HBO’s Riveting Years and Years Is a Vehicle for Pure Dystopian Dread

TV Features Years and Years
HBO’s Riveting Years and Years Is a Vehicle for Pure Dystopian Dread

I have now watched two episodes of HBO’s Years and Years, and while the idea of abandoning the painfully compelling six-part miniseries is unfathomable to me, I am also dreading the prospect of watching another minute. My anxiety is easily explained: In a time when seemingly half of all new TV dramas explore some dystopian theme, this show—despite its flaws—has managed to craft a hell that is too realistic to ignore.

It was our TV Editor, Allison Keene, who first pointed out an uncomfortable truth about Years and Years, which is that in its depiction of slow but implacable societal decay, starting in present-day England and making huge time leaps even within single episodes, it focuses on the middle class. There are hints and even outright displays of how the less fortunate suffer greater impact, as always, but one of the central premises of the show is that even the relatively well-off are not safe. That’s meant to disturb, of course, and it works on that level, but I suspect it’s also designed to implicate people like me in the disturbance—to make us realize that what scares is not just the notion of dystopia itself, but the fact that even comfortable westerners are not safe. By the end of the second episode, I even had to reckon with an embarrassing and shame-provoking question: Was I more affected by the idea that thousands of innocent refugees were being held in near-captivity in glorified storage units, or that a relatively well-off citizen could lose a million pounds overnight because of a bank crash?

But I’m getting ahead of myself; Years and Years is the story of the Lyons family, an earnest, mostly liberal collection of siblings, spouses, children and one formidable grandmother located in cities across the U.K. and, briefly, the world. They are conventional people, mostly, with conventional middle-to-slightly-upper-middle class problems. But, unlucky them, they are cursed to live in interesting times. As we quickly discover, their lives are about to serially disrupted by the headlong, heedless momentum of history, usually accompanied by montages set to incongruously cheery music, all of which heaps piles of dread—I fear I’m going to use that word a lot in this essay—on the viewer. A foundational development in the pilot is the re-election of Trump in 2020, depicted with a kind of inevitable, offhand realism on a newscast, and if you can see the outlines of the anxiety that’s in store from that example, well … buckle up, my friend, because it gets worse.

“It gets worse” could be the show’s tag line, and it’s also what the creators do best. Which isn’t to say that this is perfect art (much of the “satire” of this show, if it can be called that, is so on the nose that it practically leaves you bloody). I’m thinking specifically of Daniel Lyons, a housing officer and middle child, who holds his newborn nephew Lincoln in his arms at the hospital, and delivers this monologue:

“Things were OK a few years ago, before 2008. Do you remember back then? We used to think politics was boring …. And now I worry about everything. I don’t know what to worry about first. Never mind the government. It’s the sodding banks. They terrify me. And it’s not even them, it’s the companies, the brands, the corporations that treat us like algorithms while they go around poisoning the air and the temperature and the rain. And don’t even start with me on ISIS. And now we’ve got America. Never thought I’d be scared of America in a million years. But we’ve got fake news and false facts. I don’t even know what’s true anymore. What sort of world are we in? Because if it’s this bad now, what’s it going to be like for you in 30 years’ time, 10 years or five years? What’s it going to be like?”

Well, okay. Most shows don’t state their themes aloud, but then again, subtlety isn’t the goal here. And to the show’s credit, it works much better on screen, segueing into one of the anxiety-provoking time leaps, than it does on paper.

I’m thinking also of Bethany Lyons, the mixed-race daughter of Stephen and Celeste, who is clearly experiencing depression. Celeste decides to check her Internet history, and she and her husband discover browsing related to “trans” issues. They are tolerant—everyone here is very liberal, very tolerant—and their approach to Bethany the next morning is textbook supportive. Just one problem … she’s not transgender, she’s “transhuman,” which means she wants to convert her analog body to the digital realm and live forever as data. Later, the same character has a cell connection implanted into her hand, somehow, so she can literally talk on the phone by pantomiming a phone with her thumb and pinky (“I am the phone,” she says, in what passes for digital ecstasy. “I have integrated.”) These “technology is scary and weird!” moments come off like a very overt Black Mirror episode, and are not the show’s high points.

But still, they are unsettling, even if they feel in the abstract a little ham-fisted. Knowing that, imagine how unsettling the good moments are. Whether it’s the refugee camps Daniel monitors, which feel like the height of inhumanity until you experience the appalling bigotry of a visiting consultant, or the catastrophic global incident at the end of Episode 1 that I won’t spoil, this stuff doesn’t just hit you in the gut—it annihilates your gut.

And we have to talk about the offhand moments, too, the near-throwaways that heighten the angst. They are manifold: A woman in Daniel’s car references certain fenced-off areas of London, and no more is said; a tank of gas, just a few years in the future, costs 120 pounds; chocolate is impossible to find. These hints at impending global catastrophe are sprinkled throughout with impeccable subtlety. They are ominous, and they are terrifying. They will give you the Dystopian Shudder.

Which brings us to Vivienne Rook, played by the superlative Emma Thompson. (Notably, she’s the only performer that sticks out in my mind as “great,” and also notably, the lack of other great performances doesn’t really matter). Rook is a wealthy woman with a sharp tongue who first gains fame for saying she “doesn’t give a fuck” about the Israel-Palestine conflict on a televised forum. There is the usual finger-wagging after her stunt, but also the secret delight taken by those who love to see norms violated. She isn’t taken seriously as a political figure, quite, but she does keep getting media attention as a reliable provocateur. She doesn’t have a firm grasp of the issues, and is sometimes embarrassed because of it, but in terms of her personal momentum, it doesn’t seem to matter. She hangs around, she continues to intrigue, and she appeals to a culture of increasingly nationalistic grievance. Characters we think we know begin to like her against all odds, and it shocks other characters who think she’s a monster, and it shocks us. She gains support, and before we know it, she has real power.

Sound familiar?

This sounds like another paper-thin riff on modern society, and the Trump phenomenon in particular, but be warned: Aside from a poorly executed scene or two, it all feels very legitimate, very real. She is the chaos impulse; the embodiment of that part in each of us that wants to give in to our inner gods of destruction.

That’s the rub here: Unlike say, The Walking Dead, Years and Years makes the choice not to just place us in the midst of a dystopia, but to walk us there step by agonizing step from where we are today. Other shows or movies, like The Handmaid’s Tale or Children of Men (to name two of the best) try this, but ultimately they’re more invested in the reality of the dystopia, and to some extent the foundational explanation they cook up feels a little unrealistic, and is ultimately not that important. I have no doubt that the end of Years and Years will bring us to an equally nightmarish place, but the process of getting us there by intermediate steps, at least through the first two episodes, is where this show expresses its brilliance. It is, in a word, terrifying—a distillation of the dread many of us already feel, here in the maw of unrestrained history, helpless and scared at the beginning of the end.

And while that would be a neat way to end, I have to make one more comment on the theme that our editor brought to my attention, which is that a significant part of the terror comes from watching the nightmare happen to the comfortable people. In fact, that sly bit of commentary might be the show’s greatest coup. I write about politics for a living, and I’m not blind to a very disturbing truth, which is that for many people in this world, a kind of apocalypse, spurred on by climate change and conflict and poverty, has already arrived. But until it arrives for the rest of us, no matter how tolerant and humane and progressive we are, many of us won’t believe it’s real. Not on an emotional level, anyway—not on a level that will compel us to make the radical changes necessary to stop this horror in its tracks. Here, I too am implicated; and even if Years and Years fails the subtlety test now and again, it does the painful job of showing us where our inaction will take us better than anything on TV. It’s quite a mirror, and it’s no coincidence that the main characters are named “Lyons”—the lion is the national symbol of England, and the victims and perpetrators of the coming catastrophe are one and the same.

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