This review contains 'spoilers'. If you do not wish to know the outcome of the series do not read further.
Look at those cavemen go
It's the freakiest show
Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?
('Life on Mars' - David Bowie, 1973)
Chris: "Why do you think they put schwartz in their gobs?"
Ray: "It's quartz. How the bloody 'ell would I know. I'm not a geographist."
Gene: "This place is mine. You lot belong to me. Not Drake, not Keats. Me."
Shaz: (about Alex and Gene) "Those two should either get a room or kill each other."
Alex: "These pieces of quartz were placed in their mouths to make an ironic point."
Gene: "Well you'd better get on the blower to the Ironic Crimes Division Squad, hadn't yer?"
Alex: (to Keats) "You're not D&C, are you?"
Gene: "They're not exactly Antiques Roadshow material? They're gangsters. They don't go round slicing each other up over a bloody Welsh dresser."
Gene: (to Keats) "Intel, there's posh. Tell you what, you get reconnoitre into a sentence and I might buy you a fish supper."
Gene: "Get on to Europlod. Main switchboard's in Lions.'"
Gene: "Yes, thank you Mrs. Alan Whicker. Let's get our garlic-munching friends to put their 'orse burgers down and puts tabs on who's active."
Chris: "Very Lewis Collins, don't ya think?"
Shaz: "More like Joan Collins."
Alex: "Then go to hell."
Keats: "All right."
BBC1 - 22nd May 2010 - 9.00pm
"It's a Knockout! And Alex is off!" chortles Stuart Hall (yes, it is the very Mr. Hall who used to piss himself each week commentating on the eponymous programme) and briefly we glimpse Molly imploring her mum to get up. After all, she's been knocked into a coma by that bullet for the last three years. Hilarious and freakish and full of the game symbolism that's been a thread through the last three or four episodes it also includes the red balloon that young Alex had with her on the day her parents were killed in the car bomb all the way back to Series One; a forest of weather vanes and that shadowy figure of Sam Tyler knocking insistently on the office window. Just a normal episode of Ashes, then?
Let's face it, the diamond heist sub-plot isn't the reason we all tuned in for this and the grisly end of the Hardiman gang is a mere detail, ("Alex, meet Ginger and Nobby") isn't it? Well, no, this final case is the really important one because it's the last test for Shaz, Ray and Chris as their 'guv' lies stripped of his powers and his identity on the floor of the squad room. It's their redemption before they enter Heaven. The deaths of the Hardimans (the hanged man as a symbol of 'ending the struggle' so conclusive here and foreshadowing what we discover about Ray) and the subsequent heist do afford us some wonderfully funny lines and classic Huntisms. It wouldn't be an Ashes episode without those and we do get some corkers here.
The operation also clearly shows that each of the officers in Gene's care can and do emerge from under his influence and confidently organise themselves ("Bloody, hell. He can do the Generation Game all on his own," remarks Gene of Chris's work). When Gene takes off after Alex the rest of the team pull together, Ray taking charge, "Yeah, who needs the guv, eh?" he states. You need him more than you know, Raymondo.
You can cut the tension between Gene and Alex with a knife after Alex disappeared from their little evening liaison in the previous episode ("some people just don't know a good thing" he snaps). He's wounded and vulnerable and takes it out on Chris and Shaz in the office after discovering one of the Hardiman victims briefly regains consciousness at the crime scene, his officers failing to see that the man was still alive. Again, it's a nod to the semi-conscious states that Gene's world induces. Further to this, Chris relates a dream of Viv, their colleague killed in the riot featured in Episode 7 'all hunched up amongst this fire', which of course indicates that Viv has gone to his fiery demise in the demonic Keat's own circle of hell, unable to benefit from Gene's guidance.
Gene has a real go at Alex for humiliating him ("you made a fool of me last night"). Pointedly, he says that they've both lost sight of who they are. Alex reassures him. ("I take you very seriously, Gene.") It's that whole 'forgetting who you are' business that Sam wannabe Thordy clearly warned Alex about three weeks ago in the series. When we get to the core of the episode, Thordy is absolutely right. It's a story about damaged people who forget their past sins and, once reminded of them, see the walls of their 'reality' vanish. This also ties in with the particular triggers that are layered into the narrative - the police whistle that Chris hears again that we later see the significance of in the video he watches; the military march that Ray hears and the old soldier saluting him in the corridor and the screwdriver that Shaz finds on her chair. These symbols continue to remind them of who they are and what happened to them.
Keats is still the demon on Alex's shoulder. Look at the scene in Keats' office where they discuss the death of Sam Tyler. Keats removes his glasses (so he can directly seduce her with his stare?) and then literally climbs onto her shoulder to whisper entreatments in her ear, telling her that she and Sam are "Different. You both challenge this world that Gene's carefully built for himself. You're dangerous to him". It's a downright creepy moment and Alex herself challenges Keats own origins in D&C at this point.
At the heart of the episode are the major revelations about Gene and the team. When Alex heads North to Farringfield Green, I think it's clear we're going to find the body of the young copper, the major symbol of this series, buried there. Gene wouldn't murder Sam and Annie and much of the misdirection that this series has been throwing at us is finally halted, putting the mystery of Sam's 'death' to rest. Similarly, when Keats finally unveils his 'report' to Gene it gives him purpose to follow Alex and to try and stop her.
When Alex digs up that corpse there's really only one person it could have been. It's a stunning, doom laden sequence that starts at the top of the hill, under the protective symbol of the scarecrow, where she unearths the warrant card buried there in 1953 (a little clue from last week emphasised by the Coronation footage on Keats' television set and further suggesting that this moment in 1953 was another 'coronation' of sorts as Gene died and established his kingdom, his realm in Purgatory).
Frozen to the spot, as immobile as the scarecrow over his own grave, Gene remembers who he was and the scene continues in the abandoned farmhouse, still decorated for that Coronation it seems. Gene falteringly recalls his demise. The young Gene ("Skinny. Yeah, he was...erm...a skinny lad that needed fattening up.") left alone to deal with armed burglars and whose death is covered up by Morrison, his mentor. It's a tale of 1950s policing, with a senior officer 'compromised' by an on-duty drink and leaving an inexperienced, immature young lad to cope (foreshadowed by Alex and Gene's earlier counter-accusations "You are the most immature man I've ever met." "I'm not". "Yes, you are". "I'm not"). It's perhaps symbolic too of how policing would change over the decades as much as the patterns in violent criminal behaviour. Gene reinforces the idea that he's the sheriff, like 'John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart' and that, inside his head, he isn't "some snotty kid in a uniform. He's Gary Cooper in High Noon. He's the law." It's a theme that's been there since Life on Mars and it's a beautiful and fragile idea, conveyed in a mesmerising performance from Philip Glenister. Matthew Graham confirms this with the reply from Alex to Gene's insistent, "Didn't deserve a shallow grave, did he, did he Alex?" "No, you didn't," she says softly confirming his after-life status.
"I forgot everything", Gene says as Alex asks why he didn't tell her. That fits in with Alex's own struggle to remember her daughter and her home and with Thordy's similar observation of what happens to you in this realm. It's clear that remembering has weakened Gene, disoriented him and this is something Keats takes advantage of by attacking Gene's outward bravado ("Ego, an immature relationship with alcohol, a curious uncertainty about the opposite sex"). We get that final revelation forced out of Gene. This is a coppers' Purgatory ("somewhere where we go to sort ourselves...coppers") and Gene is their guardian it seems ("gradually they came to you. Those with issues in their passing.")
Alex also realises here that we're dealing with restless souls of the dead too. The realities of 1973 and 1983 are also Gene's fantasy if we are to believe Keats. If he is Purgatory's guardian and he's there to redeem the troubled then his 'policing' only works when there is a Sam or an Alex to help him with those lost souls and give them the 'courage of their convictions' because as Keats tells us "the one thing they don't know is that unlike you (Sam or Alex), they don't know they're compromised".
Alex is torn, of course, because once she finds out that Gene has helped Sam and Annie on their way, she wants to know why she isn't as important to him as they are and why he hasn't helped her get back to Molly. Keats suggests that it's because Gene wants her to stay in his world but as we discover in the final scenes that's not the reason at all. It's simply because Alex is already dead and like Sam, when he jumped off the rooftop at the end of Life on Mars, she has only a certain amount of time to spend there in her post-mortem state helping him. She ultimately redeems Gene and sets him back on his purpose, accepting her death and taking one last drink in the saloon bar. It's incredibly sad for Alex but she makes the mistake of listening to Keats who isn't telling the entire truth. Alex may have been 'compromised' during Series 1 and 2 but when that clock stuck at 9.06 in this year's first episode her struggle to get back to 2008 was over. Keeley is brilliant conveying this disillusionment with Gene and Gene's world and she, Glenister and Daniel Mays turn it into an electrifying scene.
After these disclosures about Gene comes the other punch to the guts. Those horrifying, deeply upsetting video tapes that Keats has prepared. All three officers witness their own final route to being 'compromised'. Ray's shame at not following his family into the army and disappointing his dad; Chris' blind and tragic obedience to authority figures; Shaz's anger and frustration at a career truncated too soon. Full marks to Montserrat here because she puts in an amazing performance with Shaz's reaction to her own fatal stabbing with that screwdriver that's been prefigured since Episode One. It really feels like the world has caved in and the sky is falling down as she screams "I'm not even alive" after watching the tape. Equally gut wrenching is Ray's demise. A drunken wreck of a man hanging himself because he's failed to impress his father powerfully adds a further dimension to the character's flaws. Poor Chris, at the behest of a police whistle and following orders, gunned down. All are amazing sequences that move from the point of view of the characters, through and into the images of the video offering more of the series' 'interior fourth wall' moments as we watch them watching themselves. Very moving and disturbing, with a recap of their Life on Mars epiphanies to accompany them at the end of the scene.
So, back to the momentary downfall of Gene Hunt. Keats beats the man up and briefly we get that quick shot of Gene lying on the floor as the young, immature lad that lay buried up in Bolton. It is Keats playing his final card, sowing doubt into the souls waiting in that mist enshrouded squad room. "Look at your 'guv'!" he observes and then proceeds to smash up the office. As he goads them and Gene and the ceiling vanishes to be replaced by the firmament of stars above, he stops and asks them, "Oh come on? What, you didn't like think this was a real police station did you?" once more suggesting that Fenchurch East was purely a Gene Hunt construct, his game (yes, another mention of games). Keats' assertion that he lied to them doesn't impress Alex and she finally decides who to believe, who to support because she realises Gene had 'just forgotten'.
As she does, symbolically order is temporarily restored, the ceiling reappears and the lights and the 'world' snaps back into focus. "Don't you make him into a liar," she retorts to Keats as she tries to snap the others out of their confusion. As Keats herds them off to his 'whole new department', Alex pointedly rejects it, as Sam rejected his own life back in the future and returned to '1973', and urges the others to do likewise and not be seduced by what sounds like a 'living Hell' to her. It's here that Ray explains how his own DCI covered up his killing of a young lad just as Morrison covered up Gene's death. And, of course, as Keats takes the three confused officers away, symbolically travelling down a fire exit, it's time to dance to the Devil's tune as 'Holiday' bounces on the soundtrack and the seduction begins. Like the use of 'Club Tropicana' in that silent car journey back from the North, it's a music tinged with hollow promise and perfectly suits an express lift going down to a Hell full of screaming sinners.
Fortunately, Alex manages to get Gene back on his game, slowly encouraging him to help her with Ray's operation to arrest the diamond smugglers. It's a lovely scene as she recalls their first meeting and goads him with "You know, you're the most difficult, stubborn, obnoxious, misogynistic and reckless human being I've ever met." It is key to understanding the reason why she redeems him here because when she adds in "And yet, somehow you make us all feel safe" that's the moment that makes sense of that Dixon Of Dock Green clip that acts as epilogue. He might be all of the things Alex describes, he might be corrupt and bent but in the end he's doing it for us, despite his unorthodox ways, he's doing it to protect us.
Throughout the episode we've also had 'the pub' and 'drinking' mentioned. "The last thing Sam told me, was that he was gagging for a pint. I said get one in for me an' all. No threats. No shouting. No violence. Just two mates talking about the boozer" was Gene's directive to Alex earlier in the episode. This parallels the finale to Life on Mars where all the officers agree that 'pub' is where they need to be. Drinking seems to foreshadow Ray's journey to the end in the episode and there are also the diamonds hidden (behind an angel/cupid figure) in the drinking fountain in Victoria Park where the clock is stuck at 9.06. As Shaz joins them (accepting her new DC status with that gorgeous line "About wearing a dead woman's clothes? Seems appropriate ma'am" that reflects back the dead woman's that Shaz gave to Alex when she first arrived in '1981') and the operation swings into action at 12.00, High Noon, the Gene Genie is restored.
He pulls the team back together again ("what is a sheriff without his finest deputies? Nothing. I don't like being nothing.") with that moving appeal to Shaz, Chris and Ray over the walkie talkie and signs off, "See you in the field". Indeed, that's precisely where we did see the real Gene Hunt and where he ended up, Farringfield Green. Always in the field. And of course, it's the Elysian fields in Elysium which is the final resting place of the souls of the heroic and the virtuous. Takes us right back to Dante's The Divine Comedy where in Canto IV souls stagnate at the cusp of hell in Dante's Purgatory, the place where one is purged of sin before being received by Heaven. As Alex finally says to Gene in his office, "You're Gene Hunt. You're their 'guv'. That's what I'm here for. Nothing else." and that affirmation is really what this has been all about.
Finally, after the job is done and Ray and Chris join their 'guv' on one final case with a burst of Vangelis on the soundtrack, the poor old Quattro is blown to bits ("Oy! I'm arresting you for murdering my car you dyke digging toss-pots!") and the only thing left to do is: 'pub'. And as Gene implied on the walkie talkie to his team, it's "our boozer" and the end to a day's work and the end of the story. What better end than to see The Railway Arms on the corner with Nelson at the door as a lovely link back to Life on Mars and Sam's own ultimate destination after Gene faked his death. Each of our friends makes their peace and says goodbye to their 'guv' in a sad, funny but euphoric departure for them all. Chris reunited with Shaz, Ray's "you are and always will be the 'guv'," just the perfect emotional coda ("Danger of getting puffy, Raymondo", warns Gene). All three arguing as they depart from Gene's world with Bowie's 'Life on Mars' on the jukebox.
It's a bittersweet ending as Gene stares into Alex's eyes to confirm that she can't stay, that she's already dead. Perhaps Alex could have stayed with Gene but then how could she, knowing the truth about him? It's the "way of the world," as Gene says, which suggests that once you know the secret then you must move on and prepare the way for others. It's a happy ending because Alex, Sam, Annie, Ray, Chris and Shaz are all at peace, untroubled at last and Gene is 'immortal' it seems despite the best efforts of the devil Keats.
And so Gene becomes the tragic hero, the tormented soul destined to keep the faith, to help those who doubt themselves, to be redeemed and to move on. After all, The Railway Arms is waiting, Nelson's got a fresh barrel on and the saloon bar's open. The sheriff and his saloon on the frontier between heaven and hell. Gene's got work to do, there's a new Mercedes to break in and a new partner whose iPhone seems to have gone missing. Life (on Mars) goes on in 'coppers Purgatory'. After five years of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, how perfect that Matthew Graham turns this nostalgic fantasy into a beautiful and moving tribute, complete with Bowie's Heroes blazing away on the soundtrack, to those real heroes out there, those dedicated coppers. Because in the end, that's what they do despite their troubles and no one like Jim Keats can take the courage of their convictions from them.
Opening with a final homage to the television of yesteryear - appropriately describing this very episode as It's a Knockout - this extraordinary swansong for Gene Hunt also achieves closure in that loving, nostalgic excerpt of Dixon of Dock Green. The "evenin' all" George Dixon coda with its slow pan up to that iconic police station lamp is a wonderful, redemptive image to finish on. Cleverly, Matthew Graham references the fact that even George Dixon existed in a kind of after-life after being murdered in the film The Blue Lamp before his resurrection on television. 'Gene Hunt' was, has been and will always be there on our television screens it says and he might not always look like Philip Glenister but he or she still has the heart of a lion whether he or she be George Dixon, Fabian of the Yard, Barlow, Jack Regan, Jean Darblay, Morse or Jane Tennison. Our protectors, our guardian angels, our heroes. Just for one day.
Frank Collins (2010)
CATHODE RAY TUBE
Fank Collins' ever excellent Cathode Ray Tube, described as "the quintessence of British Pop culture blogs," is always on my Favorites List. Visit Cathode Ray Tube for reviews of popular TV series including all of the final series of Ashes To Ashes, Doctor Who, as well as video reviews of classic and retro TV series and films.
Published on February 19th, 2019. Written by Frank Collins (2010) for Television Heaven.