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A Pebble on the Beach: An Advance Review of Season Two of "Ashes to Ashes"

Those of you hooked on Life on Mars sequel series Ashes to Ashes (well, those of us in the States, anyway) are going to have to wait a little while longer to check in with DI Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes).

BBC America was meant to launch the second season of the Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah-created series this past weekend but opted to push the start of Season Two of Ashes to Ashes until later this year. Which left many of the series' US-based fans in the lurch. Rather like Alex Drake herself.

Luckily for me, I have friends in the UK with access to BBC One, so this weekend I sat down with feverish anticipation to watch the first two episodes of Ashes to Ashes' darkly seductive second season. So what are the fictional constructs up to this time around? Let's discuss. (Beware: there are spoilers below for the first two episodes.)

Set six months after the events of Ashes to Ashes' freshman season, Season Two finds Alex Drake adapting to life in her new reality. It's 1982 and Maggie Thatcher's England is about to be plunged into a conflict with Argentina over the Falklands. As Alex contends with the bullish behavior of her supervisor DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) and discovers a seething nest of corruption within the Metropolitan Police, she also makes a shocking discovery that makes her question the very nature of her predicament.

While it's been fairly certain that Alex didn't in fact travel back in time to the year 1981 at the start of the series, Alex has been operating under the assumption that this world is wholly of her creation, a series of puzzles that her subconscious has created for her to solve in order to stay alive after being shot at point blank range in the present day. While her body, clinging to life, is discovered in 2008, Alex learns that she's not alone in this world: there's another "time traveler" with her in 1982, one who is not sure whether he can trust Alex to become his partner or whether they're slated to be enemies.

This figure, whom I'll refer to as The Stranger, has an agenda of his own and it's a sinister one, to boot. In the first episode of Season Two, he drugs and kidnaps Alex and holds her against his will while he interrogates her about what she is doing in this world. It's an eerie and terrifying scene that presages some new terrors ahead for Alex. The mystery surrounding the Pierrot Clown might be solved (and the Clown is missing from Season Two) but The Stranger presents some major complications for Alex.

For one, The Stranger seems to be three or four steps ahead of her and is patently aware of her presence in this dystopia. He seeks her out, kidnaps her, and looks to get some answers but isn't at all pleased with her answers. And he's not only got information about Alex (as well as access to her flat and a penchant for leaving red roses and creepy notes), but also about the future: he knows that Princess Diana is going to die at Pont de l'Alma tunnel in Paris. In fact, he claims that he was on the scene of the Princess' death... and his words seem to indicate that he could be a police officer as well.

While some could argue that The Stranger is just another fictional construct that Alex's dying brain has built for her, a speed bump on the road back to consciousness in the present day, there's a major clue in the season's opening scene that would seem to indicate otherwise. Season Two opens with two nurses watching a television news report about Alex Drake's disappearance while a comatose man lays in a hospital ward bed. One nurse claims that they shouldn't be talking about these things in front of him as he can likely hear what they are saying. Hmmm... Which would explain just how The Stranger knew about Alex's presence in the world and when the police discovered her wounded body in the present day as well. He's the comatose man in said hospital bed and he is receiving information about the present day, just like Sam Tyler did in Life on Mars, by processing it through his unconscious body.

Which, if it's true, is a rather fantastic, original, and unexpected twist. It would mean that Alex Drake isn't the only "time traveler" in this world and that it's not a figment of her imagination, but another reality that the fatally wounded can access: a purgatory between life and death in which the traumatic and critical events from their own lives are jumbled up into a specific time period. And it could mean, as Alex suspects in the second episode, that Gene Hunt could even be a real person himself and not just a construct that she and Sam have encountered.

Likewise, as Alex seeks to solve the mystery of The Stranger and find a way home, she finds herself enmeshed in battling corruption within the Metropolitan Police, a Herculean feat since it has taken hold of Superintendant "Supermac" Mackintosh (Roger Allam) and several other officers... and which involves a Masonic Lodge. How widespread this corruption goes is unclear but it seeks to involve Gene Hunt, who receives an invitation to join the secret society from the sinister Supermac himself. Whether it's this fraternal order that was behind the murder of a police officer in Soho (investigated by Drake and Hunt in the first episode) remains to be seen but from the way that the suspect, another officer, whisperers to Alex that "we are everywhere, like pebbles on the beach," one can't shake the feeling that the conspiracy is growing.

It's likely going to be a while before US viewers get the opportunity to catch the second season of Ashes to Ashes, which is already shaping up to be a real treat, but I can say that it is going to be worth the wait. Season Two forces Keeley Hawes' Alex Drake into a much more proactive position as she seeks to unmask the conspirators within the Met and tangles head-first with Gene Hunt himself. Likewise, the subplot involving The Stranger gives the sophomore season a strong throughline and a slick aura of menace.

All in all, the first two episodes of Ashes to Ashes' second season kick the Quattro into top gear, presenting a series of tantalizing new possibilities for Alex Drake, new enemies for Drake and Hunt, and an intriguing overarching plot that increases the tension and danger for our New Wave heroes. I just can't wait to see what happens next.

Ashes to Ashes will return to BBC America later this year.


That's bad news (of sorts) about the delay of the Series Two broadcasts.

I've believed for sometime now that Alex is indeed in a REAL purgatory, a netherworld between heaven and hell much like our own, but different.

UK readers of my blog remind me that on A2A "everything is significant"...a line Alex uses alot. There are very few throwaway lines and scenes, and the ones that seem to be so are usually put there by design to take you down a deliberately erroneous path.

And as was pointed out in Life On Mars (American Style), it all gets back to David Bowie, in his music, his characters, his lyrics, his music vids. The Clown in the song A2A told the story of how Major Tom (shot into space) could not get back home. Figure out the meaning of The Stranger (a scary monster, perhaps) and there might be a clue.

Great review as usual. I always enjoy your work.
Anonymous said…
I am so over BBCA. After watching the first two episodes of Series-2 A2A, I ordered the DVDs from and will watch them in peace. I'm convinvced BBCA is programmed by baby monkeys and the shows are edited by people who don't pay very close attention to plot.
Perhaps they reallized with Series-2 that if you cut 18 minutes out of each show, important clues go missing and Series-2 is exceedingly dense in the drama and clue department. As much as I had fun with Series-1, Series-2 is much more assured and darker.
LeilaM said…
Anon -

Ha! I loved how you described the programmers at BBCA not just as "monkeys" but "baby monkeys." Very well put.

Jace -

Thank you for the excellent review. The second season sounds incredible and it just makes me even more angry that BBCA is delaying it. The only bright side is that it looks like it will be worth the wait!
Former BBCA Viewer said…
No need to have a friend with access to BBC1 or wait to see if BBC America puts Ashes S2 back on the schedule -- high quality downloads of the UK broadcast are easily found online at places like TV Free Load Forum.

I got fed up with BBCA's cancellations of quality comedies and dramas last year and will never watch the channel again (go ahead, check the schedule -- about 85% of each weekly schedule is now reality programming). I'll be watching the new UK episode of Ashes in about 2 hours!

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