This post contains full spoilers for Years and Years, which aired its finale tonight on HBO.
Years and Years, a limited series imagining the next 15 years of life in an increasingly dystopian vision of England and the entire world, finished airing in the UK a few days before it debuted here on HBO. Inspired in large part by the furor over Brexit, it didn’t take long for the series, created by Russell T. Davies, to seem even more prescient when Brexit’s top cheerleader, Boris Johnson, was elected prime minister last week. Johnson has more of a political background than Years and Years‘ fictional abomination of a prime minister, Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson), but beyond that, he’s most of the things Davies warns against for those six hours of television.
And they are often a brutal six hours to sit through. Davies’ vision of the future is unsparingly bleak, including a second term for the Trump administration, a nuclear strike against China, worldwide financial catastrophes, rises in authoritarian governments, and more. All of it seems utterly plausible, because Davies simply recreates the slow-motion nature of tragedies already happening and being shrugged off in the present. Every day brings a new horror, and we grimace and move on because there are so many still coming. Or maybe it’s because we, like the show’s fictional Lyons family, are like the proverbial frog in the pot of water, with the temperature rising so gradually that we don’t notice it’s fatal until it’s too late to protest. The specifics of Davies’ predictions — including a terrifying monologue by Edith Lyons speculating what the world will be like after the polar ice caps have completely melted — matter less than the vibe he captures of a world that accepts it all, like Rosie Lyons (Ruth Madeley) voting for the clearly dangerous and incompetent Rook because she’s entertained by her.
The Lyons clan proves one of the miniseries’ two notable flaws. Davies and his team have assembled a tremendous cast to play them, including Russell Tovey as Daniel, a Manchester housing official who falls in love with Ukranian refugee Viktor (Maxim Baldry); Rory Kinnear as Stephen, a finance man who loses everything in one of the crashes; and Jessica Hynes as Edith, a political activist who’s an eyewitness to the nuclear detonation. But the characters all feel thin beyond those strong performances. Their various problems — Stephen going broke, Viktor being deported to his increasingly dangerous and homophobic native country, Rosie’s lower-class neighborhood being subject to draconian new ordinances — are meant to put a human face on the political issues Davies is dramatizing. But other than the Danny/Viktor romance, which ends with Danny drowning in an attempt to ford the English Channel on a raft of undocumented immigrants, they have the opposite of the intended effect. Stephen’s bankruptcy is presented in such a weirdly specific way — he never moves his money until the morning, he explains to his dismayed wife Celeste (T’Nia Miller), which is why he left the entire proceeds from the sale of their home in one account just before that bank collapsed overnight — that it reduces a global financial calamity to a stubborn mistake made by a smug idiot.
There are also periodic detours into Black Mirror country as Stephen and Celeste’s daughter Bethany (Lydia West) decides that she’s “trans-human” and dreams of one day having her entire consciousness uploaded onto the internet. Black Mirror‘s Charlie Brooker certainly doesn’t own a copyright on near-future cautionary tales about technological codependence. But the Bethany subplot often felt like it existed on a different show than, say, the one where Edith tries investigating what Rook’s government is up to.
Bethany does prove crucial, however, to the series’ climax — and its other big flaw. Stephen, overwhelmed with grief over his brother’s death, cruelly has Viktor transferred into one of the concentration camps the Rook administration has set up. Bethany figures it out with her new technological implants, and she and Edith team up not only to liberate Viktor, but to reveal the horror of these places to the entire oblivious country. The plan goes perfectly: Viktor is freed, the camps are shut down, Rook is arrested (and there are conspiracy theories about what happens to her), and while the world isn’t fixed, there’s at least hope again. The siblings’ grandmother Muriel (Anne Reid) uneasily watches another political opportunist running for office — Rook in different packaging — but a dying Edith, succumbing to cancer from the radiation she endured, largely paints the show’s nightmarish vision in the past tense, as something that happened and thankfully ended. “We lived through it,” she says. “That’s all.”
Both the conclusion of the main story and that epilogue with Edith feel like a failure of nerve on Davies’ part. In the time since the show began airing in America, we’ve seen news footage and photographs of the camps the Trump administration is running along our southern border. They’re disgusting on a scale that makes the ones in Years and Years feel almost cozy, and at the same time the news coverage has had zero impact on the camps’ continued existence. Sunlight has not proven to be the disinfectant Davies and others promise it always will be. The idea that things can largely return to normal after our present calamity certainly isn’t impossible. But at the end of a show that has been this systematically ruthless in depicting all of the ways our world is collapsing and can continue to collapse in just the next decade and a half, the mostly optimistic ending rings very false.
It’s easy to understand where Davies is coming from. These are such dark times that you can’t blame him or anyone else for hoping our better natures can triumph over the selfish amorality of this current political moment. And Years and Years doesn’t end entirely on sunshine and rainbows: Notre Dame is restored, but the Leaning Tower of Pisa collapses, and the final scene leaves it unclear whether Edith’s mind was successfully digitized before her death. Still, as hard as it was to make myself keep watching, it felt like the show flinched in the end, just as I’d finally adjusted to its grim but credible vision of what’s coming right around the bend for all of us.