HBO's Dystopian Nightmare 'Years and Years' Is the New Show You Should Be Watching
This piece contains spoilers for the finale of Years and Years.
Years and Years, first broadcast across the pond in the UK earlier this spring before popping over to HBO in the US, doesn't pull its punches. The six-episode limited series chronicles the trials of the Lyons family, a bunch of upper-middle-class folks just trying to make ends meet in a future that looks more uncertain by the day. Naturally, since it was created by Russell T. Davies, who breathed life back into Britain's beloved Time Lord Doctor Who, there is no small amount of time travel: Every episode journeys forward a few years, all the way up to the season's end in the year 2030 (or, in layman's terms, Phase Six of The Avengers). It might take place in the future, but its anxieties and horrors are a product of right now.
Years and Years imagines a world that grows from the seeds of what's happening today -- or, more specifically, what's happening in so many Western nations, from Britain to Hungary to the US to Brazil. Banks collapse, tossing innumerable families into financial turmoil; a Trump-like politically incompetent firebrand (played with Tilda-Swinton-in-Snowpiercer spittle-flaked panache by Emma Thompson) out of nowhere is elected to public office; the gig economy forces down-and-outs to gamble with their health to make a living; refugees from war-torn nations are imprisoned in remote internment camps within Britain's shores and left for dead.
Looking at it like that, you could make the argument that we already live in a dystopia more insidious than any sci-fi property could dream up. The future of Years and Years is much more subtly devastating than something like The Handmaid's Tale, where the authoritarian and sexual violence onscreen, though rooted in today's still-rampant obsession with controlling the bodies of women, is far enough removed from the present to fit comfortably into the realm of science fiction. Next to that, Years and Years barely feels futuristic at all -- which is why its scares land so much harder, and its triumphs are so much more deeply felt.
And those triumphs do in fact come; despite the nuclear-holocaust tenor, everything turns out more or less all right. Years and Years comes from the man who brought back Doctor Who (this is Mr. "Everybody Lives," remember); it's earnest-core birthed from poptimism, that modern invention in which things that make us feel good are held in the highest esteem. But it's no bubbly Carly Rae Jepsen album, either: The finale of Years and Years takes place almost entirely in the dead of night inside an "Erstwhile" camp, where two activists, Edith Lyons (Jessica Hynes) and her partner are rescuing Victor Goraya (Maxim Baldry), the former lover of their dead brother. It culminates in the sins of the government being broadcast all over the country as the rescuers and the victims still held inside the camps use their cell phones to record live videos of refugees locked into cages and menaced by officers clad in riot gear.
If you're looking for a nuanced reflection of The Way We Are Now, you won't find it here. The show deals in absolutes: government bad, people good, power in the hands of the wrong folks leads to death and destruction. There is zero subtext. But there's something so satisfying about watching a vigilante with a rocket launcher explode a cell-scrambling tower, itself a symbol of the government silencing the voice of the people. Years and Years ends with the masses taking back power from the authority figures who have abused it, like a scene out of V for Vendetta. This time, it's Edith who has the by-now-familiar refrain when the dust settles: "I wonder… what happens next?"
There is an inherent, increasing anxiety associated with contemporary life, when the supposedly unpredictable has become the norm. It makes a future like the one in Years and Years, where people you know can disappear or lose all their money or be transferred into a computer system in the blink of an eye, so very believable. In this show, it's Emma Thompson's Vivienne Rook who is the face of everything wrong with the people in power, a representation of irresponsible politics creating an unsustainable situation that boils over into catastrophe, but the finale doesn't lay all the blame onto her, either. The onus is, and has always been, on us. "It's our fault," the Lyons matriarch Muriel (Anne Reid) intones at a family dinner in the final episode. "This is the world we built. Congratulations. Cheers, all."