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Stars in Their Eyes: The Darkness Closes In on Ashes to Ashes

Looks like Ray finally got his heart.

In the shared stories of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, DI Ray Carling (Dean Andrews) has been a stalwart member of Gene Hunt's team but never the focus of any particular storyline. That decision has granted Ray the illusion of being what he appears on the surface: a misogynistic lackey who is all too willing to follow Gene's instructions and make trouble for Sam Tyler or Alex Drake.

But this week's fantastic episode of BBC One's Ashes to Ashes, written by Julie Rutterford and directed by Alrick Riley, shaded in Ray's backstory, rendering a tragic air to his character that was both emotionally wrenching and wholly unexpected.

Thoughout the five seasons that comprise Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, Ray hasn't been the type of character who openly discusses his feelings or his past, yet this week's installment featured a major moment of catharsis for Ray as well as a scene that offered a surprising act of tenderness towards Alex.

Ray's backstory played out against a series of arson cases on the days leading up to the 1983 General Election. Just as last week's case of the week offered a rubric by which to better understand Montserrat Lombard's Shaz, this week's episode did the same for Ray Carling, granting the audience a prism through which to look at Ray's actions over the last few seasons.

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

Ray's dogged quest for the approval of Gene Hunt has been at the heart of his character since he was first introduced on Life on Mars, and it's why Sam and Alex both served as such a thorn in his side, freely receiving the praise from the guv that he believed was rightfully his as he toiled away in semi-obscurity, only really receiving Gene's attention when he did something wrong.

Of course, this week's episode found Ray going to some great lengths to earn the praise of Gene Hunt, entering a burning building to place his own life at risk to rescue someone inside... and then leading him too to become trapped. Fortunately, he's rescued by fireman Andy Smith (Joe Absolom), a shell-shocked Falklands vet who quickly becomes the prime suspect in the serial arson investigation, as the fires seem to have one common link, a military-grade explosive trigger of which only a former soldier would have been aware.

While the case focuses on the team's efforts to prove Andy's guilt, the case uncovers a series of uncomfortable truths about Ray's life and the shame he's carried around for years. Finally catching Andy as he attempts to set himself and his adulterous wife ablaze, Ray manages to talk Andy down and hand over his lighter.

Yes, you read that correctly: Ray.

In previous circumstances, the one doing the talking would likely have been Alex Drake herself, but her earlier talk with Ray awakens something within him and he manages to get Andy to connect with him by finally unleashing the guilt and shame that he has kept pent up inside of him for years, talking about how he was so terrified of following in his father and grandfather's footsteps and entering the army, so scared of getting shot and killed, that he threw away his interview by drinking himself into a stupor the night before the interview and missed it.

Ray talks about his father's gutting disappointment in him, and his own shame, a feeling that he's been carrying around for so many years and which explains his own desperate need to gain Gene's approval, to replace that which he never got from his own father. He's successful and gaining Andy's trust, getting him to hand over the Union Jack cigarette lighter (nice payoff with the pink lighter) and end the standoff.

And just when we thought Ray couldn't get any more in touch with his feelings, he plants a sweet kiss on Alex's cheek, the first really emotional connection between the two Detective Inspectors.

It's a tender moment that follows up his emotional outpouring in front of Andy and the team. Andrews manages to pull off Ray's vulnerability without eliminating his masculine machismo, summing up the way that most sons spend their entire lives searching in vain for approval from their fathers, literal or figurative. It's a moment of precise clarity for Ray Carling and his actions these past few seasons, beautifully played by Andrews with grace and humility.

Ray finally gets the three little words he's been aching for these many years from Gene Hunt himself, who pats Ray on the back and then says, "Well done, Ray." It's the approval he's been so desperate for and he's pulled back once more into Gene's orbit, his claws firmly sunk in Ray. Just as Gene offered Shaz precisely what she needed--a shot at the future, at belonging, and fulfilling her dreams--he does the same for Ray... just as, rather hauntingly, the darkness closes in around Ray and the familiar refrain of Bowie's "Life on Mars" plays. Hmmm, another sign that Jim Keats has failed to lure someone away from Gene's side, perhaps? A testament of their solidarity?

(Looks like we'll get a chance to see if Chris chooses to follow the same path on the next episode, if it follows the same pattern.)

Then there's the matter of 6-6-20, the numbers that seem to be following Alex as closely as the specter of the murdered young copper. At the end of last week's episode, we caught a close-up glimpse of the copper's epaulet, which contained the numbers 6-6-20... and, this week, Andy kept repeating his identification number over and over again, a sign to Alex.

The 6-6-20, of course, refers to the officer's badge number and is a means of Alex tracking him down in the old personnel files. Just who is he, though, and why does he keep appearing to Alex? Why was he murdered and his body dumped into a shallow grave that lay undiscovered for many years? And how is he connected to Gene Hunt?

Is he, as I believe, another Visitor from the other world? (Perhaps the first?) Here's what we known: He, like Sam and Alex, is a cop. He's appears to be connected to Gene Hunt in some fashion, just as Sam and Alex were. Through some means, he ended up dead, and half his face blown off and disfigured. Jim Keats indicated that Gene has some skeletons in his closet and seemed to indicate that people near Gene ended up dead. So did Gene kill Officer 6-6-20? Or is someone else eliminating the Visitors?

And why does the officer's corpse end up dumped near that house with that most peculiar weathervane? (The one that I discussed last week, which seems to contain a symbolic reference towards the Wicked Witch of the West.) Is a clue to his death? Or to the killer?

This week's episode seemed to offer a hell of a lot of fire imagery, particularly swirling around Jim Keats himself. There was a gorgeous shot of Jim enveloped by the smoke from the polling station fire that seemed to set him up as some sort of malevolently evil figure. And there were two nice Oz shoutouts this week with the appearance of the bicycle (Miss Gulch's perhaps) and the stacked case files that Keats assembled in his little office, little shoeboxes that looked a hell of a lot like the Yellow Brick Road.

Coincidence? Or subtle shout-outs to that great story of the imaginary lands that we all contain inside of us? Lands that, once accessed, are just as real as our own universes, comprised of our fears and dreams, allegories of hope and death, of magic and darkness.

Lastly, there's the recurring pattern of the night sky, which seems to be winding its way through this season. Last week, Alex followed Shaz from the office and, exiting a narrow alley, was suddenly cast up in an all-consuming vision of the stars in the sky. This week, Shaz shared with Alex that she too witnessed the same phenomena: looking outside for a split-second, she suddenly saw the stars, a creepy shared hallucination. But what does it mean? It's not the first time that Alex's imagery has ended up inside Shaz's mind. Back in Season One, as she lay dying, Shaz witnessed the Pierrot Clown, seeing it as a personification of Death itself.

So why do these two continue to share the same vision of darkness? How is it connected to the mystery of Officer 6-6-20? Taking a cue from Shaz (who had scribbled the stars), Alex draws some random patterns of stars on a piece of paper and then is able to connect them into a pattern representing 6-6-20 just as the disfigured copper appears before her.

I'm still trying to connect the dots myself but I cannot wait to see just what new clues turn up in Friday's episode...

What did you think of this week's installment? Did you think that Dean Andrews did a smashing job? Curious about the link between the stars, the darkness, the dead copper, Keats, and Gene? Got any theories about just what is going on? Head to the comments section to discuss.

On the next episode of Ashes to Ashes, Gene is determined to bring a drug-dealer to book, and his actions compromise the life of Louise Gardner (Zoe Telford), a detective who has been working deep undercover.


Hadley said…
Amazing episode. I never thought that we'd see Ray cry but the writing and his performance made it totally believable!

As for the Oz imagery, I definitely thought that the boxes of old files looked like the yellow brick road.

Last week, Shaz got courage. This week, Ray got his heart. I'm assuming that next week we'll see Chris finally get a brain!
Noodle said…
As much as I am loving this season so far, I don’t like the fact that Alex telling Gene that she was from the future at the end of the last series has not been brought up again. His reaction to her revelation was utter disgust and disbelief, and while I'm sure he's relieved that his bullet didn't kill her you'd think it might come up in conversation between them again.
Debon said…
I am now very much buying into the Wizard of Oz theme, especially as the song "Over the Rainbow" was in the final episode of LOM.

However, most interesting, take a very hard and close look at the mysterious copper with half a face that keeps appearing to Alex....he looks like Chris. I paused the last episode and yes, it looks like him. Very odd.

Tobe said…

Though the character appears in your mind as Chris (Marshall Lancaster), it's not. The ghost is portrayed by actor Mason Kayne.
Claire said…
Some really good ideas floating around here, making watching the episodes even more fun (if that were possible).

Seeing as this is the last series and Gene is the driving force, is it possible the young dead copper with his face blown off is in fact a young Gene Hunt?

Not exactly sure how it would work but the copper's hair is similar to how Gene wears his. Also Gene has spoken of his life as a PC when he was 19- when he betrayed a bent copper. Perhaps venegence was had and this world was Gene's escape?

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