By Marty Mulrooney
Life On Mars was always going to be a tough act to follow. It fast became one of the most critically acclaimed and best loved British television shows of the Noughties upon release, no doubt due in no small part to John Simm’s highly endearing portrayal of central protagonist DCI Sam Tyler. When Ashes to Ashes arrived in 2008, many were wary of the new spin-off series muddying an already fitting close. Furthermore, could Keeley Hawes as DCI Alex Drake be as successful in the 1980’s as Sam Tyler had been in the 1970’s? We needn’t have worried. The final episode of Ashes to Ashes aired last Friday and it was absolutely incredible. Hopefully, I can now share a little bit of that magic with AMO’s readers by offering my thoughts on the ending. Warning: Spoilers.
Ashes to Ashes Series 3 had already began to change the rules of the established universe several episodes prior to the finale. For perhaps the first time in either Life on Mars or Ashes to Ashes, other characters apart from our protagonist began to see the seams of Gene Hunt’s constructed universe in the form of endless stars. It was here that we could begin to click parts of the puzzle into place. Time travel was immediately ruled out in any traditional sense, as well as the idea that everyone apart from Alex Drake was a mere ‘construct.’ The sense of impending dread this started to create was undeniably exhilarating: no longer were we simply fighting to get Alex home to her daughter. Instead, everybody became vulnerable.
After all, what is DCI Jim Keats? It was clear from the outset that he wasn’t a lost soul like the others, constantly seeming to know more about Alex’s situation than he possibly could. The beauty of his portrayal by actor Daniel Mays is held in his ability to shape shift on a regular basis and remain believable, even almost likeable to both Alex and the viewer. He is a snake offering a forbidden apple, always with a smile on his face, harbouring some hidden truth about our precious Gene Genie. He almost certainly condemns poor Sergeant Viv James to hell at the end of one particular episode (we may not have known the specifics at the time, but something undoubtedly evil had taken place regardless), yet later when he is comforting Alex once more, you can almost buy into the warmth and kindness that blankets his inherent evilness.
Now that Ashes to Ashes has concluded, many seem to be concretely referring to Keats as The Devil or Satan. I would somewhat disagree. After all, he blatantly converses on the telephone with an unseen superior as he transports Ray, Chris and Shaz to their new ‘Division’, simply referring to this elusive boss as ‘Dave’, undoubtedly a wonderful ad lib alluding to David Bowie’s strong musical presence in the show on the part of Daniel Mays. Rather, Keats seems more likely to be a minion of hell, one of Satan’s demons, invading Gene’s world to try and claim the lost souls of Britain’s constabulary for his own, before transporting them down to Hell. The elevator, complete with distant eternal screams (are Viv’s amongst them?), is in direct contrast to the basking white light of The Railway Arms.
Yet this is Gene Hunt’s story as much as it is Alex’s or Sam’s and Philip Glenister takes the character to a whole new level. How heartbreaking it is to find that this womanising, alcoholic, politically incorrect leader of men is in fact only a boy himself, shot on Coronation Day in 1953, left to rot in a shallow grave. We almost came to believe he had actually murdered Sam or the police officer haunting Alex and left them there for the maggots. When his warrant card, muddied and decayed is unearthed to reveal his own name, his memories come flooding back. The same bravado we applauded him for got him killed before his prime. He never even had the chance to become the man before us now. Even worse, he hadn’t remembered his own death, unknowingly living a lie ever since. This involuntary amnesia is all the more distressing because it affects the members of his team too. Truth be told, Alex would have likely forgotten eventually as well, assimilating with a world where there is no bullet buried in her skull, where Gene will always pull up in his Quattro to save the day and death is only a faraway possibility.
Events tumble progressively further down the rabbit hole soon after this revelation. Keats providing Betamax videocassettes to Ray, Chris and Shaz of their deaths is one of the cruellest, most sadistic moments in a television show I have ever seen. Particularly when Shaz realises she actually died in 1995, stabbed with a screwdriver by a carjacker, as Oasis’s Wonderwall blazes amidst her screams of horror. Montserrat Lombard is staggeringly emotional during these moments, building upon the largely underplayed yet note perfect reactions shown by Ray and Chris, as portrayed by Dean Andrews and Marshall Lancaster respectively.
Yet once more it is Daniel Mays as Keats that truly terrifies. Who else could kick the Guv to the ground in his own station, trashing the place before making the ceiling vanish to show an infinite beyond, studded with stars? His reserved performances in earlier episodes finally pays off here: he is absolutely terrifying as he figuratively and literally tears up the scenery, destroying the illusion we too have been a part of for so long. He is the perfect villain; not some story-of-the-week crook, but rather somebody who has simply revealed the truth. And the truth, revealed without due sensitivity or reassurance, is quite frankly horrifying.
Of course, Hunt ultimately saves the day as expected. But the true success of the finale is that this redemptive reconciliation is not achieved in a stereotypical generic manner, guns blazing, as many other shows would have fallen trap to. Having him simply shoot Keats would be anticlimactic to say the least. Instead, he boils the loyalty of his team down to a basic formula: backing up their Guv, getting the bad guys, going to the pub. Seeing the team back together one last time creates an undeniable buzz, even if the moment’s finality is irrevocably sealed with the heavily symbolic death of Gene’s beloved Quattro, blasted into a million pieces by some gun-toting scum.
The passing of the team into the afterlife, followed by Alex’s realisation that she has actually been dead all along, is understandably touching. The decision to not have Sam emerge from the pub is a wise one: he has gone to a better place with his soul mate Annie. Gone, but never forgotten: he was a constant presence throughout Ashes even in his absence. Just as I believe Keats isn’t The Devil per se, I do not believe that Nelson is God either. Rather, he is likely representative of what God and Heaven would encompass. To have him emerge from The Railway Arms and welcome them all seems fitting: he always had a knowing air about him during Life on Mars when conversing with Sam, in much the same way Keats did with Alex. Gene is something else altogether.
Left standing alone without his team, he cuts a simultaneously strengthened, yet isolated figure. I found it a rather brave decision to not have Hunt follow his team into the pub. He may never see that enticing saloon bar firsthand. His return to the station is a surprisingly downbeat coda to an often light-hearted and affable show. Sure, there is a nice full circle moment where a new officer walks in, demanding his iPhone, echoing Sam Tyler’s grandiose entrance all those years ago. Yet the sad fact of the matter remains that Hunt will probably forget the truth all over again, reverting back to living a lie, forever. A final wisp of his true self is seen reflected in the glass of his office door as it closes (also shown in earlier episodes as a strong precursor of the truth) yet when he turns it is gone.
One moment has stuck with me though, a moment that many other reviewers and viewers seem to not have passed comment on at all. When Gene first enters the station, several minutes before the new arrival bursts in, he stops at Alex’s desk. She has carved his badge number into the dark wood, and his eyes spark with recognition. The fact that Gene may still remember yet, may pass those numbers again tomorrow and have them click within his mind, offers some hope that he too may one day pass through The Railway Arm’s doors and find peace.
Having this glimmer of hope, this possibility of respite, makes it all the more nostalgic and powerful when the Guv finally sticks his head out of his office door, once again the law in his domain, commanding utter silence as he simply demands: “A word in your shell-like, pal.” Whoever chooses to moan about the occasional minor plot hole or finds fault with the creator’s explanation of the story is entirely missing the point: Ashes to Ashes ends with one of the finest closing episodes of any TV drama ever to air on British television. The final song, David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, couldn’t be a more perfect tune to bow out to either. Gene, Alex, Ray, Chris and Shaz: you will all be sorely missed.
I, I will be King
And you, you will be Queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can be heroes just for one day
We can be us just for one day