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Ashes to Ashes: Dust to Dust…

My name is Alex Drake… and your guess is as good as mine.

– Alex introduces us to the third season

Ashes and Ashes wound up last week. It seems to be the time of year for shows wrapping up. I could remark on how I’m hooked on this eclectic collection of British and American shows, but can’t find a decent Irish television show to watch week-in-and-week-out, but I’ll save that rant. It would appear that we have seen the last of the iconic Gene Hunt. And, you know what, it was nice. As nice as an attempt to give the old-fashioned politically-incorrect copper some closure could ever really be.

Gene Hunt takes some parting shots...

Note: This article will discuss the final episode of Ashes to Ashes and also has the capicity to retroactively spoil Life on Mars. You have been warned.

One of the difficulties facing the spin-off from Life on Mars was the simply fact that Gene was now the lead character. Sam Tyler provided the central arc of the original series, with Gene filling the role of quirky supporting character, with his own personality disorder, abrasive mood and in your face attitude. Sure, he was far more important than Ray or Chris, but he was still a character defined solely by his relationship to Sam (guardian angel? malignant brain tumour? subconscious?). However, he managed to become incredibly popular and make Philip Glenister a household name.

So, when the chance to put together a spin-off came about, it was apparent that Gene would bump his way up the cast list. Bigger billing, bigger role. Although the series would nominally follows Alex Drake on a character arc not too different from Sam’s – struggling to get home – the show wasn’t hers. Not withstanding the fact that Drake herself had some inconsistant writing over the first two years of the show, the focus was very clearly on Hunt. And not just because Glenister’s name was first on the credits.

Making him a lead character brings some baggage with it. There were elements in the first year of the show which suggested Gene would be somewhat softened. He was still a borderline racist, arrogant, sexist, but it seemed toned down – you can’t have a lead (especially not a potentially romantic lead) carrying on in that manner. It’s just not right. Thankfully, a lot of this seems to have been somewhat reversed of late. In his final episode, he feels right. A lot less sanitised. But there are other fundamental problems. You have to give your lead an arc. You have to give him a purpose. If he’s going to be a lead character, he can’t be an enigma. If you want to provoke an audience, avoid giving them any answers on the lead character they’ve been following for three years. So we needed some explanation as to the nature of the beast, perhaps even more than we needed closure on Alex’s quest to be reunited with her daughter. So they were obligated to offer at least some explanation.

Better the devil you know...

The one they offer – he’s a young copper who died with Gary Cooper on his mind – is arguably as good as any and fits relatively well. In fairness, the notion that this world is some form of purgatory has been floating around since at least the beginning of the original Life on Mars (although coma fantasy, a secular variation on the above, remained a somewhat more popular theory). The idea that Gene is essentially a bit of a magnet who draws in lost souls (like those who staff his headquarters) is an interesting one. Of course, it isn’t one that the script elaborates on too much, which is by turns brilliant and exasperating. We don’t need to know everything, but it would be nice to know what exactly Keats is (we know he’s from “down there”, but is a former cop, a demon or Satan himself) or even why he’s so damn interested in Gene now of all times.

In a way it makes sense to draw Sam Tyler in as a way of rounding out the five years that we’ve all been living with Gene. It’s reassuring to know he hasn’t been forgotten and cast aside. And it’s probably nice to have an explanation for why he’s not here. Still, it felt awkward bringing him back while John Simm was unwilling to resume the role. To be honest, the show did as good a job as possible of creating a ‘presence’ without the character, but it was impossible for moves like having another actor claim to be Tyler or only photographing him through frosted glass.

Still, nice little episode. It was great that, true to formula, the show did offer up a ‘crime of the week’, albeit a fairly bland one. Even in the midst of this meta-physical storm, Gene is still the man. The departure of the cast, the return of mystical barman Nelson and the death of the Quatro all helped underscore ‘last. episode. ever’, but there was some of Gene’s wonderful resilence in the fact that this didn’t seem like anything that would stop him or his crew from doing their jobs.

I loved the final image of the series. Back where he began. Again, another Lost comparison is apt. Whereas the series began with Jack opening his eye and ended with the same eye shutting, here we were introduced to Gene inviting a tourist in his world to step into his office. Just where we began. It’s hard not to smile as this anonymous new arrival blabber about his iPhone. The world keeps turning. Nothing will stop Gene Hunt.

Also, that soundtrack was kicking. I couldn’t work it into the review, but man it was great to hear In the Air Tonight rounding off the show (appearing in the opening episode of another eighties cop show and all that). Though do you get the sense that they were afraid to use Ashes to Ashes by Bowie? It’s Life on Mars which rounds out the show here, playing in the bar. Not that I’m complaining, but the show is called Ashes to Ashes.

4 Responses

  1. Darren,

    Thank you for mentioning that “John Simm was unwilling to resume the role.” I will always be thankful for that, actually, as it allowed us to have three more years of Gene and the others in “Ashes to Ashes.” I liked the ending, but not 100%. How could I when I had grown to love these characters over five (three for Alex and Shaz) series? I didn’t want Gene to be left alone. He had only just remembered his fate, so I agree he needed more time to achieve closure. But Alex had only just learned her mortal fate. She also needed time. I would have just liked to see, at the end, that she was still going to be the D.I. of Fenchurch East. Leaving the show with us wondering if Gene will ever go to the pub is so wide. I would have liked it to be a bit smaller on possiblities, with Gene and Alex apparently working together, and us imagining that they would continue to do so until it was their time.

    • Thanks Cindy. I thought it ended as well as an episode attempting to round out the franchise could. I liked the idea of Gene never being ready to move on. I think it’s one of those things which makes him – beneath his bluster and arrogance – a tragic character who we can safely feel sorry for (at least at this distance).

  2. I was a little disappointed to see “Guv” apparently broken in spirit by Keats. He was such a great character. The ending was more satisfying if more mystical than the one that concluded the American version of Life on Mars. With all the stars I thought, briefly, they were going there. I can accept the fact that Drake is dead. They are all dead. But they were solving apparently real crimes and crimes with current and past themes running throughout. NO way I guess to sort it all out really.

    I very much like that there was only the small picture in Keats report on Gene.

    Well meet you all at Luigi’s Pub for a pint

    • Yep. I’m looking forward to rewatching the series without any expectations. And you’re right, I thought this ending “felt” better than the one for the US version, which needed a whole lot more psycho-analysis of the characters to really work.

      (why was Sam sleeping with his father’s daughter, for example?)

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