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Dead Man's Jacket: The Pipes Are Calling on Ashes to Ashes

I received quite a few emails and Twitter replies asking me where my weekly write-ups of BBC One's Ashes to Ashes had gone. After a one-week break, I'm happy to say that they're back and I'll be covering the last two installments of Ashes--the series' fourth and fifth episodes--in this write-up.

The fourth episode continued the pattern established earlier this season, with each of Ashes to Ashes's supporting cast getting a character-centric episode. With both Shaz and Ray getting their individual episodes (representing courage and heart, respectively), Chris Skelton finally got his installment with Episode Four, as he fell for a female undercover police officer who wasn't quite exactly what she appeared to be.

While the team attempted to protect Officer Louise Gardner (Zoe Telford) from the villainous Stafford gang, the true war that was being waged was the invisible one between DCI Gene Hunt and Discipline and Complaints Officer Jim Keats as the latter continued to systematically attempt to lure Gene's foot soldiers over to his cause... and Alex continued her own private investigation into the disappearance of Sam Tyler three years earlier.

And then there's the matter of Officer 6620, the disfigured young copper who continues to haunt Alex this season. Just what is he warning Alex about? Who is he? And how does all of this connect to Gene Hunt, Sam Tyler, and Alex Drake?

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

What struck me the most about the fourth episode--Chris Skelton's episode--was the fact that he didn't get a "Life on Mars" moment like Shaz and Ray both did in their own individual episodes, a significant moment that seems to coincide with each of the characters achieving what they want most--for Shaz a sense that she's making a difference and can really be a cop, for Ray, the guv's approval--as Gene's influence over them is keenly felt.

But that moment doesn't quite come for Chris Skelton here. If we're using the Oz characters as a reference guide, Shaz gets her courage and Ray his heart, but Chris--acting here as the Scarecrow--never gets his brains. He remains uncompleted at the end of the episode and only barely escapes with his job intact after he falls for Louise's lies and nearly kills Daniel Stafford (Bryan Dick) in the cells, believing him to have raped and slashed Louise.

But Louise was playing Chris; as an undercover officer she's become so used to lying that it's become second nature to her. She's no longer sure who she is anymore nor where her loyalties lie. It almost seems as though Alex is able to get through to her as they spend an evening together at Alex's place but Alex is knocked unconscious by an unseen assailant and Louise disappears into the night. (Interestingly, having been chloroformed, Alex envisions herself buried alive in a coffin as dirt is piled on top of her before Gene almost presses his mouth to hers in an effort to perform CPR.)

Chris' entire police career dangles by a thread but Gene doesn't give in to Jim Keats' demands. Keats offers Gene a lifeline: he can save Chris' career if Gene agrees to have Chris transferred over to his team. Gene refuses... but Keats still steps in and saves Chris. It's an important about-face. Previously, Gene has been able to exert his influence over his team and, when faced with a monumental decision, his subordinates end up choosing Gene and Fenchurch.

But that's not exactly how things play out with Chris. He's already seduced by Keats before we get to this point; earlier in the episode, he makes an error in referring to Keats--and not Gene--as the guv, a fact that gets right under Gene's skin... and Chris proves several times in this episode that he's more than willing to work with Keats and perform tasks for him when he should be following his DCI's orders.

So Chris doesn't get a "Life on Mars" moment, a spotlight thrown on him in the darkness that connects him inexorably with Gene Hunt. The familiar refrain of Bowie's song never flits around him at Luigi's. It's a significant moment, I think, for Gene Hunt, proving a weak link in the chain of command, a chink in his armor that Keats can exploit for his own ends.

Gene, of course, isn't exactly helping his own cause. In Episode Five, he breaks into Alex's desk and steals Sam Tyler's leather jacket and the case files relating to his disappearance... and he burns them. ("It's a dead man's jacket," Gene tells Alex as Sam's trademark leather coat goes up in flames.) While Gene might seem to want to bury this case, it's not going away any time soon. Alex knows that Sam Tyler's disappearance--and alleged death--is significant and is connecting to both Gene Hunt and her presence in this world. Just what is Gene hiding?

That question becomes all the more obvious when Gene's former colleagues in Manchester, DCI Litton and DI Bevan, end up in London as part of an investigation that brings them onto Fenchurch East's beat in pursuit of comedian Frank Hardwick. Both Litton and Bevan knew Sam Tyler... and the corrupt Bevan is all too aware of the mystery surrounding Sam's death. While he doesn't go so far as to point the finger of blame at Gene, he strongly implies that something wasn't quite right about Sam's car accident in the canal and that Gene Hunt gets others to do his dirty work for him. And he was the one who took the crime scene photos that Alex has been poring over these past few episodes. Was Gene all the more willing to shoot Bevan in order to protect that secret?

And then there's the stars. Both Alex and Shaz have had moments where they saw the night sky filled with stars, a sudden hallucination that disappeared as quickly as it arrived. This week, it's Ray Carling who sees the stars. Both Shaz and Ray share this peculiar moment after their "Life on Mars" moment, which might point a clue to its true meaning. In following Gene Hunt and pledging their allegiance to him, are they now seeing the true nature of the world?

Ray briefly admits to Shaz that he saw the stars but her questions to illicit more information from him about this visual clue result in Ray clamming up. Neither of them want to appear as daft as Alex, who is always going on about dead coppers, Pierrot clowns, and the like. But these individuals--and I'd include Sam Tyler in this grouping--seem connected to the metaphysical mysteries of this world, glimpsing such entities as Officer 6620, the Test Card Girl, the Clown, and now the stars in the sky. The others seem immune to their influences, closed off from perceiving the world in this fashion.

So what is this world? It's the central question that's been at the heart of both Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes since the very beginning. Is it an Oz that only coppers can access, a place that uses notions about policing--idealized and demonized ones founded on such television series as The Bill--as a sort of refuge for lost souls? A purgatory between heaven and hell? Are they ready to achieve their final rests now that they've achieved what they needed to hear?

And if that's the case, are each of them already dead? Could it be that Sam Tyler and Alex Drake are able to see through the veneer of this world because they were both--at least initially--clinging to the last remnants of their consciousness back on Earth? In comas, kept alive by machines, both of them exist on bridges between the worlds, able to access memories from their lives but also able to see behind the curtain of this strange universe.

Are both shows inherently about Death?

While Ray Carling is meant to be popping and locking with Chris (a hysterical interlude, BTW), he instead opts to sing that old Irish chestnut, "Danny Boy." The lyrics couldn't be more apt in that case:

"And if you come, when all the flowers are dying/And I am dead, as dead I well may be/You'll come and find the place where I am lying/And kneel and say an "Ave" there for me."

Which made me wonder: is the police report in the opening sequence this season--the one that indicated that the body of a police officer had been found (near the house with the weathervane)--indicating exactly what Alex has to do? Should she be looking for that spot and unearthing the body of Officer 6620? And if she does, just whose corpse would she discover? Could it be that she would find the remains of Gene Hunt himself, a young copper, killed all those years before?

And if that's the case, could it be that all of them--Shaz, Ray, Chris, and the rest--are all in fact, already dead? Is this universe a Valhalla for English coppers, a place of puzzles and mysteries and crimes to be solved?

Is this whole world constructed by a long-dead police officer whose body lay undiscovered all of these years, his own central mystery unsolved by everyone? As the song says, "I'll simply sleep in peace until you come to me..."

So does Alex go over to Keats' side at the end? Do they have that little chat? I'm not sure yet that they do (though in Episode Four, she did tell him that she was being haunted and seemed ready to sit down with him). But I think that the battle between Hunt and Keats for Alex is only just getting underway...

What did you think of the last two episodes? Did those of you in the know (regarding the awful US version of Life on Mars) chuckle at the astronaut comment (which reminded me of my recent interview with co-creator Matthew Graham)? How great was it to see Litton and Sam (at least in an opening montage) again? Just what is going on and, with only three episodes remaining until the end, how will the writers wrap up all of the compelling storylines and mythology they've established? When all is done and dusted, what do you think the ultimate resolution of the series will be? Discuss.

On the next episode of Ashes to Ashes, Viv's life hangs in the balance after an attempt to stop a prison riot goes badly wrong; when Alex's negotiations with the prisoners fail, Gene sends Chris and Ray in to the prison posing as members of a press contingent.


Stephen said…
I can't believe there are only three episodes left! I really hope they're able to end it in a satisfying and creative way. The character of Gene Hunt deserves to go out with a bang.
Wes said…
Sam did return there 'permanently' after he died in the real world so there could be some truth to that theory. Maybe he saw stars before the car accident?

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