Read: 10 perfect films to watch while you shelter in place
There are so many disasters, in fact, that I had forgotten that the final episode features a viral pandemic the media have labeled the “monkey flu.” But the point of the show isn’t prescience. Davies isn’t trying to prognosticate, though some of the show’s predictions have come to pass in the short time since it aired. His intention, rather, seems to be to examine a populace too numbed and stressed to try to change the way the world is going. “It’s all your fault,” the family’s matriarch, Muriel (played by Anne Reid), tells her grandchildren in a soliloquy in the final episode. “Everything. All of it. The banks, the government, the recession. America. Mrs. Rook. Every single thing that’s gone wrong, it’s your fault … You huffed and puffed and you put up with it. We let it happen. This is the world we built.”
But how guilty are they, really? Rewatching Years and Years now, during the worst catastrophe of my privileged lifetime, the thing that struck me most about the Lyonses wasn’t that they sighed and did nothing while the world around them disintegrated into disease and disinformation. It was that—mostly—they survived. The more things happened to them, the harder they clung to life and to one another. Most dystopian narratives deal with one kind of unimaginable crisis: a zombie apocalypse, a totalitarian regime, a terrifying disease. Years and Years, instead, shows how the alienation and paralysis sparked by a decade-plus of constant calamity are also symptoms of a kind of resilience. Human nature is to panic, to agonize, to fret and lose sleep and weep. Inevitably, though, it’s also to adapt. The cost of getting through crisis after crisis, the show suggests, is numbness. “Emotion is a luxury,” Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York said in his daily press conference on Thursday morning. “We don’t have ... [that] luxury. Let’s just get through it.”
What made Years and Years so unsettling in 2019, and what perhaps contributed to its lukewarm reviews in the U.S., was how nervily it replicated the feeling of being a ping-pong ball inside a contemporary news cycle, bouncing between various dangers and open Chrome tabs, never having a second to pause or to consider the path ahead. One world-shaking news event happens, and then another, and then another. Early in the show, the anxiety feels familiar, as Daniel Lyons (Russell Tovey) rants about the world his new nephew is being born into. “I don’t know what to worry about first,” he says. The events only get more cataclysmic. (“The tsunami is an entirely modern invention,” Muriel tells her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, an incorrect statement that nevertheless conveys how ubiquitous freak environmental events have become.)
The show’s focus on family, though, is what allows it to most accurately convey what life in an era of perpetual crisis is like. On Years and Years, the big existential dilemmas get mixed up with the personal ones, so that the emotional predicament of a troubled teenager bears as much weight as the failure of democracy, or the reining-in of the press. One of the hallmarks of the coronavirus pandemic so far has been how efficiently it manages to devastate on a large scale and a smaller one. People dying in unthinkable numbers and economic meltdown become commingled with slighter, more personal heartbreaks: canceled milestone events, women giving birth without their partner, grandparents in isolation. Everything becomes interwoven, which makes perspective harder to attain. On the show, this is true also. Financial meltdown contributes to the end of a marriage, in its way, but so does infidelity.