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Dreams End: Heaven's High on the Series Finale of Ashes to Ashes

"A word in your shell-like, pal."

With those final words, BBC One's extraordinary drama series Ashes to Ashes faded into the ether, offering a stunning series finale that was equal parts mythology and mystery, grounded in an emotional context for each of the characters that had me shamelessly weeping on the sofa by the end.

For those of us who have been following the struggles of many of these characters since they first appeared on the scene in Ashes's predecessor, Life on Mars, anticipation was running high that the end to the series would not only provide some vital answers to come of the central mysteries of these two series--such as the identity of Gene Hunt and the nature of this world--but also provide a sense of closure that befitted the legacy of Life on Mars and offered a catharsis of sorts to the viewers.

It managed to accomplish just that and so much more, offering a series finale that I loved every second of and never wanted to end.

Throughout its remarkable third season run, Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah's Ashes to Ashes delivered a jaw-dropping parable about good and evil, light and darkness, all enacted against a 1980s backdrop that swirled with menace, the color red, and so many shattered dreams. At its very center lay the man himself, Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), an anachronistic copper with a penchant for violence, misogyny, and a good boozer.

In the talented hands of Graham, Pharoah, and Glenister, Gene Hunt became one of the most memorable characters in any fictional medium, a maverick that you couldn't help but fall in love with, from his trademark snakeskin boots and love for flashy rides to his gruff exterior and intrinsic need to exert order over his little kingdom, Fenchurch East.

In a single hour, writer Matthew Graham managed to tie up five seasons worth of storylines and give us the important answers about just what has been going on in this impossible world, a place that has been at the forefront of both Ashes and Life on Mars and which holds the key to unlocking the series' mysterious truth.

Warning: spoilers abound for US viewers who haven't seen Season Two or Season Three of Ashes to Ashes.

I'm still trying to process many of my thoughts and reactions to the series finale of Ashes to Ashes, a beautiful and transcendent episode that revealed the truth about Gene Hunt and the world in which these characters inhabit, the identity of Officer 6620, and the status of Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) in the so-called "real" world. And indeed, we were given answers to all of these questions and more, a stunning hour of television that challenged us to see what has been staring us in the face all season.

In covering the third season of Ashes to Ashes, I've been making my own conjectures about the series: I believed that Officer 6620 was a dead Gene Hunt, that each of the characters were dead and given an opportunity to process the traumas that occurred to them in order to let go, and that Jim Keats (the superb Daniel Mays) was the evil incarnate. (Several of details about the final episode appeared in my write-up of episode 307.)

I wasn't disappointed at all to learn that many of my theories were in line with what Graham and Pharoah were planning since the start of the season. The clues have been masterfully planted, from the recurring image of the screwdriver surrounding Shaz (Montserrat Lombard, showing off some dazzling acting chops here) and the presence of the stars in the sky.

Alex uncovers Gene's identity by heading to the house from her vision and the photograph she recovered from Gene's desk drawer: a farmhouse in Lancashire with that creepy weathervane, a crone pointing West. (Which I still maintain is one of many Oz references that are woven through the series.) Under the watchful eye of a scarecrow (whose jacket has the Officer 6620 epaulet pin), Alex uncovers a grave even as Gene orders her at gunpoint to stop digging. But she doesn't, even as Gene remains frozen and motionless, uncovering a skeleton and an old warrant card. A warrant card for Officer 6620: Gene Hunt himself.

While many of us came to this conclusion some time ago, it was a staggering scene nonetheless as Gene was forced to contend with proof of his own gruesome death, murdered at a young age in the nearby farmhouse, still decorated for a royal coronation long past.

This world that each of them--Alex, Shaz, Ray (Dean Andrews), and Chris (Marshall Lancaster)--inhabits is a purgatory of sorts, a place where dead (or nearly dead) coppers can access or are sent in order to decide their ultimate fates. Can they achieve the resolution and catharsis that was denied to them in life or will they linger forever, never quite reaching the afterlife?

Fenchurch East Police Station isn't a "real" police station, it's a fantasy concocted by the long dead Gene Hunt, a slice of purgatory carved out as a mythical fiefdom, a fact that Jim Keats is only all too willing to reveal to them, ripping off the ceiling of CID to reveal the stars in the sky, the celestial kingdom looming overhead. Will they choose heaven or hell? Will they move on or cling to old patterns?

Gene Hunt is meant to be helping them on their way, guiding them to an eventual salvation at the end of the road, a communion with the heavens that is embodied in the Railway Arms, the Manchester pub from Life on Mars, the last boozer after the final case, the ultimate reward of a life lived. But Gene is a lonely soul, himself a dead young copper living in this place for far too long. It's clear that he loves his team. Too much in fact as he can't let go of them either, keeping each of them close to him for far too long.

Both Sam and Alex weren't dead when they arrived in this place. Each of them was clinging to life in their own way, desperate to return home, and therefore their minds rebelled against the world, seeing it for what it truly was, a place where their subconscious dragged up images, traumas, and puzzles for them to process. They weren't ready to follow Gene to the pub at the end of the road. Not yet, anyway.

Because they were clinging to life, they were still able to access their memories of their lives but even those faded over time. Alex began unable to remember Molly precisely and Gene himself had all but forgotten his true nature. But Alex and Sam, due to hovering between life and death, were still able to connect to their previous lives, still able to remember their identities and what had happened to them. (Keats even tells Alex this, saying that she and Sam are different than the others: "You both challenge this world that Gene's carefully built for himself. You're dangerous to him.")

Let's not forget that Sam chose to return to this world. Unlike Alex, he recovered from his coma and returned to life but chose to reembark on a path that brought him back here, to a place where good coppers chased bad guys and turned up for a boozer at the end of the day, where childhood memories mixed with filmic and television representations of fictional cops.

Gene Hunt didn't see himself as a skinny kid in a uniform. He saw himself as Gary Cooper in High Noon, a strong, gruff lawman who is unlike him in every way. Building a world around him that was based on this representation, Gene surrounded himself with the good cops who died and were unable to move on, building a team that gave him strength even as he forgot why he was there or who he really was. That's the problem with pretending: after a while, fantasy can become reality.

But it all has to end sometime. When Sam died at the end of Life on Mars, he returned to this world and lived there for years with Annie. But he wanted to move on and he asked Gene to help him, which he did. And which is why he disappeared without a trace. He was finally ready to let go and Gene allowed him to finally head to the afterlife. Likewise, the same held true for Alex, Shaz, Ray, and Chris.

Alex died from Layton's gunshot after clinging to life for the first two seasons of Ashes, dying at 9:06 am in a hospital in London, listening to the news that a body had been found in a shallow grave in Lancashire. Shaz died after attempting to stop a car thief--who had been jimmying open a door with a screwdriver--after he stabbed her in the gut with the tool. (It's worth noting that the courageous Shaz herself died in 1995, as evidenced by the fact that the first piece of modern music--Oasis' "Wonderwall," released that same year--played over her death scene. It also explains her modern thinking: she came from a different time period than Chris and Ray.) Ray, depressed over beating a young man to death--covered up by his DCI--and unable to deal with his grief, hanged himself in his flat. (Ray, heartless though he seemed throughout LOM and Ashes, actually felt too much, both grief and shame at disappointing his father.) Chris, a uniform officer, follows his superior's orders and is shot to death. (He knows better but is unable to stand up for himself, whereas he finally stands up to Gene in episode 307, finally earning his brains.)

I don't want to think of this world as a strict purgatory in the traditional sense of the word. This isn't some limbo for lost souls, but rather a magical place in line with the kingdoms of Oz and Narnia, a place that's perhaps more real than reality, granting the users the ability to deal with their mortal traumas, the formative moments that shaped them as individuals and set up their characters.

For Sam, that was 1973, the year his father murdered a woman in red (Annie) and took off into the wind. (It also explains, with no uncertainty, that copper Annie was also dead in the real world, which fits with the resolution here.) For Alex, that was 1981, when her parents were killed in front of her as a child. Both formative moments in their psychology, which is why their subconscious latched onto these particular time periods. In attempting to understand the very moments that shaped them, they are given the opportunity to reevaluate themselves, to come to know themselves inside and out, and to finally process their pain and release it.

I thought it was interesting that Shaz, in the seventh episode, threw out a line about it being 1953 in Ray and Chris' heads, and wondered if that was the year that Gene Hunt died. It was, as we learned this week, as he was a young copper murdered on the day of Queen Elizabeth's coronation, his body buried in a shallow grave in Lancashire. Since that time, he's been helping cops achieve heavenly release, pushing them on their way in his capacity as a hard-talking angel of sorts.

His polar opposite, Jim Keats, serves an inimical purpose, ferrying souls to Hell in an elevator that goes down to the basement level, making false promises and attempting to lure Ray, Chris, and Shaz to his division. Alex figures out early in the episode that Keats isn't Discipline and Complaints but something else altogether, even if she can't quite put her finger on what it is. But Keats isn't taking no for an answer. He pushes the trio to become self-aware once more, forcing them to come to terms with the nature of their deaths, giving each of them marked video cassettes that contain footage of the way they each died (as I theorized last week), each trapped in an act of violence that marked them forever.

Would they go with the guv? Or choose the seductive lures of Keats? They'd come face to face with proof of their deaths but the choice was in their hands. Would it be up or down? And would Alex stand at Gene's side or help Keats destroy this world after learning that Gene had the power to send her home whenever he wanted?

While Keats offers pleasures of the flesh, Gene offers the team something else: to achieve the things they never could in life: Shaz gets her promotion to DC, Ray receives the praise he always needed, Chris becomes his own man. Keats might offer what they want, but Gene offers what they need.

Keats is all too willing to take whatever souls he can get his hands on, taking them through the fire exit to an elevator bank where they await the path down to the fiery pit below, which is where poor Louise Gardner and Viv end up. It's even more depressing, given Chris' ominous dream of Viv among the fire.

Elsewhere, however, there's an alternative. The Railway Arms, Gene's favorite pub in Manchester, which has now magically been "shifted" across the landscape to London. Chris picked up on barman Nelson's voice in last week's episode as "Life on Mars" played in the background. It's here that our group, after stopping the diamond thieves and saying goodbye to the series' trademark Quattro, find themselves. It's the end point to the world, where a soft white light filters outwards, bringing with it the sounds of happy voices and David Bowie singing "Life on Mars." This is the end of the line, the point at which they can leave this world and travel on to the afterlife. Nelson himself stands at the door, St. Peter at the gates of heaven, ready to admit them to Paradise.

It's been Gene's job to eventually guide them here, to take them to the pub after the case is closed, the bad guys caught, evil vanquished. (Or as he puts it, "sorting out the troubled souls of Her Majesty's constabulary.") But there's one last showdown between Gene and Keats as he once again attempts to get Alex to cross over to his side. But Gene is stronger here than in their last encounter at Fenchurch East (where Keats is able to reveal the stars in the sky and display Gene's true form) and he knocks Keats for a loop.

Chris and Shaz finally reunite, Ray shakes Gene's hand, and then all of them enter The Railway Arms, their deserved final destination. Only Alex remains, Alex who wants to stay with Gene in this world, to continue to challenge and provoke him, to force him to be better. But she can't stay and neither can Gene leave. Both have the paths they must walk and they can't walk them together.

Kudos go to Daniel Mays for making Jim Keats such a spectacular character and for delivering a nuanced and brave performance this week as Keats' true colors began to emerge over the course of the hour, a terrifying shape of evil that, while broken and battered at the end, still was able to cackle malevolently and promise Gene that he would be seeing him again.

Likewise, I also want to praise Lombard, Marshall, and Andrews for stunning performances over the course of the series and especially with this final installment. Shaz's horror, Ray's stoicism, Chris' attempt to prevent Shaz from pain, all cut me like a knife. (Lombard in particular deserves praise for her shocking breakdown after seeing herself die in 1995, which made the hair on my arms stand straight up.)

The final scene between Alex and Gene finally gave them their moment under the stars, a true kiss that signified the end of their relationship and their time together. I've loved Hawes and Glenister together and after their near-consummation in Episode 307, I thought that this was a brilliant way to end their interactions, a soft kiss, laden with passion and love, as Gene finally sent Alex on her way to the afterlife. (Hawes' performance absolutely breaks my heart here.) It's with some regret that Alex finally steps into the light, leaving Gene alone once again. But not for long.

As he peruses a crimson Mercedes Benz 190D catalogue, Gene gets a new visitor: a traveler from 2010 who turns up at Fenchurch East looking for his office and his iPhone. A new companion for Gene, someone who can help him gather together his troops and send them on their way. The magic circle has opened once more for a new figure. (I do wish, however, that this new copper had been a "name" actor, offering us a cameo appearance at the very end, a way of continuing the story in our imaginations.) "A word in your shell-like, pal," he says in pitch-perfect Gene Hunt. And the cycle begins anew as Gene repeats the very words he said to Sam Tyler at the start of Life on Mars.

At the end, Gene is always there, the immortal guardian of this kingdom, an Oz for dead coppers, always watching and waiting. Just like George Dixon of Dixon of Dock Green from the footage at the very end of the episode. It might be the end but these characters endure forever, caught on the television screen, watching over us just as we watch over them. The police light remains on, a beacon in the darkness to all in need of salvation.

I'm going to miss Ashes to Ashes terribly, as well as the remarkable characters whose lives--and deaths--we've followed these past few years. Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah have created a remarkable piece of television that transcends the medium, delivering a powerful parable of life and death in two series that bookend the human experience: the turbulent joyfulness of life (Life on Mars) and the release of death (Ashes to Ashes). I'd like to thank them and the many writers, directors, and actors from the bottom of my heart for five extraordinary seasons of a genre-busting series that is unlike anything else on television.

All that's left to say is to fire up the Quattro and see you at The Railway Arms. Be seeing you, guv.

What did you think of the series finale of Ashes to Ashes? Were you satisfied by the resolution to Alex's story? The identities of Gene Hunt and Jim Keats? And the truth about Chris, Ray, and Shaz? How much will you miss Ashes to Ashes? Head to the comments section to discuss.

Comments

Mrs. James Ford said…
Daniel Mays was amazing. Looking forward to seeing him in Outcasts. Goodbye Guv, I shall miss you :(
Anonymous said…
Brilliant ending to one of my favourite shows. Now if only Lost could be this good too. Thanks for the memories.
Sue S said…
Thanks, I enjoyed reading this. And I loved the episode, absolutely mind-blowing, heartbreaking and yet so... RIGHT. I'm going to miss them too!
Emma said…
This made me cry all over again. Thanks for offering your thoughts on the end with such passion and insight, Jace. I'm going to miss these write ups.
Laura said…
As much as I wanted Gene and Alex to have their "happily ever after," Matthew and Ashley brought the series to a close the only way they could and still be true to the characters they and the cast created.

Thank you.
Cindy B from PA said…
Just wanted to reiterate my thanks to the several reviewers (Jace, Ian, Frank) who have greatly added to my viewing experience/pleasure.
It has been amazing to enjoy this show with people scattered all over the globe.
After three viewings of the series finale, I am still sad that Gene is back to being alone, but it was ended beautifully. And even though Gene is alone, he is there for all those in service, all over the world, "fighting the rot together."
- Cindy B from PA
Danielle said…
A brilliant end to a brilliant series. Honestly, I don't think that even Lost could top this. Gene Hunt is most definitely one of my favorite characters of all time. Philip Glenster was born for that role and it showed! We'll miss you, gov!
riverwillow said…
I thought this was a brilliant and very fitting end to two brilliant and groundbreaking series. I am very grateful that Matthew and Ashley held the faith through all the years it took to get Life on Mars commissioned. This is what television should be.

I also wanted to say thank you to you Jace, I've only just discovered Televisionary but you and the Railway Arms have really added to my pleasure in watching this last series.

Sadly I think that this was such a stunning piece of television that, as good as Lost can be, its finale just won't be able to come close.
Harley said…
Just beautiful. Thanks for following it for us, Jace. I'll miss every one of them, Gene Hunt most of all.

But a wonderful way to end it.
Chaoskitty said…
Finally an explanation for why Chris completely bottled it in the shootout of the final LOM.

That is testimony to how much the writers invested in and believed in these characters. All credit to them. This kind of vision in television writing is rare.

A shout out to BBC for finally commissioning what will be an enduring jewel in their canon.
pattycakeUS said…
Amazing episode. It broke my heart that Gene and Alex would not be together, and that Alex would never wake up to see her daughter grow, but I loved the fact that the ending was so anti-Hollywood and so unlike any American TV program (I am American and appreciate quality TV shows on BBC) in that it was unpredictable. I could sense that Jim was not to be trusted and might be the devil, but I enjoyed the mystery behind Gene's character - I could not figure out what his real role was until almost the very end.

I didn't want the series to end, and I didn't want to say goodbye to these wonderful characters. I fell in love with each and every one of them, particularly Gene, and couldn't get enough of the show. If only the US TV networks could focus on story like this...
thetorrentlord said…
I thought the ending did the show proud. The ending for Lost was a cop-out. This is what TV should be in the USA, but as was stated above they won't take chances or challenge the viewer. Gene Hunt was one of the most interesting characters I've seen on TV. Philip Glenister did a superb job portraying someone that was torn between two worlds. I hope he continues with a long and rewarding career. I will miss the quality show that the cast was able to provide in every episode. Thanks to all the actors and writers and crew for a mesmerizing 5 years.

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