Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Ashes to Ashes - Season 2, Episode 8

Season 2 gets the spectacular ending it deserves with a fast-paced tale that brings closure to most of the on-going plot strands while offering a few clues as to where season 3 might go.

This season turned away from the light style of the first year to introduce a darker world, but the format has remained the same. Each week there's a mediocre central cop story which can never withstand even a moment's analysis because it relies on the bad guys acting in illogical ways. This doesn't matter because the entertainment comes from watching the main cast going about their business with style and fun. And all the time there's the extra intrigue added by the bigger mystery which every episode seemingly takes giant leaps forward while not actually moving at all. The final episode perfectly captured the essence of the series but doing all that again, except more so.

The story picks up from last week's underwhelming ending in which Lafferty and his dodgy building site turned out to be a cover to hide a stash of guns. It seems those guns are important. They are to be used for a really big blag, but what is it? Hunt seeks the answer using his usual methods, but after giving an informer a battering in a fish and chip shop the unfortunate man then gets a deep fried battering from some really nasty men. But even these really nasty men are scared of the worst nasty men of all, the police. It seems the police corruption saga is set to reach a climax when raiders will steal a shipment of gold bullion, but then the raiders will get raided by the police in an operation known as Oscar Papa Romeo, Operation Rose.

Sadly the corrupt coppers who are everywhere, know everything, and can achieve anything don’t know Chris has been rumbled. So to speed the story along they tell him their cunning plan despite his role being a minor one as befits his normal level of ineptitude. Chris redeems himself by passing the information on to Hunt, and so the team in a tense conflict with much shouting and shooting bang all the bent coppers to rights. The closure of the main story arc is done with tension and speed, but the main point of this tale is to give the characters closure on their development this season. And so absolutely everyone gets a big moment.

The bloke with interesting hair gets to ride around in a fast car and grin happily. And the other main extra, who I'm sure has been around since the first episode of Life on Mars, finally gets a whole word to utter while whirling around in the Quattro. Viv gets to show off his comic timing with a couple of funny lines and Luigi gets to show he doesn’t have such good comic timing with a rant.

Ray gets an excellent send-off. This season it's been hard to tell where his soul-searching is leading, but finally he is at peace with the world. He supports Alex when others doubt her, applauds her efforts, and is magnanimous in his support for Chris. He also gets to be on the receiving end of a gloriously tasteless gag, which is sure to put me off eating deep fried sausages for life.

Chris and Shaz don’t fare so well. With so much to get through in the final episode, it was inevitable that some elements would happen too quickly. Last week Chris was left in a hopeless situation, shunned by his mates, branded a traitor, and his forthcoming marriage seemingly off. Yet Shaz dismisses Chris's double-crossing, taking bribes and being generally bent as being no more important than a disagreement over flowers for the wedding. And so does everyone else. Still, Shaz gets her best moment this season when she saves Chris's butt while wearing a wedding dress and rather improbably holding a firearm. Chris also gets a good moment looking moody in a car park.

Hunt has a more substantial closure. He gets his big moment when after avoiding uttering his catchphrase all season he encourages the lead bent cop's stunt double to dive head first on to his bonnet so he can have a new catchphrase: 'you've been quattroed.' Better still, after a season in which he has found he can trust nobody, his suspicions finally turn to wondering if can trust Alex. With the answer being he can't he seeks friendship with a bottle blonde who can give him everything that Alex can't, namely a love of western films and analysis as to who is the greatest cowboy hero.

So with Alex not being so hot on her western knowledge, his solution to her being untrustworthy turns out to be a weak one that is out of character and is done purely to make the plot work. He kicks Alex off the force. This is the second time she's been dismissed this season and to my mind that's twice two often for any cop show. Luckily Alex knows that being kicked off the force means nothing and this enables her, again, to solve the crime on her own.

Her solution ultimately involves her confronting Summers and finally uncovering his big secret. Apparently Summers was a young cop who was part of the bullion raid and the shame he felt destroyed his life. Now dying in real life, he's gone into a coma so he can return to his past shame and relive it. This like all the revelations explains everything but adds nothing. We already know that the dream world acts like a sort of elaborate past life regression therapy. Sam Tyler returned to his childhood to find out why his father left home, but he couldn't stop him going and so he didn't return to real life. Alex returned to her childhood to find out why her parents died, but she couldn't stop them dying and so she didn't return to real life.

Summers returned to the scene of his downfall, but this time events turn out differently, even if he did nothing to change them by his own actions, and so he got to die. The last point may be significant, but I don't think so because at no stage in his journey did he behave like a free thinking sentient person. If he was a decent man all along, why didn't he just tell Alex the truth in episode 1 rather than kidnapping her, sending her roses, acting oddly? Why did he act like the standard mystery antagonist who enjoys leaving cryptic clues for the police to solve for no good reason other than it fills up the story in an entertaining way?

The fact he did act in such an unnecessarily mysterious way only makes him appear to be nothing more than a mystery construct in Alex's mind. She did after all solve the clues and work out who he was and what he was doing. And ultimately she is the one who foils the bullion raid. It may be that that's the way the dream world works. You have to make someone else do your bidding to affect a change, but that feels too complex.

So with Summers' unconvincing credentials as being another real person, Alex's role becomes all the more significant. And she gets her strongest scenes yet. On the basis that any tension-packed episode can become even more tension-packed if you add a ticking clock, she learns that today in the real world she will either live or die. She has an infection and when her medication reaches fifty milligrams, she'll die.

This deadline concentrates her mind and after 16 episodes in which her psychological background has been presented as nothing more than a running joke, she uses her skills properly. She reduces a bloke who was so tough even Hunt couldn’t crack him to a gibbering wreck in one minute with a simple word-association test. She also gets her big moment with Hunt when the one obvious scene that has never been done before gets played out.

Summers sends Hunt a tape of Alex's bizarre musings, and so Hunt asks her for the truth. And so she tells him that she's from the future. Hunt is understandably upset. After all he asked for the truth and she lied to him. Sam Tyler spent 16 episodes asking himself if he was mad, back in time, or in a coma. The final episode answered that he was in a coma. Alex knew she was in a coma in episode 1. She's spent 16 episodes trying to wake up. And then when finally someone asks her to explain why she says nonsensical things, she lies and says she's gone back in time. I did not get that. Obviously Hunt would have been unhappy if she'd told him he was a figment of her imagination and she was the only real person in the world, but it'd have made more sense.

But after offering the time-travel solution and being kicked off the force, she still foils the raid. But just as it looks as if everything is over the bottle blonde turns up and attacks her. I don't know why she did this, but Hunt suddenly comes over all rubbish and accidentally shoots Alex instead. Alex closes her eyes and when she awakes she's back in the real world. Her operation was a success, the infection is cured, an older-looking Molly is delighted, and everything is fine. She's basking in happiness when Gene Hunt appears on the hospital tv telling her she's in a coma and to wake up, and he's on all the monitors too...

So what did that mean? Was it the most meaningful scene yet or the most meaningless? To me it was the latter. It was fun, mind, but it came over as being merely a thank you from the makers to all the fans who have spent the last four years analysing every scene searching for hidden meanings. This was a big unsolvable cliff-hanger to keep everyone entertained until the new season.

If there is a solution, to my mind it comes from the unreal nature of both the ending and its set-up. Even before Hunt appeared on screen the scene was unreal. Nurses do not wheel dead people away with a blanket over the head in open view while giving Alex just enough clues to figure out that Summers was under the blanket. People who have just woken up from a coma don’t sit up in bed in a sprightly manner and then wander off, except if the crisis she'd just recovered from was unreal.

We are supposed to trust messages from the real world as being truthful, and yet it felt wrong that a doctor would soothingly whisper in her ear that she has a life-threatening infection. If the drugs don't work, you're dead. Neither did it feel right that Alex would know how many milligrams she's had and so how long she's got to live. This sets up an unreal crisis to pave the way for her waking up in a dream of the real world.

So where does that leave the story if even messages from the real world are untrustworthy? Hopefully the drugs she received to battle her infection warped her senses and so she can still trust real life messages, just not the ones she received this time. More importantly though this offers a clue as to the solution to the bigger mystery, and to consider that we have to go back to Life on Mars and an alternate theory on the ending.

Sam Tyler returned to the real world, but he hated it and killed himself to return to the dream world. I loved that ending, but many people didn’t and so I think Ashes to Ashes will revise it. Although I think it wasn't the original intent, an alternate reading is in many ways more logical, even if it doesn't have emotional resonance. Sam was an intelligent and rational man. It's implausible that he would have killed himself to be with dream-girl Annie. His counselling would have told him that he was depressed and so he would have soldiered on to see if life improved. He might have killed himself eventually, but as there was no reason to suppose he'd return to the dream world, he wouldn't have killed himself to get there.

This leads to the thought that maybe he didn’t return to reality. Maybe reality was an illusion too and he chose to return to a better illusion. If that is the case, then that's what's happened to Alex. She's returned to a real world that is an illusion. Admittedly that makes explaining the opening ten minutes of episode 1 tricky, but as a hint of the bigger mystery that also explains Life on Mars, it could be the way it's going.

And that final solution gets hinted at with Hunt's strange behaviour over Summers' death. He soothed him before he died, as he did for the girl from Hyde eight episodes ago. And so maybe the dream world is, after all, a fantasy that people who are dying construct to put their past lives in order before they move on. Of course, having hinted at that, it'll probably be something completely different!

To keep you going until season 3, someone has now kindly posted up the baffling last 5 minutes on Youtube.


Joanne Walpole said...

I didn't know what to make of last night's finale and so I gave up trying and am grateful that I don't need to watch it again next week. I say need because it was ridiculously addictive, even if only because I wanted something to happen! Shaz in the wedding dress with a gun was the stupidest part of the episode and I groaned loudly and started the dog barking.


I did enjoy this episode but is there going to be a third series?

I.J. Parnham said...

Glenister appeared on breakfast tv on Monday to effectively make the announcement that there will be a third and final series next year in which everything will be resolved.

Ray said...

When Shaz appeared in her bridal gown with gun in hand I thought that someone had slipped Kill Bill into the DVD player while I wasn't looking.

RTWatson said...

The whole "Where/when is Alex?" question gets more and more interesting, doesn't it? I don't think we should rule out the possibility that all of reality is some kind of dream - though it seems more likely that only bits of it are.
I'm glad you've picked out the silly places in this episode (of which there are several!).
Didn't Quattro Extra (whom I suspect I've seen in Life on Mars too - I'll check the DVDs) get two words? Something like "Yes, Guv."...?

I.J. Parnham said...

I'll have to double-check myself, but it often appears on first viewing that when the extras do get a line it's often done with their mouth obscured in some way, presumably to save a few quid.