The penultimate episode was reasonably entertaining, although with this being the first of a two-parter, most of the story was a set-up for the conclusion to the franchise. So, with this being Ashes, that set-up involved repetition and not telling us much beyond what we'd already learnt in the opening ten minutes of episode one. Luckily, with this being Ashes, a sense of the series coming to an end was provided by the characters talking about 'final chapters', 'it's all coming to an end' and 'don't you ever get the feeling that everything is about to fall apart?'
That final comment came in Chris's effective fourth-wall breaking speech and it was appropriate he got the best summation of the imminent end of the franchise as this was effectively his episode. In the earlier part of the series I was scornful of the secondary characters taking the lead to the extent I almost stopped watching, but I'm glad I didn't because after several false starts it was finally made to work. What I hadn't liked was the rigid format in which in each episode one character goes through their personal hell, works out their differences with Gene, and then gets a spooky, dark close-up with 'that black bloke from the pub' gibbering in the background. Afterwards they see stars.
Chris didn’t get a spooky moment in episode 4, and we now find out that that was because the episode was a red herring. In reality episode 7 was Chris's episode, and his finest hour has been a long-time coming. For 39 episodes Chris has been the idiot who dribbles egg-butty juice on dead bodies, but finally he grows up and looks Gene in the eye as an equal. Pleasingly his big moment mirrors other missed opportunities. Episode 7 of series 2 was the moment when we learnt that Chris was the traitor in the office. In this series his episode 7 crisis took place in a cell with a prisoner, and unlike the scene in episode 4 in which he beat up the thug who was twice his size, this time he did the right thing and let the suspected terrorist go. The sudden realization that he can think for himself was a good way to bring his character's story to an end and so he got his Nelson moment after which he could join Shaz and Ray in starry, spooky wonderment.
With plenty of Chris stuff to get through this meant that thankfully there wasn't much time left for the story, something that again showed why episodes 3 and 4 didn't work. The more time that's devoted to the main story, the more it makes you realize they're rubbish. This one was no exception as Gene yet again tackles inept terrorists, this time ANC exiles, leading to the struggle against one of the most evil political systems of the 20th century being reduced to police officers with umbrellas running around the corridors playing being Zulus. But at least Alex got to call a member of the South African police force a 'racist git' so it wasn't all a waste of time.
Aside from the Chris and the freedom-fighter scenes, the remainder of the episode was devoted to giving Alene closure. Alene has been the one character in the series who hasn't interested me, so the realization that this is where the episode was going didn’t fill me with enthusiasm. In fact I hadn't even realized Alene was a key character until I googled Ashes last year and discovered just how popular this person is. Apparently there's a rule that when two people have a relationship, the shorthand summary of their partnership comes from taking letters from both their names and joining them up. So as Alex is a girl and Gene is a bloke, they are deemed to have a relationship and it becomes Alene, or then again it might be Drunt or Hake, I forget.
Anyhow, as I have no interest in this relationship I've avoided discussing it so far, but as I'll have nothing more to say about this episode if I don't mention it, here goes. For me Alene has been the weakest part of the show, even more so than the formulaic main plots. Series 1 got a lot of things wrong, but Alene made me groan and start twitching for the remote from the moment Gene first clapped eyes on Alex's legs and quipped, 'Blimey, if that skirt was hitched any higher I could see what you had for breakfast.' The rest of series 1 continued with this crude Dempsey and Makepeace type formula of the two leads spouting bad, flirty dialogue at each other and the stories finding contrived reasons for them to be trapped and sweaty together.
I hoped back then that for series 2 the makers would forget Alene, but sadly I then discovered that lots of viewers loved this stuff and the writers knew it. So series 2 upped the quota of Alene moments and lowered my interest. For me series 2 was easily the strongest and most consistent of the three, and the only element that didn't work was the bits where Alex and Gene tried to convey that they had womanly and manly urges for each other. I don’t know why those scenes didn’t work. It's not just that I'm a bloke. I can enjoy a good Doris Day and Rock Hudson movie (or Dork flick I suppose), but Alene was plain embarrassing. It could have been the bad writing, the bad acting, or a bit of both, but every time Alex and Gene got up close and stared into each other's eyes while desperately searching for a believable 'kiss me, you fool' look, it just made them look vaguely constipated.
The actors couldn't sell it to me that a smelly alcoholic and an arrogant posh bird would have an interest in each other, and so I was left to hope that the makers would forget about it and it'd go away. And it did. And strangely I was disappointed because for series 3 not only did they get rid of Alene, they also threw away all the interaction between Alex and Gene that did work. But Episode 7 reversed that policy and gave Alene a full romantic work-out, and even more strangely it actually worked and made me wish they'd done it like that from the start.
The scenes where Alene decide to have a date, get ready for it, have the date, then are stuck in will we/won’t we limbo were perfectly judged. The episode let the scenes play out in character with no plot contrivances, with plenty of believable dialogue, and with clever, subtle humour. The actors didn't even look embarrassed, which helped a lot too. I liked the intercut sequence of them getting dressed up with Alex drinking herself into a stupor to get up the courage and Gene seemingly using whisky as an aftershave. And when Alex finally tells Gene, 'get your goat, you've pulled.' I was genuinely pleased for them (actually that line might have been on the previous night's 'You have been watching'). And I especially like Alex saying to Gene 'Let's Dance' even though the Bowie song didn't start playing. Of course having left Alene to the penultimate episode it was inevitable that it wouldn’t work out and Keatus interruptus prevailed when Keats arrived with pictures of dead coppers and weather vanes.
This brought us back to the main story arc that was resolutely failing to move forward on its own, as somewhere in their ill-fated romantic interlude, Alex had asked Gene if he'd killed Sam and irritatingly he had told her he hadn't but he had helped him feign his death. As I predicted last week, this mundane conclusion did annoy me as Gene could have flaming well told us that in episode 1 and not wasted so much time over pointless intrigue. Even Keats was bored with this answer and he quickly moved on to suggesting the ghost copper is the reason Gene left Manchester, and so presumably resolving whether or not Gene killed him along with the truth about the copper's identity will be the point of the final episode. And, as this review is already a long one, I'll stick my neck on the block in a separate article later and for better or worse say what I think that conclusion will be.
Next week, the Starman will stop waiting for Major Tom to ask him if there's Life on Mars and reveal that the truth is to do with a Laughing Gnome... or something like that.