Ursula 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 its protagonist’s many demises – each as distressing as the last. Born to a wealthy middle-class family in 1910, Ursula dies almost instantly, strangled by her umbilical cord. But, then again, she survives – a fact relayed to us by Lesley Manville’s equanimous narrator. It’s a pattern that repeats throughout Ursula’s many comfortable childhoods: there’s a drowning incident, a fall out of a bedroom window, multiple battles with Spanish flu. And then, suddenly, she is back, being born, and doing it all over again – but this time with self-protective instincts she can’t quite account for. It’s The Butterfly Effect meets Groundhog Day (or rather “Groundhog Life”), only with none of the latter’s droll cosiness.
There’s not a huge amount to laugh about in Life After Life (BBC Two). The show’s main priority is apparent from the start: making people cry. If you like the feeling of being overwhelmed by vicarious trauma and grief then you’re in for a treat. And the anguish is thoroughly addictive. It’s what makes Life After Life incredibly compelling, binge-worthy even, despite being practically plotless from one episode to the next.
The tragedy of Ursula’s life is amorphous and inevitable and not particularly personal; it has no through-line besides the fact that the story is set during a uniquely dangerous time in British history. That’s no accident: it’s what makes her incessant dying entirely plausible. Although the first world war doesn’t directly affect her bucolic childhood, it still kills her (her father volunteers to fight, which then leads to the window fall). The 1918 influenza pandemic is harrowing – unbelievably so, from the Todds’ perspective, especially given the timing. “Hasn’t there been enough suffering?” is the dismissive response of Ursula’s steely, capable mother, unconvinced that there is a threat until it’s far too late.
Yet it’s when the action moves into the second world war that the universe darkens more profoundly. Until this point, Ursula’s lives have got longer and generally better. Now that progress stalls: she cannot avoid news of her beloved little brother Teddy’s death, however many times her life reboots. Her wartime experiences vary wildly – from a glittering civil service career to family life in Germany that descends into hellish starvation – but they are all deeply disturbing, the latter almost nauseatingly so.
In one sense, Life After Life has found a dramatic cheat code. Killing off a protagonist – especially such a sweet, thoughtful, young one – is a shortcut to brutal emotional impact. Surely a drama almost entirely made up of that moment, or the promise of it happening imminently, is an easy way to get viewers on tenterhooks? And yet it soon begins to feel miraculous that we are never inured to the awfulness of Ursula’s deaths. You can’t mourn her when you know you’ll be seeing her in the next scene, and yet you still do.
That’s not so much because of a particular affection for Ursula (Thomasin McKenzie) herself. She’s not a hugely distinctive personality, something necessary to accommodate all the twists her life takes. It’s not even really because of the convincing nature of the show’s world, though it does a brilliant job of making period archetypes – the grumpy servant, imperious mother, gadabout maiden aunt – seem three-dimensional (thanks mainly to the stellar cast: Jessica Hynes, Fleabag’s Sian Clifford and Jessica Brown Findlay, respectively). What makes Life After Life so upsetting is that it feels real in a broader way. Whether these deaths have actually befallen the fictional Ursula is beside the point. Their historical grounding means we know they happened to somebody, somewhere, at some time.
Keep watching Life After Life to make sense of its central mystery – or, indeed, its central protagonist – and you will be disappointed. Ursula never gets close to unravelling a purpose behind her predicament. “I don’t know why we live – all we do is die,” she mourns on a blitz deathbed of rubble and dust towards the end of the series, still completely mystified by the meaning of her multiple lives.
Usually, such drama pulls strings in order to wrap things up with a cheap, life-affirming glow, but Ursula gets only glimmers of comfort from others. Her journalist aunt Izzie – a 1920s Carrie Bradshaw – advocates viewing life as an adventure. Her avuncular psychiatrist quotes Nietzsche on amor fati – embracing your own fate. Her father, meanwhile, offers more banal words about human kindness.
Really, it is less about the content of their advice than the love implicit in it, which is a powerful consolation for death. That love radiates from Ursula after the conversation with her father as she boards the train back to wartime London with a heartbreaking spring in her step, ready to die all over again.