Staying Sober At WORLD’S END

I got shit faced at the premiere party for The World’s End. A couple of them, really – I went to the London and the LA premieres. The London premiere was funny because they didn’t have beer on tap, and this was a movie about a pub crawl, so a few of us ran out of the premiere party to hit a local pub just to scratch that itch. The LA premiere was particularly exciting; at the afterparty I did shots with Chris Evans (you know the “S! H! O! T! S!” thing in the movie? Edgar Wright got that from Evans) and at the after-afterparty I saw a famous person vomit in the bushes next to the Roosevelt Hotel pool. 

The thing is that The World’s End isn’t really about getting shit faced at all. It’s a movie about getting sober. Simon Pegg, who stars and co-wrote the movie, had himself gotten sober two years before making it. The film, in a lot of ways, reminds me of being in a recovery meeting and listening to a speaker tell their story – the stuff about getting wasted and being a total fuck-up, that’s the good stuff. That’s the stuff that is the most fun, and so it is with World’s End. And maybe, if you’re not ready to hear the larger message, the part about getting your act together, that’s all you’ll walk away with. That’s all I walked away with in 2013, three years before I would hit my own bottom and be forced to examine all the ways that my drinking had hurt other people, just as Gary King does in World’s End

This isn’t a World’s End review or revisit, so let’s skip to the end – the movie closes with Gary sober but still demonstrably himself, living in the post-apocalyptic wreckage of the world… and doing pretty well, it seems. He’s got a crew of robot replicas (“blanks”) of his old friends, and they’re wandering disconnected England. He takes them to a pub which has a “No blanks” sign on the door, and he stands by them even as the angry humans in the place are itching for a fight. The movie, in the end, has empathy for the blanks and their attempts to leave their pasts behind and create new futures for themselves – it’s very recovery-oriented in that way. In the final minutes Gary orders waters for himself and his friends, and the film cuts out as he’s swinging a sword and about to have a fight over it.

It’s a complicated ending, one I’ve struggled with on rewatch. It’s not tidy, but I think it’s the lack of tidiness that makes it compelling. It’s the lack of tidiness that makes it real. The heroes do and don’t save the day, and everything is forever changed but also lots of things are the same. Now that I’m in recovery this bizarre non-dualistic thing makes a lot more sense to me. There are consequences, and you live with them and in them. It would have been easy to end the movie with the robotic invaders defeated and Gary sober and everything returning to normal, but that wouldn’t have been honest.

The world is not really ending right now; a certain version of it is dying, and a new version of it is being born, but it’s not ending. It’s changing, and the change is painful. But it can feel like the end, like everything is crashing down, like nothing is solid and nothing is dependable. It’s a lot like the end of this movie. It’s a lot like what I experienced personally in 2016.

It’s a strange time to stay sober, but maybe it’s the time when it really matters. The finale of World’s End is very metaphorical, and Gary is forced to live in a world that he has created. There’s a new normal, and it may not really be optimal, but it’s what he’s got and he makes it work for him. And he stays sober in it. 

I have read that Bill W, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, begged for whiskey on his deathbed. He was dying of emphysema, dying slowly and badly, and his nurse recorded four instances where he asked for a drink. He wasn’t given it; I guess the people around him decided protecting his legacy and the image of AA was more important than comforting this guy in his final moments. 

I don’t know how I feel about this, exactly – it wasn’t like Bill was going to get better or pull out of the death spiral, so I’m not sure how it would have harmed the guy to enjoy some whiskey at the end – but I know that I take a lot of comfort in the fact that he wanted to drink. Even with decades of sobriety behind him, Bill wanted a drink right there at the end. Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist teacher I love, says that we die in character. Bill died in character. 

What Jack Kornfield means by that is who we really are will become apparent as we are dying. And right now we’re not dying (most of us) but it can feel that way, and I think that who we truly are can begin surfacing right now. Fear, anger, selfishness… or serenity, other-directed thinking, caring. The ways that we behave (not feel – behave) now reflect who we actually are. We’re being tested in this moment in a lot of ways, and it’s offering us an opportunity to be who we want to actually be. Not who we have been trained to be by the world and our trauma, not who we have been because of our unconscious conditioning, not who we have been because of our automatic habit patterns. Who we really want to be. 

With all that in mind, why is it comforting that Bill wanted to drink? I think it’s because it’s acknowledgement that the bad stuff never actually goes away. Buddhism thinks it takes lifetimes to deprogram yourself from all the wrong thinking, so just a couple of decades of sobriety is nothing compared to some of the cosmic scales we’re talking about in reincarnation. 

Still: why is that comforting? Because it’s okay to want the drink. The chocolate. To yell at someone. To text your ex. It’s okay to still want those things, to feel the urge towards them, the gravitational pull of your worst instincts and desires. The idea that we’ll ever be truly free of those is probably fantasy. But how we respond to them… that’s another matter.

At the end of World’s End Gary is still himself – maybe even moreso than ever, finally finding a scenario that actually suits him well beyond what ‘normal’ life did – but he’s drinking water. I don’t know if he wants a pint or not, but that’s really beside the point. What Jack Kornfield is telling us when he says we die in character is not that we are fucked and that our hidden true nature will surface at the end but that we are in luck, because we can change our nature. Or at least the parts of it we don’t like. And we change that nature by changing our behaviors. 

That’s the whole secret. We can still be the same person in many ways but we can make the better choices. But we don’t have to become someone else. In The World’s End the Network, a machine intelligence from space, replaces people with boring robotic doubles. Gary resists that, remains his unique self, but becomes a better version of that self. A self who is dedicated to his friends, who is dedicated to the people he cares about. He doesn’t have to give up who he is, but he also doesn’t have to remain the same person he had been. It’s not tidy, but like the rest of the movie, it tracks.

So here, at world’s end, I’m not drinking – even though nobody would know, and there are no meetings to go to, and even if I did drink I think a lot of people would understand. I’m sure there are a lot of people who are drinking this week, after some period of sobriety. That doesn’t mean they’re bad or wrong or fucked up. I’m only telling you what I’m doing, or rather not doing. And one thing I’m not doing is giving myself an excuse to give up on becoming the person I want to be, to build the character I want to die in. 

I did, to be fair, give up on my diet that I began a few weeks before the pandemic hit. Nobody, Billy Wilder reminds us, is perfect. And while I’m not going to drink, I can still look fondly back on doing shots with Chris Evans. Not every booze-related story has to end in grotesque self-mortification. I mean, it’s Captain America – that part was pretty cool, and I don’t have to give up the parts that were cool or good. I can move forward with the stuff I like about my past self, drop the parts I don’t like, and build on the parts where I could be better. And it’s here, as one world ends and another begins, that we truly have the opportunity to do that.