. Gary lied and deceived and emotionally manipulated to get what he wanted. He anointed himself king only to push people’s limits to places they didn’t want to be in. A good time only had boundaries at which point the events impinged on Gary’s vision of the night.
Everyone else was left to pay the emotional toll. They picked up the pieces in the aftermath of Gary’s actions in the show Gary directed. He didn’t even bother to consider, let alone be accountable to, anyone else’s best interests.
But at the heart of Gary’s addiction was a nostalgia of a life. He yearned to return to a life with his mates, for whose return he longed but who couldn’t exist on their own terms. Gary never wanted the good times to end; and he suffered because the others did. For them those never were good times: they only remembered physical trauma, bullying, and memory loss, to which Gary was insensitive. Thus the reunion wasn’t a catch-up or an anniversary: it was an exercise for Gary and by Gary.
Woven into the story of Gary’s addiction is a philosophical question of his autonomy from it. Of course, many substances are physically addictive, in a biological sense, and entangle themselves with one’s sense of self. But, notwithstanding this fact, Gary was arguably mentally complicit in his c0nsumption of them and therefore his own suffering, for he had agency to do otherwise.
So should we really feel sorry for Gary? If he attached himself to suffering, he willed the emotional pain. If he chose to suffer, he was free not to. If he identified his sense of self with a version of Gary who wanted nothing other than to repeat the past, he interpreted the world’s naturally moving on as an attack. Nonetheless, Gary was ultimately only healed through meaning and justified in pursuing his vision’s completion.
Either way, perhaps we should still pity Gary for the vicious situation he found himself in. He was drawn to his own suffering and possibly complicit in his addiction, yes, but the Universe moved in such a way to eclipse his world, promoting a life of mortgages and children and decimating the one life that gave him spirit.
Gary simply wished for his life to return to the way it was for him; alas, his friends had moved on, hampering his chances of reconfiguring it back to his ideal reality. As a teenager and as a 40-year-old, Gary was a hedonist who sought to lead a posse. But he was directionless without fulfilling the life promised to him as a youngster. The others had direction but it was society’s; they feared true freedom from it. Was Gary deluded, broken, and out of sync or were they lying to themselves? They didn’t sound contented with their lives, either. So why was he the mad one with mental health problems? Why was his approach to adulthood wrong?
The open-endedness of the question over Gary’s agency is both fascinating in the film’s narrative and familiar in people we know, making The World’s End a compelling watch.
Chain pubs are taking over: Oliver remarks that 'it's part of that nationwide initiative to rob small, charming pubs of any discernible character.' The film deprecates a social tendency towards conformity and criticises the extent to which we water down cultural identity, all to proceed on the basis of efficiency. Steven calls this eradication of localism 'Starbucking'.
The blanks are symbols of conformity in real life, in which people willingly blend in at the cost of their individuality because they’re afraid to stick out and be counted for.
How tediously predictable we, humans, really are. We drink in chain pubs and happily return to consumeristic lives, driven by repetition and efficiency and stunted into uniformity by widespread commodification, and we don’t even complain. Gary’s realisation of the blanks’ existence was kind of a vindication of his worldview, according to which people should just chill out and be more free-spirited. Indeed, during the boring stretch of their night out, at the beginning, was continuous with the blanks’, showing how mimicable most people are. Granted, the blanks neatly imitated humans.
The blanks are like ants. They march around, biologically programmed to be a certain way, and barely conscious, and act for the good of the species as a whole, not its parts. Humans, however, are individually driven and egotistical and they seek personal identity. To take inspiration from philosopher Daniel Dennett, consciousness may be an illusion and we may be determined by our environments, but we’re nevertheless creatures who are capable of forming conceptions of ourselves and taking ownership of them.
We should fear losing sight of what it is to be human, of letting ideals of progress dissolve us. We can each be someone: individuals with self-awareness who love, who hold onto their own identities, who possess ideologies, values, and wishes for the future—uniqueness. The Network, antithetically, saw this as a source of wider grief and planned to take ownership for the greater good. But for what ends: ‘participation in a collective community’? The Network was merely an electronic deity pontificating about the purity of growth and survival on no ultimate grounds except perfectly hollow progress.
THE NETWORK: And therein lies the necessity for this intervention. Must the galaxy be subjected to an entire planet of people like you?
Nonetheless, it was conformity that allowed the group to survive. The group used their initiative by feigning their assimilation with the blanks. But they did so out of fear of being socially sanctioned by their peers, a point which feels too close to home.
Age and the self
Lessons in failure: 'On June 22nd 1990, Gary King led this merry band of teens on a mythical quest to drink a pint in every pub in their home town, Newton Haven. While they did not succeed in their goal of reaching the 12th and final pub, The World's End, we will always salute their idiotic valor.' (Edgar Wright, the film's director, on Twitter)
The Fountain of Youth is a mythical spring which restores youth for those who drink from it. That sounds very similar to drinking beer on The Golden Mile …
Gary quite clearly values the kinds of things he did when he and his friends were young, such as heading out on pub crawls.
This begs the question of whether it is actually plausible to cling onto a ‘youthful spirit’ forever—not by turning back the hands of time but by living as you did as a prior self. Or, to put it another way, is getting old in spirit really inevitable or do we will it?
A youthful spirit still meets a dwindling body. So shouldn’t we adapt to life accordingly, to the rhythm everyone else is passively dancing to?
When Eos, Goddess of the Dawn in Ancient Greek mythology, wished for immortality for her lover Tithonus she forgot to ask for his youth. Tithonus went on living—but he did so without bodily strength or mental clarity and eventually he begged for death to overcome him. In real life, too, we lose parts of ourselves the longer we go on. The natural order of the world progresses and the parts of ourselves which were grounded in the old are irrevocably lost.
Though Gary’s story may provide some inspiration, the outlook is bleaker in the real world. Time is a concept that represents change and irreversibly occurs in one direction. Our experiences of the world are therefore laced with existential difficulty about finding permanent meaning in them, for we are mortal creatures with mortal concerns. (Though we may follow Martin Heidegger here in seeing death not as an abyss but as something to wield to see the full possibilities ahead.)
Still, we favour permeance and cling onto things. We envision afterlives. We dream up ways to genetically engineer immortal humans. We cryogenically freeze ourselves with the hope future scientists will concoct immortality. We write fiction—The World’s End being but one example—that reveals these deepest of wishes. But this is not how the world is. For to ‘cling onto things’ is to ruin what they really were; to preserve what we cherish is to destroy.
We can rejoice at the spirit of Christmas but, afterwards, keeping the decorations up for too long gathers dust; allowing the lights to blink for a winter more breeds complacency about a reality we still need to survive. And at the terminus of life, we each unavoidably face a stopping point. A never-ending period of life, like Peter Pan’s childhood, just isn’t possible in our universe and we must adapt—or wait, like Gary did.
The eternal king
Alienation: Things change but Newton Haven was broadly the same in 2013 as it was in 1990; The Network ensured that. This suited Gary, of course, because Gary didn't accept change, whereas Gary's friends had changed as people. Gary was part of the town and alienated outside of it. The price of withholding his development within society was Armageddon—his Armageddon.
The reunion was about Gary, for good or ill. Gary wanted to be king of merry men again to accompany him on his existential adventure. He had no capacity to ultimately care for his friends as individual men with their own sets of needs, refused to conceive of ways to change for a great good, and always expected to be an exception.
In denial, Gary expected the world to the stay the same as it was for him: stuck in a moment, frolicking. He waited for the world to revert back to what he wanted it to be, for a world that no longer existed and which no one else wanted anymore. Gary felt aggrieved when it changed, even though entropy—inevitably increasing disorder—is encoded into the Universe and determines change necessary.
However, Gary took matters into his own hands: with singular vision, he became determined to fulfil his fate and take action. True to himself, he occupied a place already cemented for him in an ethereal, quasi-timeless world as Gary King, where his life recurred eternally through 1990 to 2013 to the present day.
Thus Gary was a strong-willed individual whose attitude to life was depraved beneath society’s conforming eyes but authentic and life-affirming, at least to the Nietzschean. He was a bodily manifestation of the Übermensch (‘beyond-man’) that transcended society’s fickle values to embrace a unifying eternity with his drives. It just so happened that his path to realising himself went via the pub. As such, Gary ridded himself of the uncompletedness that saddled him with an identification with deep-rooted suffering—suffering which begot substance addiction, not the other way round.
In this way completing The Golden Mile meant a great deal to Gary: it was the one thing he was clinging onto and depending on to connect an eternal cycle. He reignited the past and engulfed himself in the flames of his youth, reaching a sense of completion, against all real-world possibility, and continued his life whereupon it suddenly stopped against his will all those world-years ago, eternally, as Gary, King of the Left Behind.