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Love, sex and the end of the world in Good Omens and Years and Years
Television and movies love a near-catastrophe event. Depictions of personal stories as humanity sits on the precipice of a self-inflicted abyss are an effective way to heighten tales of romance and unconditional love. The impending apocalypse takes many different forms, whether it is monsters stomping over cities or a virus that might wipe out humanity, but you can always count on people reaching out toward each other when all hope seems lost.
Over the last month, two TV shows have tackled potential apocalyptic horrors that could befall the earth. Good Omens' and Years and Years' approaches to global turmoil differ wildly (including the overall tone); however, a thread of humanity and how people respond to catastrophic events link the two.
Light spoilers ahead for Good Omens and Years and Years.Written by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, Good Omens was first published in 1990. This story was born out of the ashes of the Cold War, when it seemed like everything might be OK, but since then different nightmare scenarios have come into play. Coincidentally, Years and Years creator (and former Doctor Who showrunner) Russell T Davies mentioned in a recent interview with Digital Spy that he has been contemplating this particular story since the mid-'90s. The ending of the new HBO miniseries is something he envisioned 25 years ago, but he decided to finally write it after the 2016 U.S. election. In both cases, the stories are relevant to the time we are living in, but also pre-date the current political, economic, and environmental landscape.
Charting British and global politics between 2019 and 2034, Years and Years uses current affairs as the jumping-off point for how the next 15 years could pan out. Starring a whole host of recognizable faces, including Emma Thompson, Russell Tovey, Rory Kinnear, and Jessica Hynes, it follows the rise to power of a populist figure and several generations of an ordinary family going about their daily lives. The Lyons' personal stories intertwine with larger concerns as the world constantly feels like it is on the brink of meltdown. The family themselves are far from conflict-free, but no matter what happens the siblings circle back to each other in both crisis and happiness.Banks collapse, wars begin, revolutions rise, and fear continues to fuel politics — but births, marriages, and affairs don’t cease because a political tyrant threatens the nation. The minutiae of our lives still inform how we respond to larger problems. People still fall in and out of love. Covering this much time means a lot of information has to be conveyed, and Davies utilizes montages to show the passing years that feature the big news stories interspersed with birthday parties and personal achievements. Years and Years deftly portrays how we still mark milestones even when the world is going to hell.
Technology continues to advance, but it never hits flying cars territory. The future never looks like the version we play in our minds or in old sci-fi movies. There is a slight Black Mirror vibe to some of this, including face filters that extend way beyond your phone and how the gig economy has impacted e-commerce. It is a dystopian version of the next 15 years that doesn’t feel too far off, as real events lay the foundation. This is what makes Years and Years downright terrifying but instantly gripping as audiences can contemplate "What if?" from the safety of our sofa. But the sofa is where the Lyons family sit when the United States launches an attack on China at the end of the first episode, causing mass panic. Sirens blare, fires burn, and inhibitions drop.
Meanwhile, Good Omens is whimsical in tone and execution, pitting heaven versus hell with an angel and a demon going to bat for humanity in order to stop the apocalypse. It is far less stomachache-inducing than Years and Years in its end-of-days portrayal — YMMV depending on how religious you are. Stretching over more than a decade, Years and Years is an ambitious undertaking, but the 6,000 years of history portrayed in Good Omens details biblical tales, revolutions, wars, and Shakespeare, all with Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and Crowley (David Tennant) acting as our guides. Title cards tell us how long it is going to be until the end of the world, but for the most part, humans are completely unaware of how perilously close Armageddon is. Never has the impending apocalypse seemed so delightful, with endless (read: flirtatious) banter between angel and demon. This connection has staved off loneliness during their time on earth. Without each other, they would be wandering the world alone. It is this friendship that makes them so inclined to act against the wishes of their respective bosses.While this particular OTP sadly never goes beyond dinner dates at the Ritz, there is another couple who hook up as everything goes to hell. Anathema (Adria Arjona) and Newton Pulsifer (Jack Whitehall) are respectively direct descendants of the witch Agnes Nutter and a witchfinder by the name of Thou-Shalt-Not-Commit-Adultery Pulsifer. Essentially they are on opposite teams, but forbidden romance is an aphrodisiac. Agnes Nutter’s prophecies continue to come true including how Anathema and Newton come to meet. Agnes also predicts them sleeping together, “Let the wheel of fate turn, let harts enjoin, there are othere fyres than mine; when the whirl wynd whirls, reach oute one to another.”
As the tornado swirls inside the bedroom, Newton lists off everything he hasn’t done ranging from robbing a bank to traveling abroad. He also hasn’t kissed a girl, but he can tick that off his list and then some. As they lie under the bed, there is no time for dinner and a movie. “Seeing as the world is ending, can we do it again?” Newton asks after the tornado has ceased to make the room spin, but there is only so much time when racing against this particular clock.Sex as a means to forget the end of the world is also on the menu at the end of the first episode of Years and Years. Daniel Lyons (Russell Tovey) ditches his husband, grandmother, siblings, and extended family to go check in on Viktor (Maxim Baldry), a Ukranian refugee he meets earlier in the episode. Daniel is a housing officer working at an emergency site, which is where Viktor is living after his parents reported him to the authorities for being gay, a crime for which he was tortured. Daniel and Viktor strike up a flirtatious connection, but Daniel is quick to note he won’t be able to check in on him because of his job. A potentially cataclysmic event changes everything including Daniel's priorities.
Ditching his flat-earther husband and the family he is very close with, Daniel is drawn back to Viktor. The world has set itself on fire, so he throws caution to the wind. If anarchy and hedonism are going to reign, then the guy who usually worries about everything is also going to break some rules. In the heat of this chaos, lust wins and Daniel temporarily forgets his responsibilities. Again, while the Good Omens sex scene has a humorous edge, the raw desire in Years and Years as an actual fire rages outside is all-consuming. Daniel is not someone that makes a leap like this under normal circumstances, but potential nuclear annihilation isn't normal. It doesn't matter if it was lust or love at first sight with Viktor; between the nuclear bomb and this physical release, it shakes Daniel out of his toxic relationship.
End of the world narratives can be terrifying, but they also reinforce the notion that despite the worst people can do, there is still room for hope and optimism. In Good Omens and Years and Years, sex is used as a way to briefly forget what is going on, a balm to the potential apocalypse. It won't save the world, but there are worse ways to go out.