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HBO’s Years and Years immerses us in our soon-to-be dystopia. Until it chickens out.

This miniseries is brilliant and searing until it’s trite and banal.

Edith (Jessica Hynes) streams the events happening at a concentration camp on her cellphone.
Edith Lyons takes charge.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for July 29 through August 3 is “Episode 6,” the finale of HBO’s limited series Years and Years.

We want there to be a reason.

I know you read that sentence and asked, “A reason for what?” because I wrote that sentence and asked that same question. But I think the vagueness is the point: We are creatures of logic and ration, and we think that if a thing doesn’t make sense, we can make sense of it. We want there to be a reason.

Sometimes, however, we don’t like the reason. The reason makes us think uncomfortable things about our fellow human beings or about ourselves. It makes us realize that there are dark forces at work in too many of our compatriots, and that we could just as easily be swept up in them. So we come up with easier answers than the ones that are true. “White nationalism” gets buried under “economic anxiety,” say, because “economic anxiety” is easier to comprehend and sympathize with.

Whatever the reason for the chaos of the world — the chaos that exists on global, national, local, and personal levels — we want it to be easily pinned down and defined. We want that because then we can start to solve it. But what if we can’t? What if the chaos is unsolvable?

Meet HBO’s Years and Years, which spent most of its running time depicting the chaos with unflinching exactitude, then blinked at the last possible moment in its attempt to reattach an amputated limb with a Band-Aid.

Years and Years combines family drama with a growing dystopia

The Lyons family watches with horror as the US launches a nuclear missile at China.
The Lyons family gathers for New Year’s Eve 2024 in the series’ first episode.

The closest comparison point for Years and Years is something like the miniseries The ’60s, which aired on NBC in 1999. In that show, one family deals with the tumultuous decade of the title, in a fashion that brings them into close contact with nearly all the major news events of the period. Critics mocked the show’s tendency to turn the actual events of history into fodder for an overwrought family drama.

Years and Years does exactly the same thing, but the decade it traces is ... the 2020s. It starts on New Year’s Eve 2019, then vaults forward through the next 10 years over six episodes (with a brief epilogue set in 2034 for good measure). It has all the sweep of historical fiction, but its history is invented, an attempt to extrapolate current trends into a world that feels scarily plausible.

The show’s speculative fiction doesn’t feel so fictional. On it, refugees hoping to flee to Britain are rounded up in concentration camps, and fascist populism gains traction by having an entertaining figurehead who’s not afraid to be ridiculous on TV. (Here, that figurehead is named Vivian Rook, and she’s played by Emma Thompson with ruthless hilarity.)

But the events are all filtered through the prism of the fictional Lyons family: four siblings, their partners, their children, and their grandmother. (Their parents are no longer in the picture.) History, then, is only relevant if it’s relevant to the Lyonses. When the US launches a nuclear bomb at a Chinese military base in the first episode, eldest Lyons daughter Edith (Jessica Hynes) is there. The growing refugee crisis is seen via the prism of a young man the youngest Lyons son, Daniel (Russell Tovey), starts sleeping with. Even Vivian’s political rise is filtered through the family members’ perspectives, despite Thompson being the biggest name in the cast.

Some of these stories work better than others. The relationship between Daniel and Viktor (Maxim Baldry) drives much of the show’s run and grounds some of its more ridiculous moments. (Daniel shatters his marriage to another man by running away to have sex with Viktor when the US nukes China and he becomes convinced the world might really be ending.)

But then you have something like when Lyons grandchild Bethany (Lydia West) declares that she is a transhumanist and wishes to transcend her physical form to become a being of pure information, living in the cloud somewhere. It ends up tying into the series’ endgame, but for much of the series’ run, it feels wildly extraneous at best and slightly as if it’s mocking trans people at worst. (By the end of the finale, the show reveals its hand, and I feel safe in saying it is fully on board with us trans folks. Phew.)

Both the show’s strengths and weaknesses are par for the course for its writer, Russell T. Davies, who might be best known in the US for the four seasons he spent rebooting and then running Doctor Who from 2005 to 2010. But Davies is also one of the most influential TV writers of his generation, particularly when it comes to depictions of gay men. He also created Queer as Folk, which ran in the UK from 1999 to 2000 and was the rare series to depict gay men forthrightly and honestly. It gained a cult fan base in the US, before it was adapted for a local audience.

Davies is fantastic at conceiving of TV series that look at corners of the world that aren’t always well-covered. And Years and Years — with its blend of family drama and sci-fi — is certainly an amazing idea for a show. But the show’s overreliance on sentimentality and the thinness of some of the characters are distinct weaknesses of Davies’s approach.

And so is too much of the finale.

Years and Years tries to give audiences hope in the end. It mostly lets us off the hook.

Stephan can’t cope with what he’s done.
Stephan just sent his brother in law to a camp because he was sad!

The best moment in the finale is when Grandmother Muriel (Anne Reid) gathers with her family to lambaste a world that has slowly turned toward automation instead of caring for the human beings who used to make it run, a world where those who benefit from capitalism are all too happy to continue doing so, even if the system grinds so many others within its gears.

And this monologue is pointed. It was produced by the public network BBC One in the UK, but its American co-producer is HBO, a network primarily subscribed to by those with enough disposable income to do so. I doubt anybody will change their habits from seeing Muriel talk about how we should be fighting against a slow slide into dystopia, instead of bemoaning it and doing nothing, but it’s nice to hear all the same.

However, Years and Years lets both the Lyons family and, by extension, its viewers off the hook. The finale’s main action involves trying to locate Viktor and save him from one of the concentration camps where refugees are being sent to die. (In Davies’s savage satire, the refugees are not being actively killed by the government, but rather by a new, lethal flu designed in a government lab somewhere that gives those in charge a veneer of plausible deniability.) But Viktor was sent to that camp by eldest Lyons child Stephen (Rory Kinnear), whose grief after Daniel died trying to save Viktor a few episodes earlier has curdled into hate for the man Daniel was trying to save.

As a motivation in a fictional story, this is more or less fine. But as a motivation in a story that is trying to say something about The Way We Live Today, it’s too easy. It’s too close to an explanation, a “reason,” for a dark and horrific action, rather than allowing viewers to sit uneasily with the idea that some people might just hate refugees because they’re xenophobic or racist, that good-hearted big brothers like Stephen can turn out to be horrible people when what’s at stake isn’t someone in their own family. But no, Stephen has to have a big moment to reveal that he was basically good all along, just a little misguided, which is why he saves the day (by shooting one of the real villains in the leg) in the end.

A failure of nerve, then, is the greatest failing of the Years and Years finale. In it, once the British people get a good look inside the camps, they’re outraged, and not only does the whole system come down, but Vivian Rook is also arrested for the murder of those who died in the camps. Right when the show is trying to say that constructing a better world is on us — on all of us — it ends up saying that, actually, if you just show people images of the worst horrors the world has to provide, they’ll revert to their better angels.

But we live in a world where there actually are camps filled with detainees along the US border, and we’ve seen images from those camps, and so far, there’s not public outrage sufficient to shut them down. I admired the way Years and Years showed that sometimes direct, violent action is necessary to push back against the forces of darkness (via a few characters’ attempts to free Viktor and others in the camps), but the only person who really gets hurt is the man Stephen shoots in the leg, who survives. The finale wants hope and it wants results, but it doesn’t want to break any eggs. It doesn’t want consequences.

Years and Years is so good at the things it’s good at that it’s easy to miss all the ways it falls short. It vaults forward in time with a reckless abandon that’s honestly thrilling, and it features strong performances despite the thin characterization of some members of the Lyons family.

But its vision starts out as a bleak one and wants to give us some degree of hope to take forward. In so doing, however, it inadvertently suggests that what we need isn’t to band together to make a better reality but, instead, to wait for everybody else to come to their senses. We are living in history. We are not watching it on TV. What hurts Years and Years in the end is that it’s too insistent that you keep watching, no matter what.

Years and Years is available for streaming on HBO’s streaming platforms.

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