Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Ashes to Ashes - Season 2, Episode 4

After the dip in quality last week, this week returned to form with the series' finest episode. In fact I'd rank it as being amongst the top few for the whole franchise.

Last week I noted that each week a major plotting element was being borrowed from the corresponding episode in season 2 of Life on Mars. So to maintain the parallel course, this week needed to feature a swingers' party for rich folk, and this proved to be the case, but whereas with Life on Mars it was played for laughs, this time it was different. The jokes still came, but they came within the context of a strong plot that had been littered with red herrings and misdirection. In essence the plot was constructed like an onion, in which layer after layer was peeled away to reveal an ever more rotten core.

The topmost layer was presented as a fun introduction to the story in which Jackie Queen from season 1 of Life on Mars returns. When the makers announced they were doing the inevitable thing that all spin-off series do, I doubt Jackie would have been on any fan's short-list of characters they'd like to see returning. In fact I doubt she'd be on a long-list either, but having decided to bring her back it made a lot of sense. When she first appeared Jackie was a hard-nosed journalist who didn't like Gene Hunt, therefore providing him with one of his most formidable adversaries. It therefore provided a cute scene in which this time round she arrives at the station dressed in Gene's camel-hair coat and then opens it to reveal a bump. And Gene is responsible.

Not surprisingly the possibility of the patter of little Hunts turns out to be a lie, but it maintains the Jackie character as someone Gene can't intimidate. Also not surprisingly Alex and Jackie bond over motherhood. This lets Jackie open up and talk about Sam Tyler. This worked well as the previous mentions of Sam have felt more like a script obligation rather than a natural development. Apparently Sam married Annie and lived happily without any ranting and angst about him being out of time. As Alex is in a coma, I'd suggest this means she only dreamt that Jackie told her a fictional story about a real person because she is in the same state as Sam was at this stage of season 2. The dream world has become so appealing, it's becoming increasingly easy for her to forget about the real world. But whereas Sam had Annie so he was minded to stay, Alex has Molly. So this conversation with Jackie helped her to renew her desire to return, even if that desire only amounted to watching Roland Rat talk to Molly on the tv.

But this light story was only a way to introduce us to the next layer of the rotten onion. Naïve girls from Up North have been arriving in London seeking the bright lights only to be preyed on by dodgy blokes. So Hunt and co track down the dodgy blokes in a brisk, fun way with plenty of high-octane movement, one-liners, and what is sure to go down as another classic Hunt moment featuring dogicide. Last week I noted that Hunt is again doing a Jack Regan impersonation, so I'm glad he's moved on and is borrowing from Sandra 'You shoot one dog' Pullman from my second favourite cop show New Tricks.

But even this murky story isn't the rotten core. As the story progresses, this layer gets peeled away to reveal the even more rotten layer within. Alex looks up some records at Companies House and uncovers all sorts of useful information you most definitely cannot get there. One thing I love about this series is that the writers have created a format where they can say in complete confidence that there are no mistakes, only clues to a bigger mystery. This means any factual mistake can easily be blamed on it all being in Alex's head. Anyhow, the investigation leads to Jarvis, a dodgy bloke who stands out amongst dodgy blokes as being even dodgier than the rest. Worse, his best mate is MacKintosh and Gene's boss won't accept anyone laying a finger on him.

With Gene Hunt close to being shipped out to cider-country, something he's so depressed about he leaves a pint half-drunk and avoids a punch-up, bringing Jarvis to justice will require he and Alex to combine forces to bring MacKintosh down. In the end they succeed after a predictable plot development and an unexpected but very welcome piece of character development.

Firstly the predictable element: MacKintosh frames Alex and kicks her off the force. This is supposed to notch up the tension, but frankly it doesn't and it never will do in cop shows any more as decades of abuse of the kicking off the force tactic has devalued its impact.

So despite Alex being implicated in so much corruption she's looking at a long stretch in prison, she carries on investigating the case as if nothing had happened. Nobody raises an eyebrow at this, including MacKintosh who clearly has seen enough cop shows to know nobody takes being taken off the case seriously so it's not worth getting concerned about. Just for once I'd like to see someone get kicked off the case and then actually stop investigating and suffer a bit of soul-searching while they're doing the gardening.

Thankfully the solution to the MacKintosh problem doesn't lie in such lazy plotting. Hunt decides to bring him down with an excellent piece of character conflict. He attacks MacKintosh's only weakness; the fact that he is at heart a decent bloke.

Frankly that didn't feel as if it'd work as we've not seen any evidence MacKintosh has a good side. But mirroring Hunt's descent into the dark side in episode 2, MacKintosh toys with the light side and ultimately decides to do the decent thing. This was satisfying and believable as no matter how corrupt he is and no matter how many trouser legs he rolls up, there's no way he would let a slimy piece of work like Jarvis walk. And so having heard about the events in Life on Mars and so knowing how bent cop Harry Woolf sorted out his life in a corridor with a gun, MacKintosh executes Jarvis. Then he shoots himself, but not before he peels away the final layer of onion to reveal the utterly rotten core.

Something is coming and it's bigger than everything else, he ominously tells Alex before he dies to swelling ominous music with an ominous red rose spreading on his breast, and it's to do with the ominous psycho-killer who has been ominously leaving her ominous roses. These ominous last words set things up nicely for where the rest of the series will go. But where will that be? I don’t know. Anything would be a guess. But I hope Operation Rose has nothing to do with Rose Tyler and the return of the Master as that would make cult tv fandom implode into an alternate universe. Instead, I hope it will tie in with season 1 somehow.

In changing the light style of the first season, the makers also appear to have ditched just about everything that happened in that season. There's no young Alex, or Evan, or Layton, or even any repercussions and angst about Alex's dead parents. If everything is significant, then why has all that been forgotten? So I hope that Artemis from episode 4 ties in with this bigger thing that, presumably, will be the key to Alex waking up. As MacKintosh also mentioned that he was responsible for bringing Hunt down from Manchester, it's also likely that the bigger thing is very big indeed.

With so much happening this week there was little time for diversions. I welcomed that, but there was still time for closet-mason Ray to baffle me. When confronted with the news that MacKintosh is bent, he defends his fellow mason for about 5 seconds then gives up. I really can’t see the point of this freemason thing. You roll up your trouser leg, swear allegiance to your brothers forever, then forget about it. I'm beginning to suspect the masons were added in to the story purely so they could use the Tiler / Tyler idea along with a recurring motif of people being blindfolded.

Better though was the Shaz and Chris story. So far it's been played for laughs and that's sat uneasily with the murky stories, but this week it worked well. This is because for the first time this season Shaz had plenty of airtime. With her being involved in the plot, it enabled her to interact with Chris in a natural way rather than just appearing to provide the incongruous fun bits. I hope the show continues in this style for them while deciding whether Ray is a proper mason or Hunt's trusted right-hand man.

The short clip of next week promises the arrival of Alex's husband along with Martin Summers, and for all readers of the title credits Summers' appearance is welcome news indeed. Fire up the IMDB!



Agree - this was a great episode but the mentions of Sam left me puzzled - will Sam have something to do with the final denouncement? Is the old guy in the hospital bed actually Sam? Nevertheless this is far better than what I've seen of the first season and I will be watching again next week.

I.J. Parnham said...

I'm in two minds here as to whether the Sam references are all a big tease or whether as I said above that it reflects Alex's state of mind of wondering about whether her journey will be the same as his.

Anonymous said...

is ray bent?

late scenes had him looking a bit uncomfortable as gene did his moralising.

would be interesting, but disappointing.

I.J. Parnham said...

I don't know either where they're going with the Ray character. He doesn't come over as consistent to me this series or that he's logically developing in any particular direction. Perhaps it'll make sense at the end.

Anonymous said...

I think Ray is the person contacting Alex and leaving the roses...1) Alex was contacted by walkie-talkie in the previous episode after Ray wondered off with Chris 2) someone close must've been able to draw the rose on the blackboard without it seeming dodgy (although that's probably reading too much into it) 3) I don't think (although I may be wrong) that Ray was at the door doing his "tyler-ing" at the freemason house when Alex encountered the "ominous" person at the bottom of the stairs.

I.J. Parnham said...

That's interesting. It'd certainly have more effect if the rose-dropper is a person we know rather than merely being someone we haven't met yet. It'd also help to explain the inconsistent Ray character this season.

Reprobatus said...

Hello, a friendly Mason here. Love your blog and your analysis of A2A, but can I just take issue with this point:

"When confronted with the news that MacKintosh is bent, he defends his fellow mason for about 5 seconds then gives up. I really can’t see the point of this freemason thing. You roll up your trouser leg, swear allegiance to your brothers forever, then forget about it."

Yeah, it's not quite like that. It's true that you take an obligation (on the bible, or holy book of whatever religion you might belong to) to support your brother Masons, but only in their "lawful undertakings". You're certainly not obliged to support them if they're doing anything unlawful - indeed, to do so would be considered unmasonic and could lead you, as well as them, being chucked out of the fraternity.

The obligation in the Third Degree includes these words: "I further solemnly engage myself ... that my hand, given to a Master Mason, shall be a sure pledge of brotherhood; that my feet shall travel through dangers and difficulties to unite with his in forming a column of mutual defence and support; that the posture of my daily supplications shall remind me of his wants, and dispose my heart to succour his weakness and relieve his necessities, so far as may fairly be done without detriment to myself or connections; that my breast shall be the sacred repository of his secrets when entrusted to my care - murder, treason, felony, and all other offences contrary to the laws of God and the ordinances of the realm being at all times most especially excepted."

In other words, a bent copper would definitely be engaged in an offence contrary to the ordinances of the realm, and so a fellow Mason would be under no obligation to defend him.

By the way, the "initiation" shown in Episode 2 was complete rubbish as well (apart perhaps from the bit when Mac said "right, let's have a drink" - that rang true!).

For more information on freemasonry, take a look at http://www.ugle.org.uk/ (perhaps not the world's most exciting site, to be fair...).

Reprobatus said...

I don't know whether it's significant or not, but in the higher grades of freemasonry (e.g. the Ancient and Accepted Rite, known as "Rose-Croix", and the SRIA, the Masonic Rosicrucian order) the rose is a very important symbol. This is a massive over-simplification, but in essence the rose symbolises the soul.

I don't know whether the writers were aware of this (probably not, given their stereotypical view of freemasonry), or whether it is just a coincidence.

I.J. Parnham said...

Thanks for that explanation. There could be something in the Rosicrucian links as the makers do appear to be cherry-picking ideas such as blindfolding, roses, and numerological themes. I don't think they're clues to a bigger mystery though, more like little games for fans to fret over.

And sorry about my sarcastic comments about masonic rituals. No offence meant to any freemason in the real world, I was merely poking fun at the dramatic stereotyping.