This article contains spoilers for the finale of Years and Years.
From the outset, it was clear that Years and Years had a dangerous level of ambition. Would six hours be enough to cover over a decade of political and personal upheaval, shaking the lives of a large and complicated family?
The answer, unfortunately, is no. Despite episode six delivering some of the most powerful and thought-provoking moments in the series, it squanders the potential that has been built up over the five hour lead-up. It also undermines some messages the show could have had.
At the end of episode five, the look of barely suppressed betrayal and hatred on Bethany Lyons’ (Lydia West) face communicated the viewer’s emotions perfectly. After his new employer gained control of some of the ‘Erstwhile’ Concentration Camps, Stephen (Rory Kinnear) condemned Viktor (Maxim Baldry) to an unknown but likely horrible fate. With Edith (Jessica Hynes) investigating reports of mysterious disappearances, it’s immediately clear that a major aspect of this finale will be her quest to rescue Viktor and expose the camps and Viv Rook.
As excellent, humane and witty a writer Russell T. Davies is, his work can border on the mawkish when not restrained by historical events (A Very English Scandal). While this worked well when he was show runner of Doctor Who (2005-2010) – a long-running drama aimed at families – it is at odds with what Years and Years needs to achieve greatness. Maybe the budget ran out. But it seems far more likely that Davies wanted to leave viewers with something to be hopeful about after six hours of horror and misery. In doing so, he lessens the finale’s impact.
Nothing is made of hints that The Four Star Party could have been funded by Russian backers, nor whether the compulsory voting was rigged, nor whether Viv Rook was simply a pawn in a larger plan (as she may have hinted to Stephen in episode five). Over a thousand people have been killed in a new flu pandemic, which is even infecting people in the arctic circle. However all that is seen is a few people coughing, and characters asking others if they are displaying symptoms. It is difficult to appreciate the sense of panic an outbreak of deadly flu can cause – especially a disease so dangerous that the infected are quarantined in concentration camps for nature to take its course.
The reveal of the Erstwhile camps in the previous episode was inevitable, but still horrifying. Especially chilling was the way that Viv Rook equivocated over language used to refer to the camps. ‘If you fill a camp with oranges it would be a concentration camp by dint of the oranges being concentrated’ she said to the room of investors. With debate raging over what language is appropriate is appropriate to use when discussing detention centres on the USA-Mexico border, it’s another plot point which appears to be ripped from today’s headlines.
Disappointingly, the potential horrors of the camps are not fully realised. Although prisoners talk about brutal treatment by the guards, poor sanitation, malnourishment refugees being left to die, viewers are not shown any of it. Prisoners idle around an abandoned army base, or crouch in huts with are overcrowded but look more basic than squalid. At worst, Viktor and the other prisoners are shown to have greasy hair and be wearing several layers of mismatched clothing. This failure to show how bad conditions are only makes it lessens the catharsis when Edith, Fran and Viktor escape and expose the camp. The music swells, the montage of horrified and awed faces plays, but there is no real sense of achievement.
That’s not to say this finale is without merit – quite the opposite. Muriel’s (Anne Reid) fervent speech where she reflects on the state of the world and admonishes her family (and by extension, the viewer) on their complacency is fantastic and rightfully went viral.
Bethany Lyons’ transformation from a shy teenager who hides behind her digital filter to a young woman confident with her identity and powers is beautifully realised. Hopefully, Lydia West will be an actor we see much more of in the future.
The finale also provides a satisfying payoff for Rosie Lyons. She has matured well over the series from an enthusiastic supporter of Rook who does not consider the consequences of her dangerous rhetoric, to someone who is willing to take a stand against injustice. Davies does not demonise her for voting for Rook, which only makes it more effective as he illustrates how vulnerable people can be seduced by charismatic strongmen – even fascists – and end up being betrayed by the people who claimed to hold their best interest at heart.
Where the finale bungles what could have been one of the most memorable character arcs in recent television is in how it treats Stephen Lyons. The story of a wealthy man who loses everything in a catastrophic recession, works himself to the bone to make ends meet, destroys his marriage and becomes complicit in the new regime is a powerful one. It is one which parallels real reasons why people can become attracted to extreme ideologies. But Years and Years does not seem comfortable with the fact that one of their most prominent characters has become one who actively participates in what is referred to in-universe as a ‘genocide’.
Daniel’s death was undoubtedly the straw that broke the camel’s back for Stephen’s mental state. The problem is that the show present’s Stephen’s grief as a justification for his condemnation of Viktor. His becoming a whistleblower is framed as something which atones for his action as part of the team who managed several Erstwhile camps, and he does not face any justice for his actions – apart from a three year prison sentence for firearm offences. Seeing him reunited with the family, and Viktor, at the end leaves a bad taste in one’s mouths.
And then there’s the final ten minutes. The problem is not that we are left with an uncertain ending, nor the premise of Edith’s consciousness being uploaded. It’s that from a thematic perspective, it does not fit in with the tone and message of the show. It feels to similar to something from the Davies era of Doctor Who which is not intrinsically negative but its fantastical mawkishness not appropriate for Years and Years.
Also, it presents the country as going back to normal far too easily. The camps are exposed; Viv Rook (who has been criminally underused in this episode) is arrested on charges of murder and conspiracy to murder and the opposition sweep in to fill the power vacuum. It feels too simple, too convenient, and ultimately disappointing.
Years and Years was arguably at its most powerful when it was basically a dystopian Eastenders, with characters being at the mercy of the cold clockwork as politics instead of directly affecting it. Transitioning the series from one which was plot-driven and where the helplessness of the characters was palpable to one in which the characters were the driving force ultimately made the finale feel too conventional and less remarkable than what preceded it.
It is for this reason that the finale of Years of Years is more disappointing than it is bad. It’s not bad at all – but it pales in comparison to what has otherwise been a remarkable and gripping series which has sometimes felt more like watching the evening news than a fictional drama.
In the UK, this episode aired on 18 June, immediately after a debate for prospective leaders of the Conservative Party. It was immediately followed by the evening news at 10pm. Muriel’s warning to Lincoln feels eerily prescient with the prospect of a man often compared to a clown poised to become the British Prime Minister in a time of national turmoil”
“Beware those men: the jokers and the tricksters and the clowns. They will laugh us into hell”.