yoursula Todd can’t stop dying. That’s the premise of this devastating drama, a four-part adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel, which documents the many deaths of its protagonist, each as harrowing as the last. Born into a wealthy middle-class family in 1910, Ursula dies almost instantly, strangled by her umbilical cord. But, again, she survives, a fact conveyed to us by Lesley Manville’s level-headed narrator. It’s a pattern that repeats itself throughout Ursula’s many comfortable childhoods: there’s a drowning incident, a fall from a bedroom window, multiple battles with the Spanish flu. And then suddenly she’s back, being born and doing it all over again, but this time with self-protective instincts she can’t explain. She is The butterfly Effect meets Groundhog Day (or rather “Groundhog Life”), only without the latter’s gracious comfort.
There’s not much to laugh about in Life After Life (BBC Two). The show’s top priority is clear from the start: making people cry. If you like the feeling of being overwhelmed by vicarious trauma and pain, you’re in for a treat. And the angst is completely addictive. It’s what makes Life After Life incredibly compelling, even binge-worthy, despite having virtually no plot from episode to episode.
The tragedy of Ursula’s life is amorphous and inevitable and not particularly personal; it doesn’t have a direct line other than the fact that the story is set during an exceptionally dangerous time in British history. That’s not an accident: it’s what makes his incessant death entirely plausible. Although World War I doesn’t directly affect his bucolic childhood, it kills her nonetheless (his father volunteers to fight, leading to his falling out of the window). The 1918 influenza pandemic is heartbreaking, incredibly, from the Todds’ perspective, especially given the timing. “Hasn’t there been enough suffering?” is the dismissive response of Ursula’s ironclad and capable mother, who is not convinced there is a threat until it is too late.
However, it is when the action moves towards World War II that the universe darkens most deeply. Up to this point, Ursula’s life has gotten longer and generally better. Now that progress stalls: he can’t avoid the news of his beloved little brother Teddy’s death, no matter how many times his life restarts. His experiences during the war vary enormously, from a brilliant civil service career to a family life in Germany that descends into hellish famine, but all are deeply disturbing, the last almost nauseating.
In a sense, Life After Life has found a dramatic cheat code. Killing off a lead, especially one so sweet, thoughtful, and young, is a shortcut to brutal emotional impact. Surely a drama made up almost entirely of that moment, or the promise that it will happen imminently, is an easy way to put viewers on their toes? And yet it soon begins to seem miraculous that we are never used to the horror of Ursula’s death. You can’t mourn her when you know you’ll see her in the next scene and you still do.
That’s not so much due to a particular affection for Ursula (Thomasin McKenzie) herself. She is not a very distinctive personality, something necessary to adapt to all the turns that her life takes. It’s not even really due to the compelling nature of the show’s world, though it does a brilliant job of making the archetypes of the time (the grumpy servant, the overbearing mother, the gadabout maiden aunt) seem three-dimensional (thanks mainly to the all-star cast: Jessica Hynes, Sian Clifford, and Jessica Brown Findlay of Fleabag, respectively). What makes Life After Life so disturbing is that it feels real in a larger way. Whether these deaths have really happened to the fictional Ursula is beside the point. Their historical basis means that we know they happened to someone, somewhere, at some time.
Keep watching Life After Life to make sense of its central mystery, or indeed its central protagonist, and you’ll be disappointed. Ursula never comes close to unraveling a purpose behind her situation. “I don’t know why we live, all we do is die,” she laments on a lightning deathbed of rubble and dust toward the end of the series, still completely bewildered by the meaning of her multiple lives.
Usually that drama pulls the strings to wrap things in a cheap, life-affirming sheen, but Ursula gets only glimpses of comfort from the others. Ella’s journalist aunt Izzie, a 1920s Carrie Bradshaw, advocates seeing life as an adventure. Her avuncular psychiatrist cites Nietzsche in fat love – embrace your own destiny. Her father, meanwhile, offers more mundane words about human kindness.
Really, it is less about the content of his advice than about the love implicit in it, which is a powerful consolation for death. That love radiates from Ursula after the conversation with her father as he boards the train back to wartime London with a wrenching leap in his step, ready to die again.