In the last few minutes of the first episode of Years and Years, the BBC and HBO miniseries created by Russell T. Davies, the world is about to end. Or so it seems.
President Donald Trump has just launched a nuclear weapon at a fictional island off the coast of mainland China. The Lyons family, a diverse group of Manchester-based Brits, is celebrating matriarch Muriel’s birthday when sirens fill the air, and every channel on television is set to the same chilling broadcast announcing imminent nuclear doom.
No one knows what to do. Muriel (played by Anne Reid), her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren start panicking — What happens next? — while struck motionless in Muriel’s living room. It’s only Daniel (the lovely Russell Tovey), Muriel’s most softhearted grandchild, who bursts out of the house and gets into his car, refusing to heed his husband’s cries of protest.
Daniel abandons his family in the throes of unfolding chaos and speeds to the facility he manages as a housing officer, where a handsome Ukrainian refugee, Victor (Maxim Baldry), is waiting for him. Outside Victor’s small temporary shelter, there’s screaming and looting and smashing and the quickening spread of fire; inside, he and Daniel have wild, desperate sex as if it’s the very last thing they’ll ever do.
But it isn’t. Somehow, the worst has happened — nuclear warfare — and yet the world keeps on turning, inhabited by people who just keep on living.
The brilliance of Years and Years, and its uncanny, heart-pounding horror, is how incredibly close this all feels — not only because the timeline kicks off practically in the present and then unfolds throughout our immediate future (5, 10, 15, 20 years from now), but because we can experience this terrifying near future through the perspectives of a cross-class, multiracial family. Years and Years is a sometimes sweet, sometimes schlock family drama injected with increasing levels of full-blown sci-fi dystopia. Where I’ve felt alienated in the past by something like Black Mirror (except for, obviously, “San Junipero”), what gripped me from the very beginning of this series was that it’s not your run-of-the-mill apocalyptic thriller, but an of-the-moment political commentary. It’s a warning. It’s a love story.
Watching Daniel leave his perfectly OK husband to spend what might be the last few hours of his life having mind-blowing sex with a practical stranger is a delicious (and aspirational!) thrill. Perhaps I’m biased, since I happen to have recently left a long-term relationship for someone I’d just met, blowing up my entire life in the process. But I do believe that in these end-times we could all be thinking a little harder about what we really, truly want — out of our relationships, out of whatever remains of our futures — when nothing on this flooding, burning, locust-plagued planet is guaranteed to last much longer. Just this week, the Earth barely managed to avoid getting bludgeoned by an enormous “city-killer” asteroid. We could all die tomorrow! Today, even! Shoot your shot!!!
Years and Years also feels painfully accurate in its representation of the way we’ve all somehow decided to sit idly by and watch the mounting threats of authoritarianism, a global refugee crisis, and climate disaster increase with each passing day. The Lyons family, spread throughout the UK, are constantly chatting with one another via their smart devices, checking in for updates about their jobs and relationships as often as they’re marveling at the rise of a new fascist party led by Emma Thompson’s Vivienne Rook, a businessperson turned celebrity who lights up their television screens. The Lyons are just like us — moaning about the daily injustices of modern life and trying to find joy in the wasteland of late capitalism while flip-flopping between cynical numbness and mind-melting fury at the world’s mounting injustices. But really, what’s one person — or one family — to do?
Years and Years tries to answer that question, with mixed success. One case study is Daniel’s sister Edith (Jessica Hynes), who’s spent her life as an activist traveling the globe and attempting to make it a less terrifying place. After she witnesses the bomb go off in China from Vietnam, she gets close to the site to document the horrors there and returns home poisoned with radiation. She seems pretty much resigned to her fate; she tried her best, but still everything has gone to shit. With limited time left, she decides to take up a few hedonistic flourishes, like her brother Daniel did, but even her cynicism can’t last. The world might be screwed, sure, but she can at least make it suck less for her family.
Edith is the most passionate of Daniel’s siblings when it comes to helping Victor — who was tortured back home in the Ukraine for being gay — achieve permanent residence somewhere safe. He’s punted from country to country as Europe falls to mass protests and immigration hysteria. In Episode 4, by far the best and most harrowing of the series, Daniel and Victor attempt, like so many refugees before them, to make the treacherous crossing from France back home to England, braving the channel in a dinghy overloaded with people. The resulting journey is a devastating encapsulation of so many real-world horror stories of families fleeing violence and persecution, only to die in deserts and rivers mere meters away from safety.
Some of the show’s scaremongering about advances in technology feels somewhat contrived — like with granddaughter Bethany (Lydia West), who wants to fully upload herself to the cloud, and who identifies herself as “transhuman” in a goofy Black Mirror–y plotline — but plenty of it feels all too real, and all too imminent. How can we know what’s really true in this emerging age of misinformation campaigns and deepfakes and the war against news? In the world of Years and Years, we watch legitimate politicians felled by fake ads that manipulate their likeness; we see characters who casually dismiss the reality that the China bombing even happened at all.
Where Years and Years ultimately fails is in its maddeningly simplistic and hopeful ending. As Emily Nussbaum wrote in her review for the New Yorker, “The series finds closure but sells out its ruder and more challenging ideas in the process.”
Edith, nearing the end of her life, finds the will to keep fighting and decides that, in rescuing Victor from a concentration camp, she can expose the plight of refugees there on a larger scale. One wonders what the show’s creator, Davies, might have done differently had he scripted the show right now, when concentration camps are not just inevitabilities of our near future — they are our current reality.
Despite the well-earned cynicism exhibited throughout the rest of the series, which depicts a family increasingly struck with despair and inaction and hopelessness, in its last moments, Davies decides to believe the best in people. Certainly, the final episode suggests, if everyone were made aware of how powerful Western governments are “disappearing” refugees and leaving them cordoned off from the world to suffer and die, we would demand better. We would do something. Right?
“The presence of concentration camps should be intolerable, and yet here we are, tolerating it,” Malcolm Harris recently wrote in Mother Jones. “Either they aren’t camps or we aren’t who we said we were.”
Years and Years wants us to believe that we are who we say we are: people who will put a stop to racism and xenophobia when it reaches a mass-murderous scale. But from where I sit, the world right now — and seemingly in the near future — looks a lot more like the series’ beginning: a group of people staring with confusion and horror at their television sets, with no idea — none at all — what they’re supposed to do. ●