Saturday, 22 May 2010

Ashes to Ashes, Final Episode

And so the series ended by providing a definitive answer to the question of what the heck it has all been about while also giving the characters closure. But it also provided a dash of ambiguity and a hint of continuity that said the series could go on if they chose to do so. Despite my doubts beforehand, the ending worked for me.

In my previous article in which I tried to predict what the final episode would reveal I said that: The implications are probably that Gene is the dead copper. He's lain buried for forty years, his story unknown and untold. Now that Nelson's babbling and Keats' vendetta is drawing everyone back to Manchester he's about to be dug up, so he's restless and with Alex and Sam being close to death, they've seen him leading the life he would have led if he'd not been killed, his ghostly form oblivious to the fact his earthly form died. His last sight before being buried was the stars above and that is what everyone will see when his body is uncovered and his bones are finally put to rest with his story now known. So in the end it wasn't Sam's world or Alex's, but Gene's, and this was his story of his life that never was and his death that should never have been, all played out in a world that others can visit to replay their own deaths, seek redemption from their perceived failings, find affirmation of their worth, and resist the evil temptations of Keats prior to moving on to the great unknown...

In the end that was it, but I can’t be too pleased with myself as I did suggest about five different potential endings with that one being the one I thought the makers were leading us towards. The fact that the show was leading us there was pleasing and it means the final series made more sense than I feared it would.

I had three hopes for the conclusion: that it wouldn't have a barking mad twist such as they were on a spaceship, that it wouldn't change the ending to Life on Mars, and that it would provide the Wow factor with something new I hadn't expected. I got two out of three, and as Meat Loaf once sang, that's not bad.

The first of these hopes was delivered by the series doing the one thing its never done before: revealing the plot in an unhurried way. I've been unhappy with the usual format of two minutes of plot development and 58 minutes devoted to the weak story of the week. The ending reversed that trend by dashing off the cop story in the blink of an eye and devoting the rest of the time to the explanation. And it goes something like this (and I've only seen this episode once and there was a lot of detail so I may have got some aspects wrong):

Gene Hunt was a copper in the 1950s. He joined the force because of his love of westerns and his aim to be a sheriff like Will Kane from High Noon. On the day of the coronation (hence the picture of the queen in his office) he went charging into a room full of bad guys alone with all guns blazing under the naïve belief that the good guys always win. But sadly the bad guys hadn't watched any westerns. They killed and buried him, and his body was left unfound until the present day. But Gene's spirit lived on and he created for himself a fantasy world in which he lived out the life he had wanted to live, a life that was so appealing he gradually forgot he was dead. It was a life where he drove fast cars, kicked down doors, said 'shut it' a lot and he always banged the blaggers to rights. There was none of that time-wasting nonsense like form-filling or worrying about the criminal's human rights because this was a copper's fantasy of the way it never was but should have been. This fantasy was so powerful it attracted other coppers who had died before their time. Sam got run over accidentally, Alex got shot by nutter Layton, Ray hung himself in a fit of remorse after killing someone, Chris got shot up in the line of duty and Shaz got stabbed over something trivial. These people then experienced the life they could have led, made sense of their deaths, and had fun before moving on to whatever lies beyond.

As an explanation it works well enough and ensures that the alternate but very unrealistic past world is bulletproof because in the end it was a fiction within a fiction. And as a retro-fitted idea it just about joins both series together. Although I wish it'd been the ending they'd been working towards from the beginning as there were many aspects that don’t fit in but which could have done with more effort. Why did Sam and Alex go into the apparent past? Why didn't Sam and Alex get to re-live their deaths...? There are dozens of such unanswerable questions, but that doesn't matter. Not every loose end has to be tied up and the explanation made as much sense as a tv series needs to do.

My only minor complaint is that it alters the Life on Mars ending (at least I think it does as this was an ambiguous area) by stating that Sam died before he returned to a present day fantasy that he then went on to reject. Alex's path also matched his experience. Unlike Ray, Chris, Shaz and possibly Annie, who died immediately and immediately forgot their deaths, she and Sam clung on to life for a while and so they had a more troubled journey to acceptance that involved a false return home. So she probably died at the end of series 2 and rejected the false present day at the start of the final series. Her adventures in series 3 then followed the path Sam would have taken after Mars ended of forgetting about real life and becoming resigned to death prior to moving on. I can accept that as a valid change to Mars because the ambiguity is there as to whether the present day was a fantasy or not, and because it's brave of the makers to avoid the trappings of the easy happy ending. In the end Alex was dead, her body lying in the hospital and she'd never return to Molly. In fact everyone died, including the Quattro, and in any popular genre that is a hard ending to make work. And yet it did. So it goes.

The ambiguity also extended to Keats and the question of what he represented. Keats was the best thing about series 3. His bizarre off-note acting performance and fourth-wall breaking speeches managed to find a new angle on evil and creepy, giving his character an other-worldly quality. The final episode used that groundwork to present something that was genuinely disturbing. Keats cringed, crawled, leapt around, barked, squealed, hissed like a creature from the dark side. It was a good move to give him freedom to do whatever he wanted to do however bizarre as it made everyone else's restrained reactions more believable. Although I guess it's hard to know how anyone ought to react to the news that they're dead and have been for some time. Gene also deserves praise for doing something different with his performance. This series I've thought the actor was fed up with the show and was phoning in his lines, but he worked hard to sell us a different Gene, one who'd lost his swagger. The sight of a broken Gene reduced to being the young copper who died in the 1950s was saddening, making his inevitable return to being the old Gene who gave Keats a thumping all the more cheering.

Despite this there was one bum note in the episode. I've said before that the makers sometimes do bad things deliberately and this always turns out to be a bad idea, and it was the same here. The implication was that Keats was the Devil, which is fine as an implication, but when Alex tells him to go to hell and he agrees, the episode lurched in a direction that made me groan. The scene in which Keats tries to get everyone to join him in a red lift that only goes down, a long way down, was a scene that would have looked awful in a 60s Twilight Zone episode. Thankfully the show then moved away from that to leave Keats as being an evil, doubting thing, perhaps even a man like Gene who wanted to create his own fantasy rather than him being the ultimate soul destroyer, or at least I hope so as that would mean Viv is now in hell.

The final aspect of the ending that worked for me was the Wow factor, in fact three Wow factors. The first was the appearance of Sam Tyler, surely top of any fan's list of things to happen in the final episode, while also probably being top of any fan's list of things that shouldn't happen in the final episode. Frankly John Simm was never going to appear and if he had it wouldn’t have worked, but they got round it well with the glimpse of a fuzzy ghostly Sam in Gene's office. The second Wow was the appearance of the one character from Mars that I really did want to see: Nelson, who appears to welcome everyone to the afterlife, depicted as the pub The Railway Arms in which the song Life on Mars is always playing. As this is Gene's fantasy, a pub is the only place where dead people should go for eternity and who better to serve them than the enigmatic Nelson, especially as the fact he now serves wine hints he was Luigi too?

The final Wow provided the one thing I'd never envisaged as being the final scene. It was corny, daft, clearly not the end they had in mind at the start, but it didn’t matter because it was the right way to end the show. Fans have often pondered about the possibility of there being a third show in the franchise, and the makers have been right to refuse to do a Gene moving on to the 90s series. But in a good move they did actually make it, it's just that it lasted for only two minutes and it said everything it needed to in that time.

With Alex and the rest heading into the Railway Arms for eternity and with Keats slinking off to the underworld, Gene found himself alone in his fantasy world. He returns to his office to find all the bit part actors and extras are still around, and they all suddenly get a line of a dialogue and hints of personalities. So Gene pours himself a whiskey and reads up on Mercedes-Benz after the death of his Quattro. Gradually the lonely man gathers his authority while in the main office a new team forms as the shadowy characters step forward to take their turn in presumably reliving their deaths, making sense of their lives, and having fun. Then a new man arrives. He's just been assigned to Gene's team, except everything looks different, he doesn’t know what year it is, and his I-phone's gone. Gene smiles, then emerges from his office to have a word in his shell-like. And so the last line in the series was Gene's first line and the show is bookended, completed, but it also carries on.

Next week I'll have to find something else to bang on about.


Nigel said...

Precisely! :-)

For me it was the writer's skill which shone through. Despite having done the ending once after series two of LOM, they revived it and made it plausible once more.

I think we knew Keats was Death or a Demon well before the end and the actor's acting was superb as he looked and acted more like a gargoil (OK, I've never seen a gargoil acting but I know you know what I mean!) with every scene. The fact Gene never reacted to either Sam or Alex's strange behaviours, nor to Keats wild threats, shows - in retrospect - that he knew all along who Keats was.

Yes, a throughly rewarding and correct ending. To see Glenister's acting as Alex uncovered the buried corpse was superb. Everyone gave their all and at the end the plot came together and finally made sense.

How long will we have to wait until we get such quality on the "telly" again?

Anonymous said...

I love this show soo much, i can't belive she died at the begging of series 3, i did think the ghost of gene haunting her her was gene but i thought he was in a coma not dead, i loved seeing how ray,chris and shaz saw there death. I only realized alex died from reading this, i wish she had stayed with him and it continued with them two together but it didn't and i think it was right. I haven't seen alot of LOM and am going to watch the whole series LOM A2A will be missed D :

Ray said...

If memory serves me right at the end of 'Life On Mars' Sam Tyler recovers and then commits suicide by jumping from the roof of a tower block. He returns to help out Gene Hunt and gang who were in the middle of a shoot out on a train.
Alex Drake in 'Ashes' recovers then has a relapse and dies - this may only be because she wasn't admitted to Holby City where patients usually die under the knife.
So, I think that both endings do tie together and Gene could never accept his own death - only invite others down the pub.

I.J. Parnham said...

You're right, Nigel, about it being surreal. That's something I hadn't appreciated until you mentioned it, which shows how skilfully the series cast its spell. It was probably up there with The Prisoner (original version!) and Twin Peaks for weird final episodes, and yet it never once felt weird.

Anon, as regards Alex being dead, I think that's right as the trip to the Railway Arms appeared to be the afterlife. Although I'll admit on watching it I did think that when she went inside there'd then be a cut to her waking up. When it didn’t happen it put the final nail in her coffin.

Ray, on Sam, perhaps when I watch it again I might feel differently as it was ambiguous, but I think on balance the implication is that the Ashes ending changed the Mars ending. For series 3 Alex was forgetting about real life, as Sam is supposed to have done, and yet she didn’t kill herself to return to Gene's world. But she did see her own body, presumably dead, in hospital. That implies that she didn’t really wake up (although Gene and co appearing on tv screens probably confirmed that earlier) and if she didn’t really wake up, it's a short step to saying that Sam didn't either. It might then follow that they had a different journey than Ray, Chris and Shaz had because they didn't die instantly whereas Alex and Sam lingered and as you say Gene could never accept death. Alex and Sam probably died prior to having a real life fantasy that was a last attempt to hold on to their mortality. But that's probably overthinking something that was meant to work on an emotional level, which it did.

Anonymous said...

I agree it was a decent ending and the only thorn that annoys me is the end of LOM. Sam "recovers", then details his experiences which were recorded and Alex reads up on them k, straightforward. However, when Sam recovered it seemed to be a dream inside a dream similar to Alex's in S3E1 and the fact that he could not "feel" the pain during the meeting (I think his pen broke and he started bleeding) indicated that he was supposedly in the wrong world and he belonged back with Gene and the gang. But he was in his own reality as that is where he left the information that Alex read up on. If this makes any sense :)

I.J. Parnham said...

Anon, it does make sense and that's what concerned me too, although in a slightly different way as I hoped that Sam had in fact woken up to the real world and killed himself rather than woken up to a fantasy world. The fact that he didn't feel pain was to me not meant to be taken literally. I think he was just numb and uninvolved.

But it is possible to answer the Alex problem (just!) if you start from the idea that Alex went into a coma before Ashes started. The opening ten minutes of season 1 was filmed oddly with reflections (followed by Alice in Wonderland references) suggesting that she was in a fantasy world at that time, which Layton forced her to leave by killing her in the way that Sam left that fantasy world. Season 3 also started with reflections exactly like the opening shots of season 1, further adding weight to season 1 starting in the same fantasy world, and the final episode started with Molly being reflected and her mole moving from cheek to cheek.

In other words there were three worlds: Gene's past world, the present day fantasy world, and the present day. Only the opening minutes of Mars and the shot of a dead Alex happened in the real world. End of LOM and the start of Ashes seasons 1 and 3 happening in the present day fantasy world, and the rest in the past world.

Er, I'll shut up now as I'm in danger of confusing myself!

Anonymous said...

At first I thought the ending was perfect, but then I realised that the elephant in the room was never addressed.

The entire reason she was in the coma was because of Layton. Layton spoke to someone on the phone and said that he had "a piece of your past" and knew "why her parents died". Layton feels maligned because he was a big cheese "back in the day" and Alex foiled all of that (as we find out in the show).

The entire reason Layton targets Alex is because of her involvement in his past. If she actually does die and series 1-3 are all just a dream-sequence while she dies then how does Layton even know her??? Yes, he killed her parents but he wouldn't have a grudge against her unless she was involved in his past.

So are we to believe that Alex actually died as a girl in the bomb blast and the entire show is all bollocks? Or did she really get shot, really did go back in time, really did antagonise Layton... and so the ending of Series 3 is all bollocks?

I.J. Parnham said...

Anon, I'd say there are two answers. Firstly, Evan was the man on the other end of the phone. Layton's life had gone downhill but it had nothing to do with the events in purgatory, in the same way that Sam Tyler didn’t make the gangster Tony Crane's life go downhill, he just created a logical reason why it had while in purgatory.

Layton tried to improve his lot by blackmailing Evan and when Evan wouldn’t pay up, he kidnapped Alex's daughter and then shot Alex to teach Evan a lesson. There is a line at the end of episode 8, season 1 where young Alex is in Gene's office that suggests this is what happened, but it's not delivered very well making it look as if they'd explain more later on. But they didn't come back to it. In the end Layton wasn't important. He was just the reason Alex died, in the same way the driver who ran over Sam wasn't important, although many fans thought he would be.

Secondly, the ending the makers were working towards changed each year. So there are inconsistencies and there are missed opportunities to foreshadow the ending and drop clues along the way that would have been made if the three years had been planned in advance. Layton was just another piece that got dropped between seasons. They are other oddities and for me the biggest missing piece was the time-travel element, as there is no logical reason why people had to go back in time beyond the fact it was fun dramatically.

Jamie Sleeman said...

Unlike Alex, Sam DID wake up for real, before returning to "1973".

We know this because Sam's file (in episode 1 of Ashes to Ashes) lists his death as a suicide, not a car accident.

He had a car accident that put him close enough to death to have him enter Gene Hunt's world, he woke up from that, decided the Real World sucked and leaped off the roof of the station building to his death, returning him permanently to Gene Hunt's world.

If he hadn't really woken up, the file held by Alex Drake before her shooting would not have listed him as "suicide".

Jamie Sleeman said...

Unlike Alex, Sam DID wake up for real, before returning to "1973".

We know this because Sam's file (in episode 1 of Ashes to Ashes) lists his death as a suicide, not a car accident.

He had a car accident that put him close enough to death to have him enter Gene Hunt's world, he woke up from that, decided the Real World sucked and leaped off the roof of the station building to his death, returning him permanently to Gene Hunt's world.

If he hadn't really woken up, the file held by Alex Drake before her shooting would not have listed him as "suicide".

Jamie Sleeman said...

Also, if Sam had not really woken up in 2006/7 he could not have supplied the information to Alex that gave her prior knowledge of the existence of Gene Hunt, Ray Carling and Chris Skelton.