Before we get to the bad stuff, let it be known that Paste is not an anti-Years and Years shop. Allison Keene wrote about the loss of the idyllic middle-class British life illustrated so beautifully in Episode 4, the best of the six-part miniseries, and when I managed to unfold myself from the fetal position after the anxiety nightmare of the first three episodes, I wrote that despite a few weaknesses, it’s a masterpiece of pure dystopian dread.
What we valued, and what countless critics have valued, is the unflinching way the creators took us into a near future that was simultaneously horrifying and completely realistic. Forget zombies—this was the true apocalypse, coming at you one quiet devastation at a time, its inexorable rhythms perfectly reflected recent history. To a chilling degree, it felt true, and if we judge a show by what it does best, then Years and Years succeeded marvelously on its own unblinking terms.
And then, it blinked.
The finale wasn’t just a poor finish; it was a thorough betrayal of the shadow world the show had built, and a betrayal of those all-important rhythms that felt so eerily familiar. If that sounds abstract, let me put it simply: In the real world, the Trump administration separated children from their families and continues to essentially imprison immigrants who cross our southern border. People were, are, and will be outraged. It seems beyond the pale, but for a lot of us who don’t have to deal with the hell of imprisonment and separation itself, one of the scariest things is that there haven’t really been any consequences. He’s still president, people still like him, and all that dread we felt before the last election—could he actually win?—is just repeating itself. We want certainty, we want a restoration, and with each passing day we have to cope with the truth: It ain’t happening, at least not the easy way. And we have to wonder: What comes next?
That’s the question Years and Years answered with such exquisite, existential horror: This, it said, is what comes next. It painted a disturbing picture, complete with the same outrages, the total inability to do anything about the outrages, and the creeping realization that, dear god, the monster of the future will someday make it even to my privileged doorstep.
Then, in the finale of Years and Years—prep yourself for some serious irony—the resolution hinges on a plot about keeping immigrants in prisons. Seriously. And guess what? Once it’s exposed, the people are PISSED. This will not fly! The thinly veiled Trump-of-the-U.K. resigns in disgrace and literally disappears! Order is restored! Happiness returns!
To put it lightly, this is a major cop-out. This is weak sauce. This is taking the grotesque truth of the show, spreading it out like a carpet on the floor, and dumping a vat of cheese sauce all over it. That’s a bad metaphor, but this was a bad finale, so it’s the metaphor it deserves.
Years and Years was never a subtle show, so when I speak of the “point,” I’m not doing any major detective work. The “point” was that we had reached the end of a precarious era in western society in which we could trust the protections of the system, provided we belonged to a certain social and economic class. When those protections broke, as they appear to have broken in our world, it ushers in the Age of Wolves, and the emotional impact of Years and Years derived from our inability to escape the wolves even while we tried to pretend they weren’t at our door.
To shy from this truth at the last moment, to pretend that the wolves can be contained by the rules, is to engage in the kind of wishful thinking that this show spent five episodes so ruthlessly and effectively attacking. It went from preying on our fears to placating them.
At certain protests in the aftermath of Trump, there was a common sign that read: “If Hillary had won, we’d be at brunch right now.” For a specific kind of person, that might have been true, but it quickly became a source of mockery for its naivete and privilege. For five episodes, Years and Years seemed to pillory the kind of person who might parrot that slogan. But the finale could have been written by the sloganeer. It was feel-good dreck from a show that seemed to sneer righteously at feel-good dreck.
Here’s Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker making the same point:
In “Years and Years,” the population revolts when it witnesses the mistreatment of “disappeared” refugees. Rook’s exposure leads to legal consequences—and the Internet helps out, too, in spreading the word. The series softens, unable to acknowledge another possibility: that people might be shocked, once again, then shrug and do nothing. As shows often do in their finales, the series finds closure but sells out its ruder and more challenging ideas in the process.
Exactly: It’s a sellout. And the solution was so easy: Lean into the dystopia. Let the immigration horror be revealed to the people, and let nothing change. In other words, have the courage of your convictions! They were good convictions!
When a show does one thing extraordinarily well and then falters, it shines a harsh light on weaker elements that were once easier to forgive. This is true in the finale, where after the government is toppled, we’re treated to a cringe-y scene in which Edith, an activist suffering from radiation poisoning, prepares herself to be transferred physically into the digital realm. Years and Years always had a slight problem with corny dialogue, starting with the pilot episode in which a character essentially looked at the camera and stated the show’s theme, but here it blossoms into platitudinous muck. Read this, if you dare—it’s from Edith, her face fixed in a mask of cloying serenity, as a couple of scientists prepare to turn her into data:
Everything you’ve stored. All the downloads, those bits of me that you’ve copied onto water. You’ve got no idea what they really are. I’m not a piece of code. I’m not information. All these memories, they’re not just facts, they’re so much more than that. They’re my family and my lover. They’re my mum, and my brother who died years ago. They’re love. That’s what I’m becoming. Love.
Should a miniseries like this one be judged wholly by its finale? In my opinion, no. The true character of this show, and its strength at distilling our angst into nail-biting TV, still resonates despite the crash landing. It may have transformed into a toothless political drama at the finish, but a choice remains to us: We can forget Edith, lying on a laboratory slab in a world that succumbed to a hopeful fantasy, and we can remember Daniel, lying dead on the beach in a world that felt all too real.
Shane Ryan is the Politics Editor at Paste. Follow him on Twitter here.