FEATURE ARTICLE – Ashes To Ashes, Dust To Dust, R.I.P Gene Hunt

By Marty Mulrooney

AshestoAshes

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.

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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.

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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.

Ashes to Ashes 3

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Ashes to Ashes 9

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.

Ashes to Ashes 10

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

Ashes to Ashes - The Team

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27 Comments

Filed under Alternative Musings, Television

27 responses to “FEATURE ARTICLE – Ashes To Ashes, Dust To Dust, R.I.P Gene Hunt

  1. James Peck

    Very good article.
    Just a couple of points i would like to add.

    Firstly, Jim Keats is the devil according to the writers. I think when he is talking on the phone he is being cautious about what he says in front of the others and doesn’t tell dave who he is, he just says it’s me.

    Secondly, Alex gives gene the shoulder number from his tunic, which he will keep as a reminder, not just the scratched number on a desk.

    • Marty Mulrooney

      Thanks for commenting!

      In an interview with SFX magazine co-creator Matthew Graham actually says:

      “We hear Keats speaking to someone called ‘Dave’. I’ve already told you my theory that it’s David Bowie…

      “You were right – he does say ‘Dave!’ It’s an ad lib! I thought ‘Nick’s right!’ I went back and looked at it. I thought ‘He was obviously pretty sure he heard the word Dave’, but I looked at the script and thought ‘There’s no Dave in here’. And then I watched it and he says Dave! The Devil’s called Dave! Keats is the Anti-Christ so he is on the phone to Satan. But that’s just for my own amusement rather than something explicit.””

      http://www.sfx.co.uk/2010/05/22/ashes-exclusive/

      This kind of ties in with my thoughts on why Keats isn’t the Devil… he answers to a higher being.

      Also, that is very true about the shoulder number from his tunic! However, did you notice it was in his hands before he grabbed Keats, then never made another appearance again afterwards? I simply thought the desk scratchings were more permanent: he passes that desk every single day. Furthermore, I assume the new arrival will be sitting at that desk as well…

      • Balbinder Mann

        Listen to that conversation between Keats and “Dave” again- there’s no indication that “Dave” is Keats’s superior. It’s a conversation about “speeding up the paperwork”, thats all – and it’s Keats who seems to be be issuing instructions, if anybody is.

      • Marty Mulrooney

        I think this is pretty open to interpretation. I thought he was on the phone to ‘somebody’ at least, especially when he says “It’s me.” *pause* “ME” rather menacingly. I felt he had to answer to somebody in the end.

        Yet even if he isn’t on the phone to the devil, I don’t think he is the devil himself either. Again though, this is something even the co-creators have disagreed about in interviews! All open to interpetation I guess! 🙂

  2. Joseph Viney

    I thought Keats was utterly ludicrous towards the end, all of this hacking and spluttering was pretty lame.

    Whilst I enjoyed the whole enterprise, I thought it lost its sense of humour towards the end. Where in Life On Mars and the first two series of Ashes To Ashes it remained relatively quirky I thought everything in series three was on a downer.

    Also, I thought the last episode had some elements of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series in it. Gene as The Gunslinger etc. I can’t say too much without giving away the whole Dark Tower plot!

    • Marty Mulrooney

      It is funny how people’s tastes differ isn’t it: I thought Keat’s hissing etc at the end was very creepy and rather well done!

      I see what you mean about the humour actually, as this was by far the darkest series. I didn’t mind too much in the end though because I found the unfolding mystery really intriguing. Plus, Life On Mars could be pretty dark at times too remember, such as when dealing with Sam’s suicide/Annie’s death.

      • Joseph Viney

        I suppose this is the right time to boast that I am an extra in series one, episode eight of Life On Mars.

        I’m the ‘porn director’ and I’m somewhat visible when Gene and the team are watching old porn reels on an OHP. If you have the box set see if you can spot me!

  3. This review arrived in my in-box via a google alert. We over at the Railyway Arms website have read countless reviews since the finale aired, but this is one of the very very best. It packs one hell of an emotinonal punch – just like the finale itself. Thank you!

  4. DorsetGirl

    “Left standing alone without his team, he cuts a simultaneously strengthened, yet isolated figure.”

    This was one of many moments where Philip Glenister showed us how much he can do without apparently doing anything at all.

    It’s wonderful to read such a great review from somebody who clearly loves and understands the entire show rather than just fixating on one aspect of it. Thank you for linking this at TRA.

  5. Felicity

    Very nice review!

    Just some thing I would like to add.

    Alex gave him the epaulette number, to make him remember. Once she left, he looked at the numbers and was stronger in his confrontation with Jim Keats.

    Then, when he reached Fenchurch East, he saw the numbers carved on Alex’s desk, again. But it wasn’t her who carved them. In a previous episode she asked who had done it.

    Another thing I would like to add is if you look at the reflection of the ghost…. his face is healed showing the other part of the face in the dark. And then, You can see the other side of the face of Gene illuminated. It looks like he’s becoming a whole with his ghost.

    The last scene of the series, shows him in a very different way from LoM. He really looks like Gary Cooper on High Noon on the poster he had in his office back in Manchester. The orange light on him shows him like a real hero. The real deal. He hasn’t forgotten. He’s about to be redeemed … and will eventually go to The Railway Arms.

    • Marty Mulrooney

      Hey! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

      Did you notice the epaulette numbers were in Gene’s hands, yet after he grabs Keats they are gone? Made me wonder…

      Also, I believe the numbers on the desk were done by Alex. Remember when she was drawing the stars and they joined into those exact same numbers? It was as if her subconsious was doing it. I always figured she asked “Who did this?” because she hadn’t realised she had done it herself. Keats doing it works just as well, but I guess we will never know for sure!

      I really like what you put forth about the ghost joining with Gene btw… but I personally believed that the ghostly reflection was healed simply because that part of Gene, the boy who didn’t deserve a shallow grave, was finally free. After all, hadn’t the ghost been haunting Alex so she would finally dig him up?

      I really do feel that Hunt will forget again in time. It is the nature of the world and in a way, I think Gene prefers the illusion to the reality. Would he be as effective a Gov if he knew he was really a dead ‘skinny lad’? I took the ending as his acceptance of the fantasy: ignorance is bliss.

      Again though, this is just my opinion, as is the whole article. It is important to remember that the creators have said much of the show is open to interpretation. What I have written here is simply my own interpretation.

  6. Dougie

    Great article Marty. The final episode was a fitting end to the show. I think the final series was the one in which Ashes really hit its stride, one in which it finally matched up to its predecessor, Life on Mars.

    The acting from all the cast members was top notch as you say. I believe Daniel Mays in particular deserves a lot of credit. His acting was understated to begin with but compelling towards the end as the secrets behind Gene & the team were revealed. I thought his pivotal role was played to perfection and loved the hissing etc. towards the end as he was able to show his true self, in complete contrast to his serious, no-nonsense demeanour throughout the earlier episodes of the show.

    I like the idea that Jim Keats and Frank Morgan in Life on Mars were the same person. They both tried to manipulate the protagonists and suggested Gene Hunt was corrupt in some way. As Keats says to Gene as he staggers away at the end “we’ll meet again” which I interpreted to mean that their feud may have been ongoing for some time and will continue to play out. This can be further evidenced as Gene returns to CID and another character enters in a simlar fashion to Sam Tyler in Life on Mars suggesting he would be taking another copper under his wing so to speak.

    • simon

      I’d like to agree with you there because keats did say he would meet gene again but dont know when and then there was another person sounding like a newerly dead officer quoting sam tylers words “where’s my iphone and wheres my office”.

      Question I’m trying to find is will there be a return of gene hunt in the late 80s early 90s with a new DI under his wing and a new team?….will it be GENE v KEATS 1 more time bringing back DCI Litten as a DS

  7. Alies

    Great article!
    It’s so sad its all done now. The ending is sad too. At least I think it is. Especially for Gene and Alex. But I guess my sudden urge to make poems about it is my therapy in accepting 😉
    I have to agree with you saying that Keats is quite likeable at times. For someone like him that’s a brilliant way of hiding his true intentions and tricking people like Alex by doing so. I at least was tricked at times where I thought he was kinda nice/cute. But I always suspected that there was a whole lot more going on under this niceness. Daniel Mays was brilliant in his role!
    Just like the others btw!
    It’s going to be missed.

    And thanks for the fantastic read! You write beautifully.

    xXx Alies
    (also aspiring writer, but then in Dutch)

  8. acquitaine

    This is a lovely article, articulate and sensitive. It responds to a truly special yet challenging ending that has lots of us reeling. I agree with so much of what you have written, and I do think there was a conscious effort to suggest – subtly – that Gene may soon rediscover, or may even loosly hold on to, memories that can bring him, eventually, to The Pub, where his journey will end in peace. The truly talented lost coppers that occasionally come to him give him real clues, and the continual layering of these may move him on to The Pub at last – where we hope he will find his friends, and Bolly- Keks still dressed in that gold lame dress just for him!

    Kudos to you for writing this thoughtful assessment and well done for sticking up for the overall quality of the “denouement”, to quote Bolly, in the face of some intense nit-picking (which I understand, but regret, when it gets to the point of slicing away at the sterling virtues of the finale). Glad you posted it to the Arms!

  9. Luci

    Great Review!
    I loved the ending of Ashes to Ashes, think I even had a little tear! It was a brilliant series even though I have to say I wasn’t sure about it after Life on Mars.

    Have to admit though, one of my favourite bits of the series was the ‘uptown girl’ dream! Brilliant!

  10. Ben C

    Has anybody noticed when Keats enters the code to get into the elevator room he keys in 666?

    • Marty Mulrooney

      Yeah! I also love it when Alex tells Keats “Go to hell” to which he simply replies “Alright!”

  11. Paul Jenkins

    Great review and many thanks for pointing out several points which I overlooked!

  12. Sue

    I think Gene will be freed to go to the Railway Arms when his grave is found, and he is buried in a proper grave.

    Now if Sam and Annie were able to be together forever, Gene and Alex should receive the same consideration, with the epulate numbers keeping Gene aware of his background, and his future.

    If he can remain focused on his future, perhaps he can become a more mature adult,sign up for AA, take ballroom dancing lessons. Do they offer kissing lessons anywhere?

  13. Sarah

    A really insightful article, it popped up when I google-searched summaries of the last ep, since a lot of things left me wondering and I was curious about different interpretations 🙂
    I happen to agree with a lot of your general points, and as you said, the whole dissection/over-analyzing thing (often, not only with this show) doesn’t give a good piece of screen narrative enough credit – I really thought this ending was a work of art, and the surrealism/mystery so eminent and intense this time it reminded me a lot of the powerfully menacing atmosphere David Lynch always creates. Second to that, it struck me as a simultaneously extremely shocking and saddening yet brilliant twist to deconstruct this lion of a man to reveal the frightened soul of a kid, glimpses of which we already did see every now and then, thanks to the subtle screenwriting as well as Philip’s tremendous acting.
    *But*, and this really bothered me. As genious (and somehow inevitable) as the final revelation struck me, there *is* that plothole elephant standing in the room, that is simply too big to ignore it: without brain activity since he is as a matter of fact dead, he simply cannot have kept them in his mind, he cannot have *wanted* them to stay and he cannot *forget* about anything. As much as I hate the nitpicking myself, this really bothered me throughout the episode.
    Other than that it was brilliant how we finally realized the reason behind Shaz’ hysteria with screwdrivers (and so beautifully sad set to “wonderwall”, that was amazing), and especially Ray’s suicide that brought back the memories of him talking to the fireman’s brother several episodes before, telling Chris afterwards he had no idea where all this came from, it just did.
    One last point: I think a strong hint that he, too, will come to the “afterlife-pub” in time, is when he said “see you around, Bolly-Kecks.” At first I just thought it was simply a lie to comfort her, but looking back it makes sense that he actually meant it.

    • Marty Mulrooney

      Thanks for commenting Sarah! Really good to know that people are still reading this. 😀

      The ending of Ashes was amazing: I am sure there are some plot holes but overall I think it was a huge success, very powerful.

      Funnily enough I watched the endings of 24 and Lost around the same time as this and they both paled in comparisson.

  14. Cathy

    I thoroughly enjoyed your review and agree with all of it, It would have been nice for Gene to go into the pub and get the release he deserved. What a shame it has ended and can’t carry on in Genes world – What well done television Life on Mars and Ashes To Ashes.

  15. Victor

    I just saw the last episode and since the quality was pretty bad I never saw that it said “Gene Hunt” on his warrant card, so I was pretty lost all the time. Anyway, I decided to watch it again and this time I saw the name and it all made sense.

    There’s one thing that I didn’t really understand however, was Alex dead from the beginning or was she really in a coma?

    Great review by the way!

    • Thanks for commenting! If I recall correctly, Alex was in a coma during series 1 & 2, but during series 3 she was actually dead. Remember she looks at Keat’s watch and it has stopped at a certain time? That is the time she died and it is referred to throughout series 3.

  16. cardosoraira

    I just finished watching Ashes to Ashes and I have two questions .

    1 ) Alex has come to wake up from the coma at sometime or she was dead the whole time?
    2 ) If she was dead all the time , we can conclude the same for Sam Tyler in Life on Mars ? If so, why Alex says to her daughter , before taking the shot, about Sam’s history. She only could known about that if Sam had really woke up from his coma that time, before killing himself .

    I always thought that the period in which Sam and Alex heard her relatives talking to them on radio and television was a time when they are still alive , in a coma. That would be the reason why, when Alex really die and return from the coma that Gene’s shot put her, she stops to see or hear anything.

    • Hi thanks for commenting, it’s great to find that people are still reading this!

      I have to apologise, it’s been so long since I watched Ashes to Ashes/the final that my memory is a bit hazy.

      I do seem to recall that she wasn’t dead the whole time (she was in a coma much like Sam in Life On Mars) so you may very well be right in what you’re saying!

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