This review contains spoilers for episodes two and three of Years and Years.
It’s unfortunate that the BBC buried Years and Years in its midweek listings, because it has all the makings of a very popular show which would inspire countless think pieces and water-cooler conversations.
After the awesome cliff-hanger at the end of episode two, Stephen and Celeste have had to move in with Muriel in her grand old crumbling house. Edith is now living with Rosie, and Daniel and Viktor are maintaining their relationship over video-call despite the Ukrainian living in hiding.
Though it is lighter in plot than the episodes which precede it, episode three includes very sharp social and political commentary. It may be as subtle as the booming Latin choruses which chant over the news montages, but underplaying the messages would lead to them getting lost.
In Russell T. Davies’ vision of 2026, the gig-economy has mutated into a monstrous slave-driver, fed by low regulations, weak workers’ rights and a steady stream of newly unemployed professionals from the financial crash. Stephen (Rory Kinnear) finds work with one such company, as a courier. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. In a twist of Orwellian terminology on par with Amazon calling their warehouses ‘fulfilment centres’, he works as a ‘lifestyle enhancer’. Clearly that fleet of delivery drones was never dispatched after the decapitation incident. Stephen has to pay his employer for the privilege of working for them, even on his sick days (not that he’s entitled to sick-pay); if he doesn’t deliver a parcel within an hour of collecting it, he loses his 50p payment. This is one of five jobs he works to make ends meet (along with Celeste’s three jobs), including working in hospitality, delivering pizza and working as a guinea pig for drug tests.
Drugs themselves are in short supply as the financial crash hit the pharmaceutical industry. Ruby Bisme-Lyons (Jade Alleyne) is shown to be unable to get the drugs she needs to control her epilepsy for six whole weeks. Although Brexit is not blamed for this in-universe, in our 2019 fears that Brexit will cause shortages of essential medicines for conditions such as Ruby’s are rarely out of the headlines. Similarly, antibiotic resistance is shown to be so rampant that a simple cut to the hand after being hit by a bicycle (from a ubiquitous courier service) can lead to fatal blood poisoning.
Although most technological developments in Davies’ 2026 are subtle, they are far from inconsequential. Rosie’s (Ruth Madeley) skills as a cook are now redundant thanks to the introduction of self-preparing school meals consisting of ‘clean’ lab-grown meat, flavoured with ‘saltless salt’.
The most blatant science-fiction elects in the series come through the misadventures of Bethany Bisme-Lyons, who has been portrayed as wanting to ‘become data’ and considering herself ‘transhuman’. Transhumanism is a genuine movement which has roots as far back as 1793, where the father of Utilitarianism William Godwin explored the possibility of what he termed ‘earthly immortality’. Notably, the eugenicist (and brother of the author, Aldous) William Huxley used the term as the title for his 1957 article where he mused on the possibly of human to transcend their own existence. The theme was also explored in Black Mirror: San Junipero.
Bethany is yet to discard her body in favour of becoming pure data, but she’s still shown to want to augment her body beyond the phone implants in her hand which was installed in the previous episode. This is the first episode where we get a sense of the scale of the transhuman movement: one of Bethany’s colleagues and friends has the same implant, and enough people want to be upgraded that unscrupulous organisations offer services like implanting bionic eyes from ships which mean they are untraceable. As expected, these cut-price services often go wrong with horrible consequences.
Politically, the show continues to show Britain, and indeed Europe, continuing down a dark path. Viktor is once again forced to flee Ukraine, prompting Daniel to desperately try and find a country in which he can claim asylum. In the UK, Viv Rook deploys her Four Star Party in ‘the most unpredictable general election in history’ (how much worse can it get than the current mess that is British politics?). Her refusal to appear on any terrestrial channel is eerily prophetic of Boris Johnson’s refusal to appear on the debates Channel 4 and Sky were hosting for the 2019 Conservative Party Leadership Election. Instead, she campaigns from her own channel – Four Star Live.
Here, Emma Thompson once again proves what a masterstroke her casting as a calculating but outwardly warm politician. With her strong Manchester accent and accessible persona it is easy to see how people like Rosie, who have been left behind by the march of time, are drawn to her. She sits in her brightly lit studio, with a kitchen straight out of daytime television, laughing and dancing with celebrities and quaffing English sparkling wine. But her actual policy proposals are vague, and explicitly crowd-pleasing. She justifies implementing IQ tests for prospective voters by saying it is something that a lot of ordinary people believe will be a good idea. She brands the media as ‘fake’; she weaponises patriotism to attack other politicians. It’s all horribly familiar, and it works.
Years and Years is bursting at its seams with characters and plot lines, but it’s a testament to the perfect casting and expert writing that it works – at least for now. The Lyons family feel like a tight unit, yet realistic in their internal conflicts and flaws. Stephen’s affair with a fellow courier may be a secret to his siblings, but the irony hangs heavily over scenes where they condemn their late father for cheating on their beloved mother. Yet it remains a brilliant scene: touching, but with well judged moments of humour.
Episode three ends after setting up three plot threads which will likely become hugely consequential: Viktor’s precarious status in Spain; Stephen’s affair and deteriorating mental state; and Viv Rook holding all the cards in a hung parliament. With three episodes to go there is still time to give the Lyons sisters more time in the spotlight, but Years and Years remains compelling and consistently excellent television.