This review contains major spoilers for Years and Years episodes one-through-four.
The tragic death of Daniel Lyons (Russell Tovey) at the end of the previous episode hangs like a dark cloud over this episode. The Lyons never look far from tears, and the way in which they deal with their grief says a great deal about how they have developed over the past few years. While Edith and Rosie channel their sorrow into investigating disturbing rumours and fighting against Viktor’s imminent deportation, Stephen lets it consume him.
Killing off major characters has become rather de-rigeur that it is almost to be expected. That said, it can still be an excellent way to turn a series on its head. While it felt natural for either Daniel or Viktor to die in their attempt to reach England, the demise of the latter felt more probable. But as Russell T. Davies told the Radio Times, the loss of a member of the central Lyons clan made more sense in the overall narrative: it brings the loss closer to home for the audience and allows the fate of the refugee to explore more themes and ideas about how society treats those who are most vulnerable.
The Britain Viktor returned to at the end of episode four has become a dark caricature of the country he left. Frustration over the financial and refugee crises and anger against the fragile ‘Parliament of Water’ (a brilliantly evocative term for a parliament where power ebbs and flows between the government and opposition) has led to The Four Star Party winning a majority of 355/650 seats.
Years and Years has an uncanny ability to parallel contemporary British (and to an extent, global) news. Episode five does this so closely that it becomes uncomfortable. While the Britain of 2028 experiences eighty consecutive days of rain which displace thousands of people, some areas of Britain saw 60mm of rain falling just a few hours. The speech Viv Rook gives in the opening minutes, declaring that ‘Great Britain stands alone’ is chilling in light of isolationist sentiments which have bubbled up since the 2016 Brexit referendum. Emma Thompson is in her element in this quasi-Churchillian moment, delivering a speech which contains as much substance as a vacuum but is still oddly compelling. As much as she sounds like she is delivering a grand, rousing call for Britain to rise, Rook’s speech is devoid of actual meaning. What on earth is an ’emboldened society with the strength to enable itself’? It would not sound out of place coming from Boris Johnson, Farage, Tice or any of the other populists currently inhabiting prominent positions in the Anglosphere.
‘But what does The Four Star Party actually want?’ asks a radio host, who may be this universe’s James O’Brien because of how he points out the empty rhetoric of Viv Rook’s politics.
‘I look ahead and see glories!’ declares Rook, pointing into a crowd like a rock star. The crowd lap it up.
Meanwhile the radio host is dragged away on charges of possessing indecent images of children – a probably spurious accusation designed to silence his criticism of the new regime.
Immediately, Viv Rook begins to reshape Britain. Estates, such as the one Rosie and Edith live in are fenced off and declared “criminal zones” in a new social apartheid striking some of the most vulnerable in society. A combination of floods and terror attacks making entire cities uninhabitable has created an internal refugee crisis in Britain, onto of the already existing external crisis. In another disturbingly plausible taste of what may be to come, cyber attacks create chaos and force a return to analogue technologies. Meanwhile, disturbing rumours of refugees, internally-displaced Britons and political dissidents begin to circulate, prompting Edith to investigate.
Amidst all the political turmoil, Russell T. Davies still bring forward moments of pathos which elevate Years and Years beyond a simple ‘what it?’. After sniping at each other for the entirety of the series, Celeste and Muriel have bonded somewhat over Stephen’s betrayal. Having started off the series as a snob, hardship has mellowed Celeste into a less acerbic individual (albeit one who still maintains her fire). Seeing her helping Muriel through the process of regaining her sight via advances in stem-cell technology is one of the most heartwarming moments in the series, and also gives a glimpse into what may become of the beloved NHS.
As mentioned earlier, Stephen was hit particularly hard by Daniel’s death, and placed the blame squarely on Viktor’s shoulders (which makes it all the more galling when Daniel’s ex, Ralph, is shown at the funeral, completely oblivious to how his actions played a role in the council officer’s death). That said, although grief is shown to be a factor in his transformation over the episode, it does not excuse the terrible choices he makes. That said, Rory Kinnear sells his character’s transformation without overpowering some of the less-experienced actors with whom he shares his scenes – the mark of a great actor.
Lydia West has given a consistently excellent performance as Bethany in what is her screen-debut. What is particularly impressive is how she has embodied her character over almost a decade, as she grows from a retiring teen into a more confident and assured woman while retaining her identity as transhuman. She doesn’t ‘grow out of it’ as her parents had hoped, thus the show avoids some potentially unfortunate connotations. Indeed, the scene where she shows her new abilities to her parents after her government-sponsored upgrade is beautiful. The joy in her large dark eyes as all the world’s information surges through her brain is infectious and affirming. It also marks Bethany’s ascension from a side-character and curiosity into a key individual, as her new abilities are a key part of the episode’s chilling finale.
Each episode of Years and Years has ended with an emotional punch to the gut – with the comparatively tame ending to episode three being given a disturbing new context after episode five. Russell T. Davies has set up a lot of threads to be resolved in the one remaining episode, and it might be too many to handle. Years and Years burst out of the gates brimming with ambition and potential, but despite the consistently high quality of each episode it could all come crashing down in the finale.
However it turns out, Years and Years worms its way into your brain until you can see it whenever you watch the news or glance at a newspaper. This alone is a testament to its emotional power and the skill with which it is executed. Episode five provides more uncanny parallels to contemporary news and a chilling look into how ordinary, likeable people can slip into a position where they make unconscionable decisions.