One of 2019’s most controversial (and intriguing) cultural debates was whether The Handmaid’s Tale contained the seeds of genuine prophecy. Those rightly sensing the creep of fascism – as well as religious encroachment on women’s rights – put forth the slightly panicky assertion that America was on its way towards becoming the real-world Gilead. Cooler heads insisted that was all a bit…hysterical.
But those looking for short-term prophesying on the small screen could have definitely found it in Years and Years, the chillingly Ballardian BBC One mini-series, which aired on HBO in the States this past summer. In it, Emma Thompson is nothing shy of ghastly as Vivienne Rook, a high-profile businesswoman who invades British politics peddling right-wing paranoia on a lunatic level. Her success mirrors the real-life rise of far-right populism in the West.
The series actually revolves around a fictional middle class Manchester family, the Lyons, as a changing political climate and worrying technological creep begin to send shockwaves through their otherwise seemingly average lives. Yet what surely makes the show so vividly frightening, is that it crosses into reality. Indeed, the story starts at the end of Donald Trump’s second term (it’s hard to even write that), with the despicable American president having just fired a nuclear missile at the fictional Chinese island Hong Sha Dao – near to where sister Edith Lyons has recently traveled. She survives, but returns to England suffering from terminal cancer due to the nuclear fallout.
MP Rook rises to infamy in a moment, causing a furor by saying she “doesn’t give a fuck” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on an evening British talk show. And from there, the Lyons’ are subject to a series of very personal horrors, with Rook’s political ascent as the nightmare backdrop. To wit, a harrowing refugee situation leads to a horrible death in the family; and a “technological” cosmetic surgery procedure goes shockingly wrong, a perfect metaphor for tech’s slow dismantling of our essential humanity. Betrayals abound, as fascist death camps are assembled.
In the 6th and final episode, Grandmother Muriel hands down the blanket condemnation: “I saw it all going wrong when it began in the supermarkets, when they replaced all the women on the till with those automated checkouts. 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!”
It must be said, for all of its abominations, The Handmaid’s Tale at least has had a clearly identifiable enemy. But Years and Years is surely all the more unsettling for reminding that the enemy, in fact, might just be us.