If you haven’t been watching Years and Years, HBO’s emotional UK series about a family weathering the next 15 years (Episode 4 is up to 2027), we at Paste highly recommend it, and you can check out a spoiler-free explanation why from Shane Ryan here. Then catch up and rejoin the conversation!
For those who you are watching Years and Years and are caught up through Episode 4, let me first give you an e-hug. We all need it. Years and Years can be a tough show, but this episode was particularly brutal. Below we dive into specifics, so:
One of the things that Years and Years has been so great at doing is making safe westerners feel completely and totally unsafe. It does this by putting mostly white, middle-class individuals through the ringer of totally plausible world events, like banking collapses or, in this latest episode, a refugee crisis. As Shane pointed out in his piece (linked above), one of the most uncomfortable things about the series is how it makes many of us firmly confront our privilege by how disturbed we are when things happen to people who, traditionally, are not affected by these kinds of horrors. That is never more true than at the end of Episode 4.
Years and Years understands this feeling completely, because Danny even says at the start of the episode (When talking with Edith about how to get Viktor out of Spain): “We’re not stupid, we’re not poor, I’m sorry but we’re clever.” Edith immediately and rightfully pushes back, saying “I don’t think refugees are refugees because they’re thick.” Danny retreats to say that’s not what he meant, it’s the system that’s stupid. But his words still hang in the air; Danny feels invincible because he’s lived in a world where that has been true. Even later in the episode, after losing his passport, Viktor comforts Danny but saying that he’ll be fine. He just has to walk up to the Embassy, as a white man from England, and say his passport was stolen. It may take some time and some money, but he’ll get home. Danny dismisses this and says he’ll never leave Viktor, but again, those words hang in the air.
The entire situation with Danny and Viktor in this episode is fraught from the start. We know the family teases Danny behind his back regarding his obsession with Viktor, tsk-ing about the money he’s given him and the time he spends focusing on keeping Viktor in the U.K. But Episode 4 really spells out Danny’s view of the situation, which is that, given the politics of Ukraine and now Spain, if Viktor is arrested it’s a death sentence. Britain is the only freedom that Danny sees once the Spanish Revolution happens, and it’s impossible to him that they can’t find a way to get Viktor home.
Years and Years is entirely too good at ratcheting up the tension of its narratives, thanks especially to Murray Gold’s soaring, often totally over-the-top score. The bombastic orchestral / choral combinations playing out as troubling world events are being read out is one thing, but it’s in the later moments of the episode where it works most effectively. The tone shifts to triumph as Viktor and Danny hit each new stumbling block and as their desperation grows. Its lightness makes you uneasy, because you know something is going to break. Whether Viktor suffocates under the bus, or he’s shot in the street, or he’s detained and deported, there’s a gnawing sense of dread. When Danny actually handed his passport over, I was sick. You can see how this combination of panic and a loss of resources, as the two are basically robbed and thwarted at every turn, becomes increasingly problematic. When they get onto the dingy, you feel the same manic hope that they do: they’re so close, they have to make it, right?
Danny and Viktor are on a boat that is populated entirely with people of color. No one speaks the same language, and though their points of origin are all different, they share the same longing for freedom. Danny taking his shoes off just before they board is, in hindsight, one of the most poignant moments in the whole episode. He’s still clinging to some sense of decency instead of realizing that he’s looking death straight in the face.
Again, Gold’s scoring of this scene is warily hopeful, bordering on triumphant. They’re on the boat, with 26-ish other adults and children, setting out into rough seas before dark. Quick cuts then suggest a squall, and ultimately, bodies washed up on the beach. 17 of them. One is Danny.
In this moment I was confronted, again, by my own privilege, bias and presumptions that Danny would survive this. He’s a white male lead in a limited series about a close-knit family. But it is Viktor who survives. Danny made a statement early in the episode regarding their plans: “even if I have to commander a yacht to get us across the channel,” that haunts this moment. He didn’t commander anything, he made a back alley deal where he was nearly humiliated as his protestations were ignored. It wasn’t a yacht, it was an overloaded dingy. And he didn’t make it across.
The rest of Episode 4 mainly deals with Stephen’s infidelity to Celeste, her finally throwing him out and Elaine not being particularly pleased with him staying with her. He whines that when Danny left his spouse nobody ostracized him, which takes on an even worse cadence knowing, of course, that Danny is dead. The family’s flippant Link conversations, which bookend the episode, are Danny’s last communication with them and Viktor’s first upon arriving back. What was charming before becomes grating under the weight of this exceptional loss, which Viktor finds no finesse for: “I’m at the house and Daniel’s dead. I’m sorry but he drowned. We thought we could get across the channel, but on the news it says 17 bodies. That was Daniel. He’s dead. Drowned. We got half a mile from the shore, but that’s a very long way.”
What’s amazing, in a sense, is that the episode doesn’t end there. Viktor also admits that he didn’t ID Danny because he didn’t want to be detained. The score, again, is strangely sweet when Viktor enters Danny’s home. He made it, it’s what they both wanted. “I came home,” he says on the Family Link. “Is this home?”
All of this plays out over the course of the hour alongside the news that Viv Rook has been elected Prime Minister, Italy is under martial law, Greece has left the Eurozone, and Hungary is bankrupt. There are Deep Fake videos, the ability to get your life expectancy from a blood test, and compulsory voting. Areas of London are being blocked off. And still, the family is glib. “Viv could smash the system!” Rosie says excitedly early on. Stephen counters, “Remember when we thought the news was boring? … Born in the 80s, the first 30 years of our lives, we had a really nice time. Turns out we were born in a pause.” Edith interjects about “a few wars,” which Stephen brushes off. They didn’t affect him or their families personally. It was idyllic for the Lyons. And now, as Episode 4 proves, it’s not.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat, and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV