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Sweet Dreams Are Made of This: Diving Into the Ashes to Ashes Third Season Premiere

"Sometimes in life, you can't help which way you fall."

There was a moment in the third season premiere of BBC One's trippy genre-busting drama series Ashes to Ashes that had me jump for joy: the gorgeous shot of a sheet being sucked backwards off of Gene Hunt's cherry red Audi Quattro before he and Alex took off into the streets of London to the tune of Eurythmics' 1983 hit "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)."

It was a period-appropriate sequence that gleefully summed up everything I love best about this winning and mind-bending series, now entering its final season in the UK. In the hands of co-creator Matthew Graham, we're given a season opener to Ashes to Ashes that is at once dazzlingly operatic and provocatively bleak as the final endgame to a mystery that began all the way back in the first episode of Life on Mars finally comes to a head this season.

That mystery, of course, being: Who is Gene Hunt?

It's a tantalizing one that's at the heart of Ashes' third and final season. (For more on this mystery, you can read my one-on-one interview with co-creator Matthew Graham here.) Thanks to a friend in the United Kingdom, I was able to watch Ashes' fantastic season premiere over the weekend and I'm already jonesing for another fix as this dark new season promises to be the series' best yet.

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

The third season begins roughly three months after the events of the second season's cliffhanger-laden finale--in which Philip Glenister's Gene Hunt accidentally shot Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes)--as Alex finally emerges from her coma in 1983. The opening sequence is the television equivalent of pulling the rug out from underneath the audience as it initially appears as though Alex has paid promise to her mission and found a way back to the present day and daughter Molly.

But not so. Despite the scenes shared with a police psychiatrist--clearly intended to echo the final scenes of Life on Mars with John Simm's Sam Tyler--and her trip to a Virgin megastore (where she glimpses DVDs and posters containing Gene and the Fenchurch East team), Alex reemerges from her coma... but back in the world she's come to know as her home, a world shared with Gene Hunt, Ray Carling (Dean Andrews), Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster), and Shaz Granger (Montserrat Lombard).

But while the dream sequence seems like a classic Ashes mind-game, there are some potential clues lurking within Alex's subconscious, most notably the first appearance of Daniel Mays' Jim Keats and the ghostly presence of a dead policeman with half his face missing. It's the juxtaposition of the two which have a striking effect. Does Alex know Keats from her world? Who is the dead copper? Does any of this have to do with Sam Tyler's unsolved disappearance? And are these three things somehow related? Hmmm...

Waking up once more in this dystopia (thanks to a well-timed slap to the face from Gene), Alex discovers that Gene has been on the run in Spain since her shooting and is under investigation by the Discipline and Complaints Division, who has sent their best man--that would be DCI Jim Keats, natch--down to Fenchurch East to keep an eye on Gene and the others. Jim seems to maintain an easy camaraderie with Alex; he claims to want to help her and seems almost aware of her predicament here, saying that he "knows what [she's] going through." He's also keen to get the other officers on his side, offering them champagne and free drinks as an incentive to think of him as just another cop and not a "rubber heeler."

Shaz and Chris have split up, Ray has been promoted to Detective Inspector, and nearly everything is out of whack. While Alex might need a bit of R&R after her coma, she's not going to get it. Dragged back to the station, she attempts to clear Gene's name while jumping into an ongoing investigation into the kidnapping of Dorothy, a young girl being held for ransom.

But while the team manages to successfully recover the girl (hidden at her father's old Dot Matrix warehouse by her step-mother and her criminal ex), there's an ominous scene behind closed doors between Jim Keats and Gene Hunt that's all the more revealing as Jim promises to tear down Fenchurch East around Gene's ears and destroy everything that's he built, offering a reveal that he knows what Gene has done in the past and says that he hates him. One can't shake the feeling that what Gene did might just be connected both to Sam and Alex appearing in this world, Sam's disappearance, and more. It's aided, quite effectively, by Alex finding Sam's redacted file in Gene's cabinet, which had been moved to the storage room during his time on the lam.

"You fooled everyone into believing in you," says Jim. "I have the unpopular job of showing the world what you really are." But what's really quite intriguing is that Jim claims to know just what Gene did "three years ago." Which would be exactly about the time that Sam Tyler disappeared and could explain just why Sam's file is so heavily blacked out... and the reappearance of the half-faceless young copper Alex saw in her coma. Is it Sam Tyler? Did Gene kill him? Was it in an accident or something far worse?

And what does Jim mean when he says that Gene "can't leave here" and that it "defines him"? Just who and what is Gene Hunt? And, consequently, who and what is Jim Keats? What is this place? If it's not Oz, what is it? What does Alex suspect that she would hide Sam's file in her desk? (Love that he offered her a cup of alcohol, nicely echoing the moment in the very first episode of Ashes when Gene poured her a very full glass of wine.)

All questions that will likely be answered over the course of the next seven episodes of Ashes to Ashes' final season, which will finally provide illumination on just what the Manc Lion really is. If this first installment is any indication, we're likely in for one hell of a bumpy ride to the finish line. Just be sure to buckle your seatbelt in the Quattro.

On the next episode of Ashes to Ashes, a severed hand is sent to Fenchurch station; Alex joins a dating agency in order to investigate the murder of several female clients; Alex tries to discover the truth about Sam Tyler's death, but Gene is obstructive.


Piper Linn said…
There have been some complaints about Ashes (particularly about Keely Hawes) but I love it every bit as much as I did Life on Mars. I'm sad that this will be the final season but am looking forward to the great mystery (that is Gene Hunt) being solved.
Debbie said…
Jace -
Loved the BBC Life on Mars and saw parts of Season 1 Ashes to Ashes (though I can't recall seeing any of Season 2 on BBC America). Would love to catch up on Season 2 and find out if they will launch Season 3 on BBC America.

Also any idea if Wire in the Blood will see more eps? I loved it almost as much but it was a different genre of cop show.

Thanks in advance!

Jace Lacob said…

Sadly, BBC America pulled Season Two of Ashes to Ashes off the schedule just a few weeks before it was supposed to launch and haven't yet announced if or when it will return. (Or whether Season 3 will ever air, either.)

Not sure re: Wire in the Blood. BBCA used to air a lot more drama and mystery than they do now and I've not heard anything about that or Waking the Dead...
Anonymous said…
As a British fan of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes it is so great to see both the shows and their creators getting the appreciation that they deserve. Your review was great, and shows that you are obviously a big fan. Most reviewers will give a quick run down of the episodes but you (like the members of 'The Railway Arms' and 'Luigis' question what is happening on screen and ponder the significance of clues and hints that (we think)are being left on screen for us. I'd like to know what you think of Jim Keats and the actor Danny Mays? Keep up the good work and I look forward to reading your review of Episode 2.
Melody said…
I don't think the "ghost policeman" is Sam Tyler. In Series 1 I believe Ray mentions that they could never recover his body from the canal he drove in.

My guess would be that it's someone from Gene's PC days, as the officer is wearing a PC uniform.
shelly said…
Waking the Dead hasn't aired here for years. Similar with Wire in the Blood. Both are on DVD, I believe, but I'm not sure if any recent series of either show are available for Region 1.

It seems BBCA is currently more invested with the various reality shows they've acquired, particularly Top Gear (which I do thoroughly enjoy as well) and a lot of Gordon Ramsay (they're reairing his US Kitchen Nightmares series). There's barely any British comedy on anymore, either. There's still some drama, but it's mostly sci-fi (Survivors, Doctor Who, Being Human). I don't think A2A did very well over here.

But anyway. The Ghost cop is not Sam. Everything about his appearance is all wrong, not to mention the last time Sam would've worn a uniform would've been sometime in the 1990s or so. The uniform is, from my understanding, from the 1950s or 1960s. I think the ghost is a young Gene Hunt. Check out the hair (same as Gene's) and the face (similar pouty expression). Also, given his age, the 1960s would've been when Gene was a uniformed officer.

Most of us fans worked out Alex wasn't home at the end of Series 2. Everything in that hospital scene in 2x08 just Molly was too calm. The doctor was a bit too optimistic (why didn't he carry out any observation tests?). None of the nurses restrained Alex as she ran out of the hospital like a mad lunatic. Indeed, the DVD commentary for Series 2 (not available in Region 1, sadly) confirmed Alex was in a coma-within-a-coma.

Keats...I don't think he's from the present day. Given his looks (particularly the glasses), I think, if he's not from the 1980s, he's from the 1960s or so. And it seems he knows Gene very well, and vice versa. Possible further evidence for the ghost cop being Gene? Did Keats shoot him in the 1960s and effectively put Gene's spirit into a limbo state because he wouldn't accept his fate? Were Sam and Alex put into his path to help him with that? (Sam didn't succeed. Maybe Alex will?)

What does Alex suspect that she would hide Sam's file in her desk?
A lot of the notes/statement on the case summary in the file are redacted (blacked out). Hrm...

Anyhoo, I think A2A is a fantastic show. I saw it before LOM, which I've been working my way through, slowly but surely (I'm kind of in limbo on that, though).
Anonymous said…
Shelly...your theory seems to be the only logical one I've read...I too thought that the ghost copper was a young Gene Hunt.

Just curious as your thoughts as to "the why" though...why was it Sam Tyler and why is it that Alex Drake who ended up in Gene's limbo world...and of course, does Gene know who he is and what he is doing?

I'd actually be upset if the makers of A2A make Gene out to be in-the-know about what's been going on all along...
Larry said…
I e-mailed Acorn Media asking if Ashes to Ashes would be released on DVD for the USA. I received a reply is in the hands of the producers and no time table was set I sure wish they would I for one would buy the set

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