The penultimate episode of season 2 sets out to systematically destroy Alex's world in a tale of the unexpected.
For the most part Alex's fantasy world of the 1980s has been a cosy place full of fun and nostalgia. Season 2 has added a darker dimension, but it is still a comforting place. The feeling of comfort comes from the contented interaction between the main cast and through the inevitably of the stories. It's usually painfully obvious who the guilty parties are, sometimes even before the title credits have finished rolling, so the fun is in seeing how the inevitable plays itself out. All that changed this week.
This episode achieves that transition by throwing out the rule book on how plots develop in this series with several jarring twists that I'm sure nobody saw coming. The usual thing with big plot twists is that they should be unexpected while at the same time also being very much expected. They are usually foreshadowed cleverly beforehand so that when they arrive you can trace back the logic. This episode didn’t do that and the effect was unsettling, and therefore was exactly what the makers were aiming to achieve.
Firstly I'll deal with the one expected plot development. Alex finally tracks down Martin Summers' home and finds to her shock, and nobody else's, that Martin like every other psychokiller in the history of fiction has collected lots of photographs of her and stuck them on the wall. There has to be a less predictable way of telling us this guy is deranged. Thankfully the other main developments were far cleverer.
The story starts off routinely enough when a body is found half-buried in concrete on a building site. Gene and co put together the clues. They realize the site foreman Lafferty must be guilty as no self-respecting builder would get his concrete mix so wrong it still has the consistency of porridge by nightfall so that bodies can be dropped into it.
Before Gene can beat a confession out of anyone, a young PC Martin Summers arrives to help him. This was unexpected and was a nice development as the old Martin was getting tedious. Alex distrusts him and so a meeting is arranged. She, old Martin and young Martin get together on the building site for one of those meetings that make sci-fi so compelling. What would old Martin tell young Martin? Would he give him the benefit of 27 years of accumulated wisdom? Would he tell him to patent the Internet? Or would he just tell him to live long and prosper? Old Martin does none of these things. He shoots his younger self, proclaims that being a bad guy is more fun than being a good guy and wanders off.
I did not see that coming and that one moment of glorious unpredictability set the tone for what was to come. As an aside I'll mention that the appearance of young Martin excited me because I was sure the actor had also been in Life on Mars playing a young cop, but I couldn’t quite place where. IMDB tells me I'm wrong, sadly!
Anyhow, this shooting so disorientates Alex she loses all control and for no logical reason I could see she disposes of the body in Lafferty's porridgey concrete. It would have made more sense for a good cop like Alex to do absolutely anything but that. But then again young Martin being killed by old Martin was so complex a plot idea it would upstage the more important things to come and burying the body was perhaps the best course of action.
With Alex disorientated, the next unexpected development occurs with the discovery that a mole is in the CID office. Evidence is going missing, tip-offs are being passed to Lafferty, backhanders are being accepted. Gene hatches a plan to catch the mole by giving all the characters with speaking roles a bogus piece of evidence they can pass to Lafferty. Then he sits back and awaits developments.
Gene matches Alex in being discomforted, but he does so in his own particular brooding way. This series has given the actor plenty of opportunities to show off his brooding intensity, with mixed results. When Gene was wondering whether to join the masons, the scenes of him being quiet and intense perfectly conveyed his inner angst. Last week when he went all quiet and intense after being beat up he just came over as being a bit sulky. This time it works well as he looks around his beloved team and he no longer trusts any of them.
Is it Ray, known to take backhanders and who has mentioned he's a mason for the first time in 6 episodes? Is it Chris, desperate for money for the forthcoming wedding? Is it Shaz, who gets to look sneaky for the first time? Is it Viv, who after 15 episodes has suddenly been given the nickname of Skip as well as more lines than usual? Or is it that bloke with the interesting facial hair who always gets lines of dialogue when the camera's not on him? The answer was a shock and I'll hold my hand up and say I had five guesses and still got it wrong. Chris is the mole.
This was by far the most unsettling choice. I didn’t believe it for a moment, but then again that was by design. It was like finding that Bambi was a drug-addict. It's too unsettling to think about. Somehow Chris, a cop who went to the Inspector Closeau school of policing, a man who is more likely to trip over his own feet and handcuff himself than arrest anyone, is a master criminal. For months he's been secretly stealing evidence, carefully covering his tracks and being clandestine while all the time presenting the image of being a dipstick. It's so wrong and yet so right.
The point of this episode was to tear down every comforting aspect of this fantasy world. Finding that Chris is a bent cop who's been taking backhanders all along, helping Mac, aiding in the death of the other bent cop from episode 1, achieved that brilliantly. No other choice could have jarred the viewer so effectively, with the possible exception of Viv as Desmond's is one of my all-time favourite sitcoms.
Chris hasn't developed since his first scene in Life on Mars in which he giggled while outlining the evidence found at the place where they found the body. So this gave him a welcome chance to get a character, and the actor seized the opportunity. I guess most actors practice their breaking down in the interview room technique in case they get a chance to star in The Bill. Even so, Chris's breakdown came over as believable. When given the chance to deny the accusations, his barely perceptible headshake was moving, and when by the end he is left alone in the CID room, there's a real feeling that this world has been destroyed.
And being destroyed is what needs to happen. In Life on Mars by the end Sam knew that the danger this fantasy world presented was that it was so cosy there's no reason to wake up. With his body healed Sam's mind invented a way to make the world feel less appealing so that he would awake. This appears to be happening again.
As the series has progressed, the bigger mystery has become smaller and has ever more clearly shown that Alex is just waiting to awake from her coma. Of course this could be misdirection, but for now Alex's fantasy has become less appealing to her. Chris's double-dealing has torn apart the unit from within and from without Martin Summers has fulfilled the Frank Morgan role of sowing disharmony.
It has to be remembered that there was no suggestion that the real surgeon Frank was aware he was in Sam's world. Sam merely sub-consciously interpreted his pleas to wake up in terms that fitted into his fantasy. If Martin Summers has a real life role, it doesn’t have to match the one he has in Alex's world. Everything he has told Alex doesn't have to have come from a man with independent thought; it could just be Alex projecting her need to awake. In fact old Martin's murder of young Martin probably proves he doesn't have freewill. Killing your younger self doesn’t feel like something anyone would freely do, even in a fantasy and even if you're a deranged man with photos on the wall, unless they are only doing what Alex needs them to do, and that is to make her world an uncomfortable place. And in that it succeeded.
Even minor things were unsettling. The music wasn't light and frothy, but dark and brooding. Alex's mum appeared for the first time this season as a ghostly image chiding her for not having saved her. The ultimate solution to what Lafferty had been up to turned out to be uninteresting, which was strangely unsettling. And strangest of all the cryptic message written on the corpse dug out of the porridge, a message that just had to have an ominous warning about Operation Rose, turned out to be instructions to an X marks the spot. This week I got every single guess as to where the story was going wrong, and that unsettled me as much as it unsettled Alex and Gene, and for that I'm grateful.
Next week is the final episode of season 2. Is it the very final episode? I hope not. From the clips, Chris gets a chance at redemption and Alex gets attacked by a nasty anagram.