This article contains major spoilers for Years and Years episode four.
A programme like Years and Years which features such a large cast of prominent characters and deals with complex and pertinent issues can go wrong very easily. If there is a weak link in the cast or one of the relationships between characters does not feel organic it can undermine the entire story.
Daniel Lyons has arguably been the closest that Years and Years has to a main character through whom the audience experience the brave new world the show depicts. He is the first of the Lyons brothers we are introduced to, is repulsed by Viv Rook while other siblings fall for her promises, and expresses political opinions and concerns similar to the largely liberal, Remain-voting audience. Russell Tovey is one of those actors who crops up in everything and is always welcome when he does. He is especially adept at playing off his co-stars, and his chemistry with Maxim Baldry (whom we’ll likely be seeing more of, after this) is very natural.
To discuss what Daniel and Viktor go through in this episode in detail would be to minimise its emotional impact. You cannot rationalise the plight of refugees. You cannot criticise their choices as being illogical because pragmatism and desperation can force them into taking hazardous decisions. What Years and Years does is give a face to a humanitarian crisis which is so often rendered faceless due to overexposure by a dispassionate media. What is even more striking, is how that familiar that face is to viewers. Sometimes, you need to bring a crisis home to viewers for it to have an impact.
Events depicted in this episode have happened every day across Europe and the Mediterranean for years. In 2018, six people died every day while attempting to cross the Mediterranean, according to the UNHCR. People are also making the crossing from France to England in overcrowded boats and their arrival is described as ‘a major incident’ by the Home Secretary Sajid Javid.
And still we look away.
Episode four opens with life looking good for Daniel and Viktor: newly engaged, and Daniel planning to start a new life in Spain where Viktor has finally been granted sanctuary under the Socialist government. But life has other plans, as the socialist government is replaced by a far left one which repatriates anyone without Spanish citizenship. For Viktor, this means being forced to return to a country from which he has fled twice, in which his parents reported him to the police for his sexuality, in which he is registered as a political dissident. It is as good as a death sentence.
Thus begins Daniel’s frantic quest to bring Victor to the UK. First by smuggling him out of Spain in the luggage compartment of a coach, and then onto the ferry from Calais. If that fails, they would buy their way back into the UK. Here is where we start to see Daniel’s flaws. Although he is clearly driven by desperation and love, his arrogance clouds his judgement. While discussing his plans with Edith (Jessica Hynes), it’s clear he believes that his privilege, money and intelligence will protect him. ‘How often do the police come to the door? Like never. Not for people like us’, is his response to Edith reminding him that Viktor would not be allowed to stay with him, let alone in the country, if his plan succeeded. All he wants is for them to live a boring life together.
For the rest of the Lyons family, life continues very much as normal. The other siblings are visibly frustrated with Daniel’s preoccupation with Viktor and his safety, rolling their eyes behind his back and smiling to his face. Rosie (Ruth Madeley) has started her own business and a new relationship with the carefree Jonjo (George Bukhari) who is ‘the sort of man who’s happy when he finds a big crisp’. Edith has stepped back into her campaigning boots, resulting in her getting banned for life from the USA for protesting.
The other main thread of this episode, aside from Daniel’s quest, is the eruption of tension between Celeste and Stephen as she exposes his affair to the rest of the family. While this is a very important moment, and marks this as the episode where the close-knit Lyons clan falls apart. What it also marks is a heart-warming evolution in the relationship between Celeste and Muriel (Anne Reid), who have been hurling barbed comments at each other for the entire series. They may not be friends, but they are united in their disgust over Stephen’s behaviour. As well executed as this plot is, and as necessary as it is that it happens in this episode in the wider context of the series, it is rather overshadowed by events across the English Channel.
Russel T. Davies proves in this episode why he is regarded as one of the finest writers in television. Episode four features terrifying detains which are rather too close to reality: hyper-realistic ‘deep fakes’ of politicians being deployed to influence elections, and the USA overturning Roe vs. Wade and equal marriage. Sometimes watching the evening news feels like one of the opening montages, with disaster after disaster being relayed by passionless newsreaders.
Episode four ends on a devastating note: Daniel’s body lies unidentified in a coastal town; Viktor sits alone in their home, his spirit broken, the image of Daniel’s ashen face seared into his brain. Outside, the rest of the family hammer at his door, crying to be let in. Is he home? Is he safe in what is now Viv Rook’s Britain? Will the Lyons family accept him or blame him for the death of their loved one?
All that is certain is that Russell T. Davies has created a series which sticks in the mind long after the end credits and resonates strongly with the current state of the world. Years and Years draws its power from reality, and will be remembered as delivering one of the most emotionally impactful and pertinent moments in recent television.