After last week's return to the grittier style of Life of Mars, this week the show maintains the style with another murky and messy episode. I don't think it quite scaled the heights of the first episode though as it makes several dramatic choices that felt wrong to me, although subsequent episodes may prove them to have been wise choices.
The success of the show comes from the way it merges three formats. It is a cop procedural in which crimes are committed and bad guys must be caught. It is also a character battle between people who use different policing methods. In Life on Mars that battle was between ends and means, between heart and head, and although Alex doesn't so obviously represent an interest in means and thinking with your head as Sam Tyler did, the conflict is still there. Finally, it is a psychological drama in which Alex suffers angst in her dream world while her body lies injured.
The show's best episodes are those in which those three elements blend seamlessly. Last week did this well. It had a crime mystery that ran for the whole show. It toughened up the relationship between the characters after the introduction of bent cop MacKintosh. And it had an interesting addition to the coma mystery in the form of a new pyscho-killer, who may be the man in a coma in the hospital bed, or then again maybe both of them could be someone else… This week the cop and the psychological element are downplayed and the main thrust of the show is the character battle.
Firstly, the cop tale: Hunt chases after a fast-driving gypsy and runs him off the road. The gypsy dies in what is seemingly a clear case of death by dangerous driving. MacKintosh covers everything up while Alex works to prove that Hunt wasn't at fault with a proper police investigation. This enrages the gypsies, but it also quickly identifies that the friendly doctor who has befriended the gypsy camp is up to no good.
As police investigation stories go, this wasn't particularly interesting. It wasn't helped that I've been watching early Dalziel & Pascoe recently, which featured episodes involving a death at a gypsy camp where the dead man's clothes get burnt up, and another in which Dalziel causes a death by dangerous driving. I like blunt cop Dalziel and I like blunt cop Hunt, but as this episode also featured jokes about scratching yourself in a manly way I hope the writers won’t go down the road of borrowing from another show.
The psychological element is also secondary and doesn't move the story on much. This is fine as the franchise thrives on apparently moving forward while not actually doing much at all. So Alex gets more messages from the real world medics, all bad. She meets the weird character who knows about her world, but she learns nothing new. So it appears that this man will now replace the scary clown by cropping up in weird sequences involving weird camera work with weird music playing, but he won’t actually do anything.
The only advancement in the psychological story is that Alex is starting to become vague about Molly, forgetting her name and being unable to summon an image of her. This is a moving idea, slightly tempered by the pedant in me that wonders if this development is down to the kid who played Molly in series 1 having grown about two feet and having had that worrying mole removed.
With the cop and psychological element being minor the success of the show rides on the character conflict, which boils down to one question: will Gene Hunt join the freemasons? The doctor who is really behind the gypsy death is a funny handshake man and the moment he reveals this, MacKintosh tells Hunt to release him, which Hunt does. Then he begins to work on Hunt to roll up his trouser leg and kiss the chicken's bum, or whatever it is they do in the masons. Alex doesn’t like this and if Hunt joins it'll destroy any relationship, working or otherwise, they may have. Hunt therefore has a clear choice in which becoming a freemason will be the moment he turns to the dark side (forgot to mention last week that Star Wars references have replaced last season's Alice in Wonderland references).
Ultimately after drinking his body weight in whisky, from the same Edinburgh Crystal glass I had in hand while watching, he joins up. We then learn that Ray, rather improbably, is also a freemason and so Hunt seemingly is lost to the dark side. At that stage the show had worked perfectly and I was looking forward to several weeks of being unsure what Hunt was doing, in the same way as I was when the show started and he took bribes off gangsters. But then, just when it looks as if the show will get even murkier, Hunt confides in Alex that he only bared his breast to destroy MacKintosh. He's still the Gene Genie and everything is fine with the world.
I wish he hadn't done that. It would have been a solid dramatic storyline if Alex through good police work had uncovered the truth. But having him just tell her everything felt dramatically weak and was just there to provide another one of those 'kiss me, you fool' moments where Alex and Gene stare into each other's eyes. This was followed by a poor ending in which MacKintosh caves in and accepts that the freemason doctor should be sentenced anyhow, thus ignoring the whole dramatic point of the story because it was too difficult to solve properly. Even season 1 Hunt would have fitted up the doctor for some other crime in a clever way using an element from a secondary plotline, such as the laughing gnomes in episode 3.
Ultimately though the point of this episode is to draw up the battle-lines for the series. Alex and Hunt have now put aside their differences and they will work together to bring down their boss, knowing that he can send them packing to Margate, like Hunt's predecessor, if they put a foot wrong. I hope they can make that format work as it feels less intriguing than the tension-packed Hunt toying with dark side story-line.
In lesser matters Chris and Shaz are getting married in a fun story line that sits oddly with the murkier stuff. And Ray gets worked up about the Falklands war and takes it out on the gypsies, this being a clumsy idea that is less interesting than why he's in the freemasons in the first place. The good news though is that Ray continues to be the nasty little snit he was at the start of Life on Mars rather than being one half of the Little and Large comedy act from the first season. Perhaps the writers have been watching the US version where Ray had more to do, so I'm intrigued to see where they go with him.
I can't finish without mentioning the big disappointment this week. Hunt has his fortune told in which a mysterious gypsy mysteriously foretells that the Tyler will sap his strength. Having Hunt murmur 'Tyler?' was a bombshell moment for fans of the franchise, especially following on from last week's mentioning of Hyde and Garibaldi biscuits. Where could this be heading? What could it mean? But just at the moment when I was looking forward to several weeks of trying to drag every last ounce of meaning out of those few words, we get the answer. She meant Tiler, as in the freemason who guards the door of the Masonic Lodge.
Perhaps I'll later look back at that revelation as being a clever joke, playing on fan's desperate need for Sam Tyler to somehow fit into this spin-off series. But right now that felt cheap and corny and it diminished last week's hints that events in Hyde would have a significance rather than them being just a bit of fun. What next? Strange messages about seeking the man from Hyde that turn out to someone playing a game of Hide and Seek?
So despite a soft ending I'm looking forward to next week and seeing how Hunt and Alex will take on MacKintosh. This is despite having missed the clip of next week's show after pressing the red button to enjoy the Ashes to Ashes sing-a-long for Come on, Eileen, a song that will now in my mind always have Gene Hunt singing along to the chorus!