A few weeks ago I did a Recommendation of Years and Years (if you don’t know, $5 and above Patrons at my Patreon get weekly Recommendations of all sorts of stuff, and it’s not just a quick thing – I write about it), even though I hadn’t finished the show. In the modern era I hate doing this, because too many shows don’t stick the landing, but I was loving it so much three episodes in (out of six) that I felt the need to write about it.
The show had already aired in the UK and I heard from some blokes that actually the series did not stick the landing, and that the ending was pretty terrible. This kind of put a damper on my viewing, and I held off a couple of weeks on the final episodes of Years and Years, waiting until the whole show was done so I could blow through the final eps.
Turns out I loved the ending.
If you haven’t seen the show (or you’re not a Patron and thus haven’t read the Recommendation), here’s how I explained it:
The premise: we follow a British family over the course of 15 years, starting in 2019, as the world continues on its current path. Each episode fast-forwards through a year, replicating the breakneck sense of our current society hurtling out of control. And holy shit, does Davies think we’re going to dark places.
The first episode, which jumps ahead five years and begins during the second Trump term, ends with Donald Trump nuking a Chinese base as the result of an escalating trade war. Spoiler, I guess, but I feel like you gotta know where this show goes to really understand why it’s so gripping. As the banks fail and the world economic system teeters on the edge of collapse in another episode you get the sense that this is both alarmism and also extremely fucking plausible.
But Years and Years isn’t just a guessing game about our unstable society; the show is grounded in the lives of the Lyon family, and it’s the mixture of Black Mirror (one of the Lyons’ daughters is trans… transhuman!) and soap opera (one of the Lyons brothers leaves his husband for the handsome refugee he meets at work!) that makes the show so gripping. Very often our dystopian science fiction focuses on the big stuff, but living in a dystopian society has shown Davies that it’s the small stuff that really resonates. The big seismic shifts in Years and Years happen in the background, on television, on the internet, and the Lyons family feels the shockwaves. The first shockwave will be in the form of them reacting to the situation, but where it gets better is when the secondary and tertiary shockwaves hit – people lose jobs, relationships begin to crumble, attitudes begin to change. The nature of the show allows us to see the ways that seemingly distant events directly impact the lives of this family.
Be aware, since I’m talking about the end of the series what will follow will be heavier spoilers than in that excerpt. If you’re intrigued, I’d recommend watching the show and then returning to read my dopey thoughts.
OK, here goes.
So when I got to episode four I was quite close to tapping out. The show had sort of hit emotional rock bottom, with Daniel (the guy who left his husband for a handsome refugee) drowning while trying to get his fella across borders. It was really a gut punch moment – one of the most likable characters died for almost no reason, and in a truly terrible way. The show had crossed a line into misery porn, and honestly I have enough misery in my life these days.
But creator Russell T Davies understood this, I think. He drove the show to an emotional bottom so he could bring it back up, and by the finale that is just what had happened. Episode five is still tough, and the world is getting worse, but there’s a hint at action, a sense that maybe there are people doing something.
And then in episode six it all comes together. It turns out that Edith – the activist in the family who got a longterm lethal dose of radiation in the early episodes – has actually been part of an underground movement aimed at attacking the increasingly fascist government and their concentration camps (like I said, it’s tough when this stuff gets too bleak BECAUSE IT IS LITERALLY WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE REAL WORLD). And it turns out that every member of the family has been on a path that will allow them, in the end, to take a small role in an attack on a concentration camp that will help shine a light on the atrocities happening there.
But that’s just the action stuff. Some of it is silly; I think the people who didn’t like the ending felt a bit turned off by the bazooka blowing up a guard tower. The show sort of hedges its bets – rather than turn the family into full-blown resistance fighters or create a civil war, it has a couple of medium action beats and then hinges on the idea that the one thing that can stop Western Civilization from returning to Nazi atrocities is a good livestream. Not all of this holds up or works as well as it should, but that’s okay, because the episode is doing something larger that I love, and that I think is out of fashion:
It’s reminding us that we can all make a difference.
The point is first made at a family dinner, where matriarch Muriel tells everyone who is to blame for the state of the world.
They are. “It’s all your fault,” she tells the assembled, baffled family.
“Everything. The banks. The government. The recession. America. Mrs. Rook. Every single thing that’s gone wrong, it’s your fault.”
When someone asks her how he’s responsible for the entire world, she replies:
“Because we are. Every single one of us. We can sit here blaming other people. We blame the economy. We blame Europe. The opposition. The weather. Then we blame these vast, sweeping tides of history, like they’re out of our control, like we’re so helpless and little and small. But it’s still our fault.
“You know why? Because of that one pound t-shirt. The t-shirt that costs one pound. We can’t resist it. Every single one of us. We see a t-shirt that costs one pound and think, oh that’s a bargain and we buy it. Not the best, heaven forfend, but a nice little t-shirt for the winter to go underneath, that’ll do. The shop keeper gets five miserable pence for that t-shirt, and some peasant in a field gets paid nought point nought one pence for that, and we think that’s fine. All of us. We hand over our quid and we buy into that system for life.
“I saw it all going wrong at the supermarket when they replaced all the women at the till with the automated checkouts.”
When everyone says they hate those automated checkouts (I love them, but there’s a larger point being made), Muriel says,
“Yes, but you didn’t do anything, did you? Twenty years ago when they first popped up did you walk out? Did you write letters of complaint? Did you shop elsewhere? No. You huffed and you puffed and you put up with it, and now all those women are gone. And we let it happen.
“And I do think we like those checkouts. We want them. Because it means we can walk through, pick up our shopping, and not have to look that woman in the eye. The woman who is paid less than us. She’s gone. Got rid of her. Sacked. Well done.
“So yes, it’s our fault. This is the world we built. Congratulations. Cheers all.”
I loved this. We live in a loco parentis society, a world where everybody wants everything to be someone else’s responsibility, and thus, fault. But that isn’t the world. We live in a connected world and the decisions we make MATTER. The loco parentis view of society – where it’s only corporations that impact the world, where we’re helpless bystanders like Tokyo citizens watching Godzilla rampage – is a comforting one because it doesn’t ask me to change anything, to do anything. It’s out of my hands!
But the reality is that the corporations operate with my complicity. The small example Muriel uses is right – nobody did anything about the automated checkout, everybody just let it happen even though everyone at the table claims they hate it. And so the quiet, silent complicity allowed the system to expand and the employees to lose their jobs and the world to get ever so slightly worse in the process.
The point being made isn’t that we are small and alone, but rather that we are powerful when we are together. Muriel’s speech sets this up but the finale pays it off – each of the individual members of the family is in a position to make a difference in the final assault on the camp. Alone none could do anything, but united they topple a government.
This is how the world gets worse – we are convinced that we are separate and that we have no power. This is how the world gets better – we realize we are connected and that when we bring ourselves together we have all the power.
One of the missteps the show makes (and I think it’s an inevitable one, considering how Western narrative storytelling works) is that it makes it seem like this family toppled the government. In the epilogue, where we learn the whole show was dying Edith uploading her memories to a water tank, we’re told that there were other actions, that this one family was just part of an almost spontaneous uprising across the country. Many people acted, and that is what mattered. Edith makes this point a couple of times, but even the people to whom she’s making the point don’t really grok it, so it’s no surprise if the audience doesn’t take it as seriously as they should.
But this is the point. It’s the whole point. When we see ourselves as separate and powerless we are separate and powerless. But when we speak up and work together we can effect change. It’s the only way to effect change, in fact. Cue that old Margaret Mead quote:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
We’re trapped inside a societal narrative that says that we as individuals are helpless while pointing at individuals – Trump, billionaires, oligarchs – who are holding us down. We want both sides of this narrative, we want to both be unable to make change while having specific people we can point at as making the world worse.
But the truth is way more complicated than that. I think that individually we all make the world worse, giving in to and accepting systems that offer us temporary convenience and comfort but in the long run making everything terrible. But collectively we make the world better, and that’s the message this show was building towards for six episodes.
Things will get bad – they’ll even get worse than they are now! – but they can get better. I think this is what I love about Years and Years in the end, even as some aspects of the finale fell flat for me (Stephen, who cheats on his wife and works for the company running the camps needs, imo, a little more than three years in jail at the end. He needs to really get his ass whipped). It acknowledges the reality in which we live, and it uses that to earn its uplifting message of, basically, “All together now.”
I think this is what my line on sentimental uplift is – it’s gotta be earned. It’s why It’s A Wonderful Life works, because so much time is spent in the darkness. Same here, although I’m not saying Davies pulls off what Capra did (although honestly the themes are kind of the same, when it comes to the impacts individuals have and the way communities can come together to effect real change). Still, the dark depths the show hits are redeemed by the ending, even if I think the transhumanist stuff is hokum.
So I get why people didn’t like the end of Years and Years – it has some real problems narratively – but I’m so keyed to the thematics that those missteps or stumles don’t bother me at all. I can glide past them. We live in a consensus reality, one in which we have conceded control to others for a very long time. Years and Years asks us at the end to regain that control, to stop going with the flow and blaming all others. It asks us to take some responsibility for the way the world is, and says that once we do we will be forced to change it.