Eternal death and Adolf Hitler: an ode to Life After Life, the year’s most underrated TV show

The Guardian
The Guardian

Spoiler alert: this article includes details of the final episode of Life After Life. Do not read on unless you have watched the first three episodes.

Groundhog Day stories are always tense. No one wants to spend their life reliving the same day over and over, whether it be Amazon Prime’s Palm Springs movie’s tale of waking up at a friend’s wedding every morning (please God, no) or endlessly replaying your birthday party, as in season one of Netflix’s Russian Doll , before Nadia’s time travel became a tad more freeform. These time-loop tales conjure intense discomfort, paranoia and irritation – you can’t help but go all existential and ponder: “What even is time? What the hell is life?”

Life After Life is a period drama that pushes this time-loop narrative to the next level, in which the protagonist, Ursula Todd, relives her life again and again and again. While this concept has the potential to be one long exhausting slog (for the audience and Ursula), the series – which concludes its neat four-episode run on BBC Two tonight – has turned out to be one of the most beautifully told, thoughtful and underrated series of the year so far.

Based on Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel, it begins with Ursula’s birth in rural Buckinghamshire in 1910. Within seconds, she is strangled by her umbilical cord and dies. The screen is covered in snow-like white flecks to mark her death, and the story immediately rewinds to her birth – only this time, a doctor is there to save baby Ursula. She grows up to become a young girl, but when she goes swimming in the sea, those white flecks fall, and we are taken back to her birth. It quickly becomes clear that Ursula is both horribly accident-prone and downright unlucky. With each life iteration, she reaches different ages, but she always dies – the 1918 flu pandemic, falling out of a window, second world war bombings – and is reborn to start all over again.

Unlike most other time-loop narratives, Ursula isn’t fully aware that she lives life after life. She isn’t tormented by her former lives. She’s also not trying to escape her life, or the loop she is unknowingly caught in. Instead, she lets a powerful sense of deja vu guide her into making different decisions that usually, but not always, lead to a happier and more learned place. The more times she lives, the better and bolder she is at it, and we are treated to a different story – a different woman! – in each one. Thomasin Mckenzie, who plays Ursula, is perfect at capturing this gradual change from meekly dreading life to brazenly embracing her gut feelings and taking new chances.
McKenzie as Ursula and Sian Clifford, who plays her mother. Photograph: Sally Mais/BBC/House Productions

Despite this, though, many of Ursula’s lives are miserable. In fact, with the knowledge that she will always get another chance to improve things, it sometimes comes as a relief when she dies. The hardest life to watch is the one in which Ursula is raped as a teenager and has a secret abortion. When her mother (Sian Clifford, wonderful in a genre we’ve not seen her in before) finds out, their relationship becomes permanently tainted with shame. Ursula moves to London, turns to drinking and ends up marrying a man who lies about his debts and abuses her. It’s hard to think of another period drama that unflinchingly shows the brutal realities of assault, abortion and domestic violence as powerfully and non-gratuitously putting the focus on to something that too many women have died from, including Ursula.

Her next life – in which she dodges those who previously assaulted her, and goes on to exercise her sexual freedom – provides great satisfaction. After already living around 10 lives, it’s actually comforting to see her live again. Of course, she soon dies. But the following lives after this see her apply to the University of Oxford, fall in love and have a child with a good man, learn how to shoot a gun … you name it, she’s done it. It’s also a hoot to see her befriend Izzie (Jessica Brown Findlay), the wild but loving and loyal aunt who parties in London and writes a column called Adventures of a Modern Spinster. In every life Ursula lives, their friendship remains.

The one other constant in all her lives is the second world war, which much of the final episode concentrates on. This is when those existential questions creep in. “I don’t know why we live. All we do is die,” Ursula sobs before breathing her last under the rubble. “I just want a good death. How do you have a good death?” Why is any of this happening? Is she meant to prevent the war? Will she only be at peace with a happy death? Is she meant to save her brother Teddy, who keeps getting shot down? Is this all a dream?

It’s clear there are no answers. No box-packaged ending explains it. There’s no riddle for Ursula to solve to stop the time-loop, no mission she’s meant to complete (she shoots Hitler in one life, but she dies at the same time, so we don’t know if she was successful or not – not that it matters, anyway, if she is born once again into a world in which Hitler exists). There is no “happy death”, either – otherwise she wouldn’t return even after she dies on a beach as an old woman.

There is unexpected peace in this ambiguity. After the last scene, Ursula is still being born and dying, being born and dying, being born and dying. Far from being a frustrating story of someone stuck in a cycle, it’s a whole library of great stories that one person has the potential to live.

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